The Space Between: DIY cloning, God in a beaker and other artistic experiments

I first came across Jonathon Keats, the art critic for San Francisco Magazine and an internationally exhibited “experimental philosopher,” by reading his Wikipedia page. A typical paragraph begins:

“Keats made his debut in 2000 at Refusalon in San Francisco, where he sat in a chair and thought for 24 hours, with a female model posing nude in the gallery. His thoughts were sold to patrons as art, at a price determined by dividing their annual income down to the minute.”

My first thought: This is what Groucho Marx would have done if he were a performance artist. Except Groucho wouldn’t have been able to sit still for an entire day. Keats, I have since learned, certainly can. Indeed, his fascination with time — its slowness, its use as units of meaning, its ability to force us to look more closely at the world around us — is one of his main artistic/philosophical themes in a wired world where information accelerates like the universe just after the Big Bang.

Sitting down for one of several recent interviews, wearing a blazer, bow tie and flowing, romantic-poet hair, Keats spoke in perfect paragraphs about his forthcoming book “Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of our Age” (Oxford University Press) and his upcoming installation at San Francisco’s Modernism gall-ery, “Cloning Celebrity.”

As far as anyone can tell, “Cloning Celebrity” is an experiment in theoretical epigenetic cloning. What this means is that Keats is attempting to re-create celebrities like Lady Gaga and Barack Obama from scratch, by mixing brewer’s yeast with nutrients from their diets. So Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, for instance, might potentially come to life if a base of Saccharomyces cerevisiae is saturated with thiamine (Phelps eats a lot of pasta) and chlorine (obviously).

If you don’t believe this, you can try it yourself. Keats will provide cloning kits, allowing you to clone anyone you really respect, “from George Wash-ington to Jesus Christ.”

“All this is completely and utterly unauthorized,” Keats finds it necessary to say. But so is evolution and having kids, “a process that involves a great amount of copying information from parents to children without the children asking permission.” And if the president gets wind of this experiment? “I’m not sure what I would do in terms of legal fees. I have a total budget for this project in the low two figures.”

Jonathon Keats’ genetic recipes from “Cloning Celebrity”

Some have questioned whether it is the same Jonathon Keats who writes for respected magazines like Forbes and Art & Antiques, and on the side clones George Washington, or copyrights his mind, claiming it was a sculpture he has created. Keats relishes this confusion, for it is this roving among fields that gives him energy, and his work purpose.

Keats’ many books, articles and artistic experiments collectively point to his obsession with the intersection of the real and virtual, the artistic and the scientific, and — though he might not describe it this way — the sacred and the profane.

In 2004, in collaboration with U.C. Berkeley geneticists, Keats attempted to genetically engineer God in a laboratory. Keats determined that God bore a striking genetic similarity to algae, but — employing proper scientific language — he acknowledged that the study was “not definitive.”

The 40-year-old Keats, who splits his time between San Francisco and Italy, also has created a number of Jewish-themed projects. At the former Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley (now the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life), Keats presented an interpretation of extraterrestrial art, noting that “while it would be presumptuous to make claims about the religious background of beings elsewhere in the universe, I doubt that I’d have been able to appreciate extraterrestrial artwork had I not been brought up Jewish.”

Jonathon Keats

He also was commissioned by the Contemporary Jewish Museum to make a modern version of manna, which he interpreted as a pillbox full of placebos — manna being whatever medicine was needed at that moment. Keats also wrote “The Book of the Unknown,” a collection of fables loosely based on talmudic legends.

The existential anxiety provoked by Keats’ experiments — What is real? What I am supposed to understand? Is this art or something else? — is at the heart of “Forged.”

“The modern Western response to forgery is anxiety. The mood of modern Western art is anxious,” he writes. “No authentic modern masterpiece is as provocative as a great forgery. Forgers are the foremost artists of our age.”

In other words, while forgery may not be a morally acceptable career choice, it forces us to acknowledge issues of identity and authenticity in an age where the virtual has become as real as the physical.

“At a fundamental level, my mind is talmudic,” Keats explains. “I am not interested in answers, except that might result in bigger questions. If I can ultimately end up in a space that the questions are too large for me even to know how to approach them, then I will have achieved something.”


Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.