higgledy-piggledy: The Transgenic Bagel Redux


1. Art and archeological historians have uncovered definitive proof of the existence of the bagel in Middle Kingdom Egypt, pictured in a hieroglyphic frieze dating to 1837 B.C.E.

2. Scientists have recently discovered that their earlier theories concerning the gene’s ability to impart specific traits to an organism were too simple and specific to account for the many exceptions to the currently conventional gene rules.

These two seemingly disparate developments have led me to reengineer my earlier work, The Transgenic Bagel (1993 -1996).

From 1993 to 1996 I produced, in several phases, The Transgenic Bagel, a parodic interactive artwork in which I hypothesized that a person could acquire new personality traits by eating a recombinant DNA bagel.

In this work I used the bagel as a model through which to explore the recombinant gene-splicing process. I created a “bagel plasmid chimera” – a bagel that carried within it certain ingestible, and thus transferable traits.

I researched animals said to bear traits such as “obedience” or “impetuousness” or "authority" and with a hypodermic needle virtually extracted the trait gene from the animal. The gene was hypothetically processed for preparation of a genetic formula that was injected into a section of a bagel (bagel fragment DNA). The “bagel fragment DNA” was subsequently smeared with a cream cheese “mortar” and inserted (annealed) into the cleavage site of another bagel (the bagel plasmid vector), from which a same-sized section had been removed.

In the early 1990s, scientists believed that a gene trait excised from an animal host was inherent to that single trait gene. Now, fifteen years later, the identity of the gene is challenged. Other molecules clinging to the DNA strand comprising the gene can produce different characteristic traits from the same gene.

From 1994 onwards, in the computer assisted interactive versions of the Transgenic Bagel, participants were situated in a virtual “Bagel Casino” wherein they played the one-armed bandit slot machine hoping to win their preferred “Noahsomal DNA trait gene”. To win the trait gene, the players needed three identical animals in a row from among images of thirteen mythical animals that resided in Noah’s “Virtual Ark”— hypothetically the first gene pool.

Scientists now realize that gene expression operates under the “law” of higgledy-piggledy.1 Current genetic research has determined that the law of higgledy-piggledy has joined in the genetic game.

These new scientific developments have made me realize in my artwork, the idea that when an unmatched combination of animals appears in the slot machine’s windows, each animal representing its own specific trait, that their combination can be read as representing a complex that produces a single genetic trait.

In the fall of 2008, I had the chance to read some essays by undergraduate students at the University of California, Berkeley.2 For the assignment, each student was told to choose an animal and write a story about it. Many students chose animals similar to those I had chosen to be the animal residents for Noah’s “Virtual Ark”.

Little did the students know that they had returned to play the one-armed bandit in my Bagel Casino.

Three students chose to write about dogs, thus creating a similar “window line-up” with my own (Spaniel). Whereas I had attributed the trait “lovable” to the Spaniel, these students identified the traits “tolerant”, “obedient”, and “technically strategic” in their dogs.

In the original Transgenic Bagel the lion carried the “authority” gene trait. But when the student got the lion in the Bagel Casino, she claimed that lion instead carried the trait of the “male chauvinist pig”. Thus, this student pointed me to the recognition that an individual trait gene could code for two distinct traits in the lion.

1. New York Times, December 11, 2008. Dave Itzkoff byline.
2. In a conversation with Tom Bates, he mentioned that Sir John Herschel, the esteemed astronomer, in his desire to have a universe that was eternal and unchanging, used the term “higgledy-piggledy” to describe Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection.

3. I read samples from the diagnostic essay from a Berkeley, Fall 2008 class, “Reading & Writing about the Visual Experience” in which each student selected an animal to write about.