I hadn’t expected the San Francisco outpost of the world’s first epigenetic human cloning agency to be so, well, pretty. Five mirrors line Modernism Gallery’s white walls, each overlaid with a rendering of a formidable figure from centuries past. Bottles of many-hued chemicals are tastefully arranged on shelves just below images of George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth I, Madame de Pompadour, and Jesus Christ. Properly administered, these ingredients can—theoretically—transform you into the celebrity of your choice.
The process is not without its risks. The level of arsenic necessary to, say, acquire the battle smarts of Napoleon could quite possibly kill you. “It’s not necessarily reversible,” I hear Jonathon Keats tell a cluster of potential clients.
You may already be familiar with Mr. Keats as the man who attempted to genetically engineer God in collaboration with scientists at the University of California Berkeley. His numerous other projects include developing the nation’s first Ouija voting booth and installing the world’s first (and second) porn theater for house plants. He’s been called by turns a philosopher, a researcher, a conceptual artist, and an author, although tonight he tells the gathering simply and perhaps most accurately that he’s “in the business of big ideas.”
Epigenetics is the branch of genetics that studies how environmental factors like diet and pollutants dictate which of a person’s genes are expressed. It explains, for instance, why identical twins begin to differ in appearance as they age. The Epigenetic Cloning Agency is Mr. Keats’s wager that he can do the opposite: coax our genes to manifest certain desirable traits based on exposure to the factors at play in the lives of Washington, or de Pompadour, or even Keats himself.
The Keats Complex costs $35 a bottle, and Mr. Keats recommends taking it with alcohol—“preferably whiskey.” About an hour into the launch, he’s gotten one taker. Folks seem more hesitant about consigning themselves to the lengthy consultation and liability-waiving paperwork Mr. Keats mentions is necessary for the celebrity-based procedures, and this may not be entirely to do with the potential fatal side effects.
Keats has clearly taken pains to research the diets of Napoleon and Elizabeth I (Bonaparte ate a whole chicken or rooster almost every single day, and Her Royal Highness was all about refined sugar). Yet the veil drawn by history makes many other details hazy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Jesus, whose cloning ingredients include thiamine and Omega 3s (loaves and fishes), vitamin D (the high levels of sunlight in his part of the world), acetic acid (present in the fig tree he once cursed for not bearing fruit), iron (the nails that affixed him to the cross), and placebo (his tremendous capacity for faith).
Needless to say, members of the audience have a lot of questions after Keats sketches out Jesus’s epigenetic makeup. I have a few of my own. Why iron when Christ only spent a fraction of his 33 years with nails in his body? How could he have eaten fruit from a fig-less fig tree? Why offer up a collection of facts—and I use that word loosely—so paltry that all it can do is showcase how little is actually known?
I take another look around the room, beyond the kaleidoscopic rows of bottles. “I’m always trying,” Mr. Keats told the Chronicle, “to get a person to that delightful place where they’re standing outside of themselves.” Now, as he begins to respond to the crowd, tones of satisfaction overcome his feigned salesperson’s patter. It’s our questions rather than our 35 bucks that he’s after.
Keats reaches for the bottle labeled “placebo.” “This is rather speculative,” he admits. He holds the sample up, and his five mirror images do the same. “This is about as speculative as it gets.”
The Epigenetic Cloning Agency was launched last Thursday, October 11th, at Modernism Gallery, located at 685 Market Street in San Francisco. A smaller version of the exhibition is on display in the Gallery’s back room through November 12th. Cloning materials are available and consultations with Jonathon Keats are possible even after this date.