What is the value of a single human DNA profile? At the end of 2015, Dutch artist Jeroen van Loon offered his entire DNA data – 380 GB of personal DNA data – for sale, online, for a year, on a dedicated website. Anybody could place a bid through www.cellout.me.
After careful consideration, the artist decided not to stipulate a contract with the eventual buyer, and not to fix a production cost: the data were put on auction at 0 euros as a starting price, and were sold on 27 September 2016 to the Belgian Verbeke Foundation, at a final price of 1100 euros. The buyer becomes the owner of the entire piece, an installation composed of the server cabinet where the data are stored, some framed pictures documenting the process of extracting and encoding the artist’s DNA and four original letters written by different specialists upon the artist’s request. The letters provide different perspectives on the value of the artist’s DNA. Christie’s Amsterdamtries to estimate the artistic value of the artist’s DNA, contextualizing it in the history of conceptual and performance art; ErasmusMC discusses the moral value of one complete human genome, concluding: “You could think of DNA as a digital version of a person. If you guard his genome and keep it, you can save him from obscurity, and maybe, one day, bring him back to life again. How much is mankind worth to me? How much is it worth to you? DNA is mysterious and ordinary, unknown and familiar at the same time. But above all, the value of the genome is personal.”KPMG (a company focused on big data) considers the speculative value of the artist’s DNA at this moment (nothing, unless it reveals some significant deviation). Finally, Fox-It (a cybersecurity company) insists on the need to protect these data, because DNA is the new gold and “access to the goldmine” should be controlled.
More than a take on contemporary digital culture and genetics, Cellout.me can be seen as a work of speculative science fiction that is able to raise uncomfortable questions on the privacy, economics and bioethics of the future. Van Loon took pains to get the most complete and faithful digital transcription of his genome – the most faithful self-portrait even. What’s recorded are rough data without meaning – but, if interpreted and turned meaningful, these information can give the buyer unprecedented power not only over the artist’s persona, but over his lineage, given that the DNA code is shared in part with his parents, siblings and heirs. Whatever happens in the future, he’s no longer the owner of the most faithful translation of himself into data. The sale of this artwork pulls future digital culture into the present, asking new questions concerning authorship, intellectual property, copyright, privacy, big data and ethics: What are the consequences of owning someone else’s DNA data? How does this influence the spatial privacy of the biological owner and his family members?