Mutate or Die: a W.S. Burroughs Biotechnological Bestiary

“When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.” from the Brion Gysin/W.S. Burroughs Third Mind

“Mutate or Die” is a bioart project being conceived of and executed by Tony Allard and Adam Zaretsky. Bioart tends to use cutting edge biotechnology as an art making device and specializes in presenting living organisms as art. In this project, a DNA sample from William S. Burroughs will be isolated, amplified and shot into the nuclei of some cells.

What is the process? –

1: Take a glob of William S. Burroughs’ preserved shit
2: Isolate the DNA with a kit
3: Make, many, many copies of the DNA we extract
4: Soak the DNA in gold dust
5: Load the DNA dust into a genegun (a modified air pistol)
6: Fire the DNA dust into a mix of fresh sperm, blood and shit
7: Call the genetically modified mix of blood, shit, and sperm a living bioart, a new media paint, a living cut-up literary device and/or a mutant sculpture.

Of course the process is more involved and detailed than this. As a synopsis, you have the basics.  Here are some more details.

Where is the shit?

The shit is preserved in Lawrence, Kansas by old friends of Bill. The Burroughs Estate has given us their thumbs up to the project.

What kind of genes are in shit?

The Intestinal Flora Genome Project studies the microflora of human guts. It is possible that each person has their own signature microbiota populations. Paul Vanouse even suggested that, gut-flora genes may be a “near equal component of identity as human genes.” The second human genome project, called HMP or Human Microbiota Project is run by the NSF for:
“Determining whether individuals share a core human microbiome” and “understanding whether changes in the human microbiome can be correlated with changes in human health.” Obviously, this shit is important!

Isolating DNA? Is that like on medical forensic TV shows? –

Yes. It’s pretty simple. Isolating DNA can be done with a kit. The kits are easy to purchase online.  This is a standard technique and we can even do it DIY.

Is PCR or MDA just making copies of DNA, like xeoroxing DNA?

Yes, PCR and MDA both are techniques to copy DNA. Kerry Mullis discovered PCR driving down Mullhulland Drive while tripping on acid.  He got the Nobel Prize for it. Now PCR machines (or thermal cyclers) are readily available. But this project is searching for more sources from the DNA in William S. Burroughs’ shit.

Instead of making many DNA copies (amplifying) using PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction), we may be using a new method that, according to one of our scientific collaborators, Manu Tamminen, will, “unspecifically amplify total DNA from rare samples. It’s not a PCR reaction but something more modern, called multiple displacement amplification (MDA). It will give you practically unlimited supply of the poop-DNA from the initial DNA isolation.”

Cool! We can get a big glob of DNA. This DNA is not edited down for any specific function. So, what kind of information can we hope to get from this glob of raw, naked DNA?

The DNA samples are from many different microbiota.  Even a single genome would be broken into many fragments by the process of isolation. In biological engineering contexts, these fragments are usually mapped, scanned, sequenced and organized according to presumed function.

Then they are engineered to be exactly infectious. In our project, we are into the cut-up methodology used in Burroughs’ writing as it might be applied to mutation. So, instead of focusing on efficiency and intention, we are planning just to get the raw DNA into the nuclei of some cells.

There is considerable biological literature showing how Raw DNA transported into cell nuclei does sometimes incorporate into genomes. Random cut-up DNA penetration is not a very efficient methodology and the results are unpredictable. But, even without a construct, vectors, plasmids or even restriction enzymes, naked DNA can mix into a life form’s germinal spot! Getting through the membrane is half the fun!

How do you get the DNA into the cell nuclei? –

The altering of hereditary life forms takes procedure. We have chosen to get the DNA into the bacteria, cells and/or organisms with a genegun. Other methods are microinjection, viral design, electroporation, chemical transfection and lipid transgenesis.

