04:57
TED Fellows Retreat 2013

Gabe Barcia-Colombo: My DNA vending machine

Filmed:

Vending machines generally offer up sodas, candy bars and chips. Not so for the one created by TED Fellow Gabe Barcia-Colombo. This artist has dreamed up a DNA Vending Machine, which dispenses extracted human DNA, packaged in a vial along with a collectible photo of the person who gave it. It’s charming and quirky, but points out larger ethical issues that will arise as access to biotechnology increases.

- Video sculptor
Gabe Barcia-Colombo creates madcap art inspired both by Renaissance era curiosity cabinets and the modern-day digital chronicling of everyday life. Think: miniature people projected in objects and a DNA Vending Machine. Full bio

This is a vending machine in Los Angeles.
00:12
It's in a shopping mall, and it sells fish eggs.
00:14
It's a caviar vending machine.
00:17
This is the Art-o-mat,
00:21
an art vending machine that sells
00:22
small artistic creations by different artists,
00:24
usually on small wood blocks or matchboxes,
00:26
in limited edition.
00:28
This is Oliver Medvedik. He's not a vending machine,
00:30
but he is one of the founders of Genspace,
00:32
a community biolab in Brooklyn, New York,
00:34
where anybody can go and take classes
00:36
and learn how to do things like
grow E. coli that glows in the dark
00:37
or learn how to take strawberry DNA.
00:41
In fact, I saw Oliver do one of these strawberry
DNA extractions about a year ago,
00:43
and this is what led me onto this bizarre path
00:47
that I'm going to talk to you right now.
00:49
Because strawberry DNA is really
fascinating, because it's so beautiful.
00:50
I'd never thought about DNA
being a beautiful thing before,
00:54
before I saw it in this form.
00:56
And a lot of people, especially in the art community,
00:57
don't necessarily engage in science in this way.
00:59
I instantly joined Genspace after this,
01:02
and I asked Oliver, "Well, if
we can do this strawberries,
01:04
can we do this with people as well?"
01:06
And about 10 minutes later, we were both
01:07
spinning it in vials together and coming up
01:09
with a protocol for human DNA extraction.
01:10
And I started doing this on my own,
01:13
and this is what my DNA actually looks like.
01:15
And I was at a dinner party with
some friends, some artist friends,
01:17
and I was telling them about this project,
01:19
and they couldn't believe that
you could actually see DNA.
01:22
So I said, all right, let's get
out some supplies right now.
01:25
And I started having these bizarre dinner
parties at my house on Friday nights
01:27
where people would come over
01:30
and we would do DNA extractions,
01:32
and I would actually capture them on video,
01:34
because it created this kind of funny portrait as well.
01:35
(Laughter)
01:38
These are people who don't necessarily regularly
01:40
engage with science whatsoever.
01:42
You can kind of tell from their reactions.
01:44
But they became fascinated by it,
01:48
and it was really exciting for me to see them
01:50
get excited about science.
01:51
And so I started doing this regularly.
01:53
It's kind of an odd thing to
do with your Friday nights,
01:56
but this is what I started doing,
01:58
and I started collecting a whole group
02:00
of my friends' DNA in small vials
02:01
and categorizing them.
02:03
This is what that looked like.
02:04
And it started to make me
think about a couple of things.
02:06
First of all, this looked a lot like my Facebook wall.
02:08
So in a way, I've created sort of a genetic network,
02:11
a genetic social network, really.
02:13
And the second thing was,
one time a friend came over
02:15
and looked at this on my table and was like, "Oh.
02:17
Why are they numbered? Is this
person more rare than the other one?"
02:20
And I hadn't even thought about that.
02:23
They were just numbered because that
was the order that I extracted the DNA in.
02:25
But that made me think about collecting toys,
02:28
and this thing that's going on right now
02:30
in the toy world with blind box toys,
02:32
and being able to collect these rare toys.
02:34
You buy these boxes. You're not sure
what's going to be inside of them.
02:36
But then, when you open them up,
02:38
you have different rarities of the toys.
02:40
And so I thought that was interesting.
02:42
I started thinking about this and the caviar
vending machine and the Art-o-mat all together,
02:43
and some reason, I was one
night drawing a vending machine,
02:46
thinking about doing paintings of a vending machine,
02:50
and the little vial of my DNA was sitting there,
02:51
and I saw this kind of beautiful collaboration between
02:53
the strands of DNA and the
coils of a vending machine.
02:55
And so, of course, I decided
to create an art installation
02:58
called the DNA Vending Machine.
03:01
Here it is.
03:03
(Music)
03:04
["DNA Vending Machine is an art installation
about our increasing access to biotechnology."]
03:10
["For a reasonable cost, you can purchase a sample
03:19
of human DNA from a traditional vending machine."]
03:23
["Each sample comes packaged with a collectible
03:44
limited edition portrait of the human specimen."]
03:47
["DNA Vending Machine treats DNA
03:54
as a collectible material and brings to light
03:56
legal issues over the ownership of DNA."]
03:59
Gabriel Garcia-Colombo: So
the DNA Vending Machine
04:04
is currently in a couple galleries in New York,
04:06
and it's selling out pretty well, actually.
04:08
We're in the first edition of 100 pieces,
04:10
hoping to do another edition pretty soon.
04:12
I'd actually like to get it into more of a metro hub,
04:14
like Grand Central or Penn Station,
04:16
right next to some of the other, actual
vending machines in that location.
04:18
But really with this project
and a lot of my art projects
04:20
I want to ask the audience a question, and that is,
04:23
when biotechnology and DNA sequencing
04:25
becomes as cheap as, say, laser cutting or
04:27
3D printing or buying caviar from a vending machine,
04:30
will you still submit your sample of
DNA to be part of the vending machine?
04:34
And how much will these samples be worth?
04:36
And will you buy someone else's sample?
04:38
And what will you be able to do with that sample?
04:41
Thank you.
04:44
(Applause)
04:46

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About the Speaker:

Gabriel Barcia-Colombo - Video sculptor
Gabe Barcia-Colombo creates madcap art inspired both by Renaissance era curiosity cabinets and the modern-day digital chronicling of everyday life. Think: miniature people projected in objects and a DNA Vending Machine.

Why you should listen

Gabe Barcia-Colombo is an American artist who creates installation pieces that both delight and point to the strangeness of our modern, digital world. His latest work is a DNA Vending Machine, which dispenses vials of DNA extracted from friends at dinner parties. He's also created video installations of "miniature people" encased inside ordinary objects like suitcases, blenders and more. His work comments on the act of leaving one's imprint for the next generation. Call it "artwork with consequences."

As he explains it: "While formally implemented by natural history museums and collections (which find their roots in Renaissance-era 'cabinets of curiosity'), this process has grown more pointed and pervasive in the modern-day obsession with personal digital archiving and the corresponding growth of social media culture. My video sculptures play upon this exigency in our culture to chronicle, preserve and wax nostalgic, an idea which I render visually by 'collecting' human beings (alongside cultural archetypes) as scientific specimens. I repurpose everyday objects like blenders, suitcases and cans of Spam into venues for projecting and inserting videos of people."

Barcia-Colombo is an alumnus and instructor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. Read about his latest work on CoolHunting and in his TED Fellows profile.

More profile about the speaker
Gabriel Barcia-Colombo | Speaker | TED.com