Gabe Barcia-Colombo

My DNA vending machine

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This is a vending machine in Los Angeles. It's in a shopping mall, and it sells fish eggs. It's a caviar-vending machine.


This is the Art-o-mat, an art-vending machine that sells small artistic creations by different artists, usually on small wood blocks or matchboxes, in limited edition.


This is Oliver Medvedik. He is not a vending machine, but he is one of the founders of Genspace, a community biolab in Brooklyn, New York, where anybody can go and take classes and learn how to do things like grow E. coli that glows in the dark or learn how to take strawberry DNA. In fact, I saw Oliver do one of these strawberry DNA extractions about a year ago, and this is what led me into this bizarre path that I'm going to talk to you right now. Strawberry DNA is really fascinating, because it's so beautiful. I'd never thought about DNA being a beautiful thing before, before I saw it in this form. A lot of people, especially in the art community, don't necessarily engage in science in this way. I instantly joined Genspace after this, and asked Oliver, "If we can do this with strawberries, can we do this with people?" About 10 minutes later, we were both spitting in vials, coming up with a protocol for human DNA extraction. I started doing this on my own. This is what my DNA actually looks like.


And I was at a dinner party with some artist friends, and I was telling them about this project, and they couldn't believe that you could actually see DNA. So I said, all right, let's get out some supplies right now. And I started having these bizarre dinner parties on Friday nights, where people would come over and we'd do DNA extractions, and I would capture them on video, because it created this kind of funny portrait as well.




These are people who don't necessarily regularly engage with science. You can kind of tell from their reactions.




But they became fascinated by it, and it was really exciting for me to see them get excited about science.


And so I started doing this regularly.




It's an odd thing to do with your Friday nights, but this is what I started doing. I started collecting a whole group of my friends' DNA in small vials and categorizing them. This is what that looked like. And it started to make me think about a couple of things. First, this looked a lot like my Facebook wall. So in a way, I created sort of a genetic social network.


And the second thing was, one time a friend came over and looked at this on my table and was like, "Uh ... why are they numbered? Is this person more rare than the other one?" And I hadn't even thought about that. They were just numbered because that was the order that I extracted the DNA in. But that made me think about collecting toys, and what's going on right now in the toy world with blind box toys, and being able to collect these rare toys. You buy these boxes, but aren't sure what's going to be inside. But when you open them, you have different rarities of the toys. I thought that was interesting; I thought about this and the caviar vending machine and the Art-o-mat all together. And for some reason, I was one night drawing a vending machine, thinking of doing paintings of a vending machine. The vial of my DNA was sitting there, and I saw a beautiful collaboration between the strands of DNA and the coils of a vending machine. So I decided to create an art installation called the DNA Vending Machine. Here it is.




[DNA Vending Machine is an art installation about our increasing access to biotechnology.]




[For a reasonable cost, you can purchase a sample of human DNA from a traditional vending machine.]




[Each sample comes packaged with a collectible limited edition portrait of the human specimen.]




[DNA Vending Machine treats DNA as a collectible material and brings to light legal issues over the ownership of DNA.]


(Music ends)


Gabriel Barcia-Colombo: The DNA Vending Machine is currently in a couple of galleries in New York, and it's selling out pretty well. We're in the first edition of 100 pieces, hoping to do another edition pretty soon. I'd like to get it into more of a metro hub, like Grand Central or Penn Station, next to some of the other vending machines in that location.


But really, with this and a lot of my art projects, I want to ask the audience a question: When biotechnology and DNA sequencing becomes as cheap as, say, laser cutting or 3D printing or buying caviar from a vending machine, will you submit your sample of DNA to be part of the vending machine? How much will these samples be worth? Will you buy someone else's sample? And what will you be able to do with that sample?


Thank you.



Vending machines generally offer up sodas, candy bars and chips. Not so for the one created by TED Fellow Gabe Barcia-Colombo. This artist has dreamed up a DNA Vending Machine, which dispenses extracted human DNA, packaged in a vial along with a collectible photo of the person who gave it. It’s charming and quirky, but points out larger ethical issues that will arise as access to biotechnology increases.

About the speaker
Gabriel Barcia-Colombo · Video sculptor

Gabe Barcia-Colombo creates madcap art inspired both by Renaissance era curiosity cabinets and the modern-day digital chronicling of everyday life. Think: miniature people projected in objects and a DNA Vending Machine.

Gabe Barcia-Colombo creates madcap art inspired both by Renaissance era curiosity cabinets and the modern-day digital chronicling of everyday life. Think: miniature people projected in objects and a DNA Vending Machine.