What is a genegun? –

The genegun was invented by John C. Sanford with Edward Wolf. It was originally mocked up and tested in Edward Wolf’s basement at home. By mixing sub-micron nanofabricated tiny dense particles of tungsten, coated with DNA that expressed a marker gene, the first gene delivery bullets were produced. The micro-shotgun shells soaked in DNA were then fired by a modified Crossman air pistol into raw onions.

“The genetic information blasted into the sample in the dish with a doughnut effect (devastation in the middle, a ring of good transformation and little around the edge).” –

These genetically modified onions with their telltale annular mark (the result of the doughnut effect described above) were the first organisms to be bombarded by a Biolistic® Particle Delivery System. Now Bio-Rad in San Francisco sells the Helios Genegun and it is regularly used on plants, worms, rats and humans for experiments, medical applications and commercial applications.  Commercial applications, licensing and intellectual property is owned by Pfizer, Dupont (for agriculture) and PowderJect Vaccines (for mammals).

Why get the DNA into the center of fresh sperm, blood cells and shit germs? –

To make intentional genetic modification of the human germline, of course! Actually, our initial idea was to shoot a willing human subject in the balls with the genegun. That is the easiest way to get shit into the human germline. Our volunteers would just jack off and we could sell their sperm online in a Burroughs shit-gene-sperm bank.  But, we were worried about the turd-children suing us for wrongful life.  We also are considering shooting the genes into cat embryos in collaboration with Bio-Art, the SF-based cat cloning company. But, honestly, a mix of shit blood and sperm already has interactions, which can help us understand epidemiological phenomena. Creating a mutant felch sample is potentially helpful in the research towards a cure for AIDS. We can shoot embryonic stem cells or a barrel of human embryos (fertility center needed) some other time. We do ask you to think about other potential applications.

What makes a genetically modified mix of blood, shit, sperm a living bioart, a new media paint, a living cut-up literary device and/or a mutant sculpture? –

By creating a novel process, untried even in the realm of science, we are also creating a new media.  Any use of this new media for non-utilitarian purposes is automatically art, as art is defined by everything that has no apparent value. The muta-felch can be a finished living artwork displayed for public appreciation.  The mutant blood, sperm and shit can be painted onto canvas, raw silk or people’s foreheads. In this case the new media becomes a living paint. But, if we think of DNA as a code, text, codex or nonlinear prose, then the question is… what kind of new fiction have we brought into the living world?  As far as giving this a sculptural spin, the organisms and tissues are all three dimensional, any difference in their genomes should have a corresponding difference in their anatomical shape (whether on the level of whole organism body plan, membrane qualities or protein conformations.) So, the form is altered, touched by an artist, hence sculpted, like scatological clay brought into material being. The net result is a construction of an infectious metagenomic ballistic shot in the dark. We can call it whatever we want, but it is out of control.

“mutate or die” 
Project History   Lawrence, Kansas, 1996

“Rational thought is a failed experiment and should be phased out.”

“Mutate or die.” –W.S. Burroughs

October, 1996

The conceptual fermentation of our current project, “mutate or die”, actually got started fourteen years ago in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1996, Tony attempted to get William Burroughs’ DNA sequenced at the scanning electron microscope lab at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. For various and interesting reasons, Burroughs’ code never saw the light of the scope, and he put the attempt back in his subconscious for a very long time. Now, some fourteen years later, in retrospect, Tony’s attempt to get Burroughs’ DNA sequenced unwittingly tapped into Burroughs’ multi-temporal reality. That reality is summed up in this quote from the Brion Gysin/W.S. Burroughs third mind, “When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.”  Fourteen years later, the future is leaking out in the form of this collaboration between the authors.

August, 2009

August, 2009, by chance, Adam and I meet at the Banff New Media Institute in Canada. Across the span of a week we talk, mostly over naked lunch forks, and each time, right on time, Burroughs spectoralizes himself into the conversation—his obsession with guns, the cut up technique, his shotgun paintings, and the revelatory power of mutation that runs all through his novels. Over the week, I tell Adam the story of my attempt to get Burroughs’ DNA sequenced in 1996, and once again, unwittingly, we were cutting into the present from which a future collaboration would leak out. Saturday rolls around and our conversation comes to an end at Banff — with no discussion or indication of a future collaboration. Adam goes back to New York, I go back to San Diego, and some months go by before the leak starts.

