Kathy Marmor’s 'DNA Cookbook'—part of her 'Kitchen Science' project—puts the viewer/participant in the shoes of the novice cook by breaking down the extraction of DNA from raw wheat germ into a simple sequence of actions. At the installation, you follow the instructions as they appear on the computer screen. The data base on a hard drive replaces the recipe box in postmodern kitchens, calculating caloric values and generating grocery lists, promising domestic efficiency through science. At the performance, the audience laughs uncertainly as Marmor, in lab coat and yellow dish gloves, part Dr. Frankenstein (as played by Gene Wilder) and part Julia Child, catches a mismeasurement in time, “No, I made a mistake, it’s actually a tablespoon…”
Put the wheat germ in water, then add in order: dish soap, meat tenderizer, and baking soda, stirring well after each ingredient. Let it settle, and voilà, you can twirl strands of DNA around your coffee stirrer like tiny spaghetti. This is your DNA, but of course it’s not “yours.” Or is it? How much genetic material do humans share with wheat germ? Bon appétit!
Why is a kitchen metaphor invoked when the science of genetics is explained? Not because everyone cooks—you probably know someone who professes not to be able to boil water, and is a little bit proud of it. It implies he or she is preoccupied with loftier issues than daily sustenance. Rather, the kitchen model suggests an explanation “so simple even a girl could understand,” because the kitchen is associated with chores performed by women. Marmor’s 'Kitchen Science' explores her suspicion that the language of science is gender-coded, that by hearing and speaking it we are reinscribed according to heterosexual identities. Working in the kitchen feminizes, working in the lab masculinizes, no matter the direction of sexual identity we thought we were going in. Just as her preparation of wheat germ renders its DNA visible, Marmor’s science projects bring to light a gendered metaphor so common as to be invisible.
The voiceover to a video from 'The Origins of Life' goes, “I can’t follow a recipe to save my life. I mix up ingredients all the time, and inevitably I mismeasure. “This narrator is female, rueful, and we sympathize. Teaspoon, tablespoon. Tablespoon, teaspoon. Let’s call the whole thing off and order in! Fannie Farmer revolutionized American cookery books by standardizing measurements; a homemaker followed the Boston Cooking School recipes exactly to produce consistent, predictable results. This is the inflexible recipe model geneticists use to describe DNA as the crucial ingredient for making life.
Quantities of genes, precisely expressed, constitute living beings. But in fact, recipes are followed to varying degrees of exactness. Even when followed very closely, the results can defy expectations. Another video features Julia Child describing the consistency of well-kneaded bread dough, while a pair of hands shape dough into a sexless homunculus. The little figure is elsewhere endowed with breasts and a penis, the creator blithely humming while the voiceover intones, “DNA makes RNA. RNA makes proteins. And proteins make us.” Proteins make us human, but language makes us men and women. Misspeaking, mismeasuring—diverging from the recipe makes visible the ways language, biology, and gender mutually inform each other.
Unlike the authoritative voice of the scientist, or the persnickety voice of Chris Kimball on 'America’s Test Kitchen', Marmor’s voice does not intimidate the viewer. It invites participation so that we influence the outcome of the artwork/experiment. Skepticism is allowed in 'DNA Cookbook': is this really DNA I’ve just extracted? In 'The Origins of Life', the viewer activates the video projection by removing and replacing metal measuring spoons on hangers on a lab bench/kitchen counter. Every combination has its own video, shown in a unique order according to the actions of each viewer. The videos are bits of information, like genes, which are transcribed in an order that produces meaning, like life. Marmor extends the 'Kitchen Science' metaphor, doubles it back on itself, introduces the process of art production as another layer of meaning, then disrupts it all by allowing the viewer to meddle. Making the invisible, visible. What had seemed to be a reductive metaphor is suddenly fraught with implications.
Margo Hobbs Thompson (c) 2007
Kathy Marmor lives in Winooski, VT and participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence program from December 1-31, 2003.
Margo Hobbs Thompson teaches modern and contemporary art history at the University of Vermont in Burlington, VT.