December, 2009

In December 2009, I am in the north woods of Wisconsin, and like a hunter’s shotgun blast that wakes you up in the early hours of the morning in these parts, it hits me, call Adam with this thought ray: “I know a guy in Lawrence, Kansas who has some of William Burroughs’ shit, literally, and could you, Adam, combine this gut flora/genetic info of WSB with another organism to produce an avant, transgenic mutation?” Adam says yes, and in his yes emerges a potent riff on mutagenesis and transgenic beings created by mutation. At the end of our conversation, we give a nod to the old beat writer’s cut-up method, abandon a great deal of rational thought, and start the collaboration.

July, 2010

July, 2010, fourteen years later, once again in Kansas City, a past future is leaking out in the form of our returning to work with the nano fossil remains of William S. Burroughs. On a legendarily hot July afternoon we officially launch the project with Grand Arts, the equally legendary and progressive gallery that is supporting the project. The Grand Arts gallery will serve as the site of the installation, performances, and an open lab where we and the public will get down to the business of wet work, and interpreting the data that will no doubt flow stochastically from the transgenic mutations.

2011 – 2012

At the core of the project will be a genegun blast that will biolistically combine tiny pieces of W.S. Burroughs’ gut flora / script/ gene text, with another organism’s genetic script / gene text to produce a potentially portend-saturated mutation, or in Adam’s words, an intentional-genetic modification orgiastic, or i-GMO. After the genegun blast, we will sit back and watch the future leak out via the chanced-upon mutation. After the mutations are set in motion, we will invite the audience into the process as readers / interpreters with us of what most likely will be an unknown language of mutation through which stories are told from the space-time continuum of the old beat writer’s gut. We are anticipating in the mutation the appearance of a code, a sign, a transgenic hieroglyph stranged upon us. In this wet, Demetrian oatmeal there may be a new text that will tells us how to make a deeply bent immortality blueprint, give us an edifying nightmare of “homo sap’s” future, write out a tasty recipe for Gonad Jam, or maybe give us proof that, indeed, “language is a virus from outer space.” 


The following people were interviewed live for our film/performance Project

Tony Allard

Craig Baldwin, Filmmaker/Curator/Archivist, Other Cinema

Hank Greely, Law Professor, Stanford University

Lynn Hershman,  Artist and Filmmaker, S.F. Art Institute

Reverend Praba Pilar, Church of Nano Bio Info Cogno
& Acolyte Erika Hannes, Church of Nano Bio Info Cogno

Philip Ross

R.U. Sirius

Meredith Tromble, Artist and Writer, San Francisco Art Institute

V. Vale, Founder of RE/Search and Search & Destroy magazines

Georgia Woods, Center for Neuroscience, University of California, Davis

Adam Zaretsky,
Biology, Radical Sexology, Social Theory.

What follows are questions we asked interview subjects for our film/performance project “Mutate or Die.”

We now invite H+ readers to also respond to these questions.  You can do this either by responding in comments below… or by clicking on: Take the survey here

Question 1: Queer Anatomy: Beyond Enlargement

There seems to be a lot of publicity around transgenic transhumanism these days. Promoting human use of biotechnology to redesign ourselves is not the worst idea. Unfortunately, most human genetic modification advocates forget to think creatively about the full range of forms and beings we could force evolve ourselves into. They tend towards a naïve optimism based on futurist potentials, emphasizing: longer lifespan, more beauty and bigger brains. Where can fringe anatomical and metabolic goals take us, beyond enhancement, general enlargement and ‘goody two shoes’ betterment? What other directions might we investigate while redesigning ourselves? What resulting forms of genome bending would exemplify the politics and aesthetics of W. S. Burroughs fiction and theory? (See related concepts from his writings: i.e. cut-up, junkie life, control, language as a virus, Dr Benway.) What queer advice can we give to artists and engineers who would intentionally alter future peoples’ minds, senses, body differences and living décor?

Question 2: Mutation

This project involves random segments of DNA being incorporated into the genomes of sperm, blood cells and microflora. Most random mutation causes instability and harm to organisms. Only very occasionally does a mutant worm grow elbows like we did. Fitness may just be a lucky oddity. But most of the poetry of random DNA upsets the stability of life’s repetitive anatomy. We believe that directed {e}volution is just as fallible in the long run.  But, we want to ask you what the difference is between letting the production of life differences be spontaneous collage versus an aesthetic based on maximizing short term market shares, ‘enhancing’ traits based on human goals and using organisms as production factories for pharmaceuticals, industrial products and food? When it comes to transgenic art it is preferable to gamble in the dark with another’s heredity or try to tailor someone and their kindred.
The title of the project, Mutate or Die, comes from William Burroughs’ frank admonition of “homo saps” to mutate or die. In essence, this project will literally take up Burroughs’ challenge to mutate or die, and will function in a similar fashion that basic research does in that, it will, through direct manipulation of genetic material, proactively speculate on the role that mutation can play in the survival and future of the human genome. What are your thoughts on the actual, wet work of mutation-based bioart, versus strictly representational, mimetic art. What science fiction premonitions do you think can be applied through creative biotechnology to alter the future of, not just humans, but all organic beings.

Question 3: Sex

Inserting genes into a hereditary cascade is a great responsibility but it is also a powerful sex act.  In biology, sex is defined as the passing of genetic information into a lineage of progeny.  So, transgenic protocol is sex. But this question is about the desires and satisfactions of the experimenter during the technosexual process of getting the genes into the being to be fucked. Many tinker with the gonads of yeast, worms, rats and, in the case of gene therapy, humans. There is a question as to what kind of erotic, pornographic and even deadly economies drive this work? What is the flavor of the compulsive urge to control reproduction? What is the quality of the scientist’s satisfaction when shooting a signature or a graffiti tag into an unsuspecting life’s form? How is the humping joy of defect sex ameliorated or amped up through technology?

This is not an easy question, as the economies of techno-sex and sadism as an energy are not simply negative in the world. We can’t pretend that technology is without a certain connectivity or that life isn’t driven by libido. What kind of sex is interspecies gene gunning?  How is the perverted act of shooting nuclei with genetic choices made to seem formally neutered of hotness? Can you imagine the moment of pulling the trigger of a loaded gene gun as a pornographic, erotic and dangerous yet orgasmic pulse as a sex-positive relation? What kinds of connections can be made between our biolistic aesthetic of shooting genetic information into a target that will result in a cellular based mutation, and Burroughs’ ballistic aesthetic of shooting a target tacked to a piece of plywood in order to generate a psycho-symbolic mutation? And what can be said about the frank fact of the physical destruction that results from shooting any type of gun, regardless of what/who the gun is aimed at?

Question 4: Scatological Biopolitics

The Human Microbiome Project (HMP) is based on studying the life that lives within us. This is our second genome, our internal ancestors and possibly the source of our third mind.  What kind of beings might result after insertion of scrambled shit gene in their family tree? What kinds of identity splay can we expect from becoming bacterial? What is the social and political definition of excrementality. When scientists play with shit, is it kinkier or are the kinks ironed out somehow? In which ways will this project change the cultural reception of scatological action? By way of literally getting into W.S. Burroughs’ shit, can we transcend its waste status and legitimately ascribe use value to it? Can we actually time travel back to Bill’s gut/intestines at that time (1995 when the sample was acquired) and biolistically liberate any information that may add to mutant-divergence for the future survival of trans “homo saps”.

Question 5: Art of Risk

What is your personal risk/benefit assessment on the artistic use of a genegun to make living animal/human/non-human/cultures of mutagenic difference? Feel free to comment as a bioethicist, ecologist and art critic. Is art allowed to play with as much risk as science? In the name of art or science, where do you draw the line? What should not be allowed to be done to the ecosphere, to dignified living beings and/or informed, human volunteers? There are some laws of course, but we are asking your opinion.

Letter of support, Grand Arts, Kansas City, Missouri

September 22, 2010

To Whom It May Concern,

Grand Arts, a non-profit art fabrication and exhibition space located in Kansas City, Missouri, is an enthusiastic partner with Adam Zaretsky and Tony Allard in the creation of a multi-part project entitled, Mutate or Die. This bio art-based work will culminate in an installation and performance wherein a gene gun blast will cut up a sample of writer William S. Burroughs’ genetic information and re-combine it with the genetic script of another organism. Mutate or Die seeks to examine the role that random mutation, which is a pervasive theme in Burroughs’ novels as well as the writings of Charles Darwin, will play in the future survival of the human genome. The proposed method takes its cue from the cut-up technique Burroughs developed in his writing, and mirrors it with an actual genetic cut-up technique, or, intentional-Genetic Modification Orgiastics (i-GMO.)

Grand Arts, over its fifteen-year history, has been a fierce supporter and commissioner of projects that engage with the new and the now.  Our mission is to provide financial, technical and logistical support to artists while encouraging conceptual risk-taking and experimenting at all stages of the creative process.

We believe that this project offers the public a point of entry to the ideas of genetic engineering and bio-ethics by placing the work in the context of the art gallery. Mutate or Die provides the opportunity for the audience to engage in a visceral way with the questions of what is possible and ethical in the realm of bio-technology, GMOs and art production. But more than that, this project transcends the pedantic by placing these questions in the context of the imagination, the fictional, the performative and the creative. We are excited to open up these possibilities to our audience, and we expect that the project will generate widespread discussion and debate across a variety of disciplines, platforms and media as well.

We hope you will join us in this exploring these exciting and pressing issues.


Stacy Switzer
Artist Director
Grand Arts


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18 Responses

  1. Mara Haseltine says:

    BIO ART AND VALENTINES DAY ARE MEDIEVAL “Eckhardt points out what she considers an even bigger mystery. “What interests me is why certain medieval literary and cultural traditions are durable across times and places, while others fade away and are lost. I don’t have an answer to why this one not only survived but became distributed worldwide.” Indeed, Valentine’s Day has expanded almost exponentially, from poetry in medieval England to the Victorian-era obsession over lace and ribbon cards, to a twenty-first century holiday celebrated in places as far-flung as Singapore, Guatemala, and South Africa.”

  2. Willy the Kink says:

    Would Mr Burroughs not have preferred the mutant felch anomaly injected with a sense of humour, something of the order of the space jellyfish?:

  3. Ah, the beauties of bourgeois life! The homely materials, from the body and from everyday living; the simple human values of memory and love; the touching attachment to art, and everything art represents for the enhancement of life; the life-affirming rhetoric; the sweet apologies and definitions; the tempered and self-effacing protestations of normalcy (in art, in sculpture, in science). I wonder if Burroughs might not have preferred a simple injection into the testicles.

    • chideleou says:

      BIO ART AND VALENTINES DAY ARE MEDIEVAL “Eckhardt points out what she considers an even bigger mystery. “What interests me is why certain medieval literary and cultural traditions are durable across times and places, while others fade away and are lost. I don’t have an answer to why this one not only survived but became distributed worldwide.” Indeed, Valentine’s Day has expanded almost exponentially, from poetry in medieval England to the Victorian-era obsession over lace and ribbon cards, to a twenty-first century holiday celebrated in places as far-flung as Singapore, Guatemala, and South Africa.”

  1. February 7, 2011

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    […] David Moye’s AOLNews post on the project Mutate or Die: A W.S. Burroughs Biotechnical Bestiary, from artists Adam Zaretsky and Tony Allard, hurts my BRAIN. I’m not sure I’ll ever recover. Moye summarizes an article by the artists published last week in H+ Magazine. […]

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