Eva — A mitochondrial story

EVA is a generative art project that stems from the idea of representing the genetic code (DNA) in an artistic way. The DNA represents the code of every living being; this code was the inspiration to write another code — programmable — that generated the artwork. The result was a fortunate meeting of codes: the first executed over millennia by nature and the second executed in the blink of an eye by the machine, mediated by the intervention of man. Man, machine and nature merge and collaborate in this artistic project that takes an evocative name: EVA.

The outcome of the project consists of three videos 60 seconds long. Each video is named after the first nucleotides of the mitochondrial DNA and is minted as a non-fungible token (NFT) on OpenSea (not for sale at the moment).

The project is currently exhibited at The Ethereal Aether, a digital art exposition hosted by The State Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg. The virtual space for the exhibit is based on the interiors of the Saint Petersburg Stock Exchange.

The following people collaborated on the project:

Eva — ATCACC

The mitochondrial DNA: a treasure chest

DNA is the intricate code that originates life, yet it is less complicated or unchangeable than we may think. A male and a female provide two copies of the 23 chromosomes that constitute more than the 3.2 billion (each copy) letters ACGT encoding the marvelous machines that we are. Small variations in this large set of instructions provide the amazing variety that we observe.

This large — but not huge, according to today’s standards — amount of information is stored in a tiny treasure chest residing within each and every cell. The same data is always copied over and over, in the approximately 30 trillion cells that build our bodies, used, however, in many different ways. As a result of these different uses and by a complex path of internal communications and evolution, cells shape up and become skin-cells, blood-cells, liver-cells, neurons, and so on.

But let us step back and look at when and where it all began. There is one single cell that represents the starting point of the process, the zero-th level of the procedure, the beginning of the duplication procedure that will eventually result in a complete individual. A natural question arises: who provides the first cell containing the first copy of the treasure chest? The answer can only be binary: the father or the mother. But who? In fact, we do know the answer, even though we do not really know the reason: the mother is providing the first embracing space, protection, and energy for the first tiny treasure chest.

Why did Nature choose to fix this rule of preference to be maintained, generation after generation? Whatever is the reason, the choice and the fixed rule have intriguing consequences. The first cell itself needs instruction for its functioning e.g., for its own energy production, as every biological mechanism in our body needs its code and this is the case also for our first cell. These instructions are, in fact, encoded in a small portion of DNA external to the nucleus (where the main treasure chest is found) and operate as a sort of Programmable Read Only Memory (PROM). The 16,569 characters constituting these basic instructions (an even tinier treasure chest) is the data used in this project: the mitochondrial DNA.

The full picture as it is, is especially fascinating in one of its (alleged) consequences: if it is always the mother that passes its mitochondrial DNA to the child, moving back on the tree of life that depicts the genealogy — of each of us — we must all reach the same female, universal, common ancestor: Eve. The 16,569 characters of our mitochondrial DNA are Eve’s basic instructions.

Layers

The artwork is a collection of 3 videos. Each video has multiple layers that overlap: a background, a broken line, a head, a sculpture, an ancestral sound. Everything is glitched masterfully, going along with the concept of mutations in genetic code. In the following we describe the various layers that compose the artwork as well as we delve into the glitch process.

The Background

A DNA helix image in the background is reconstructed using the mitochondrial DNA. The image is read pixel by pixel and each pixel is replaced with a DNA letter (ACGT) of the same color and a size proportional to the amount of light in the pixel color. The DNA is scrolled one base at a time in order to create the illusion of motion.

The Broken Line

A horizontal line on the X axis is divided into many points corresponding to the bases of mitochondrial DNA. Each point is then moved in 3D space, i.e., shifted on the Y or Z axes, depending on the base it represents. The resulting line is then scrolled on the screen. It represents an encoding of the mitochondrial DNA.

The Head

The vertices of the 3D model of a head are connected to form a line that rests on its surface. Lee Perry-Smith’s head, the most famous 3D head model in the 3D graphics community, was used as the model. As done for the broken line, the line is split into several points corresponding to the bases of the mitochondrial DNA. Each point is then translated along the normal head surface, with base-dependent translation. The resulting line is then displayed dashed, animating the length of the strokes. The result is another encoding of the mitochondrial DNA.

The Sculpture

The same technique used for Lee Perry-Smith’s head is used for Rodin’s sculpture of Eve, resulting in yet another mitochondrial DNA encoding.

The Sound

Each character in the mitochondrial DNA is converted to its UTF-16 code, resulting in an array of numbers. Each element is then mapped to the numeric interval [-1, 1]. The resulting array is used to create a 60-second waveform via cubic interpolation. A heart beat is added. Finally, the waveform is played. The sound of creation!

Eva — AGGTCT

Glitch as mutation

File formats (.OBJ for 3D + .avi & codecs for video) are approached and interpreted as a group of information, where that information as data represents the DNA of each visual element employed in the making of the final video compositions. The 3D objects were one by one altered by the misuse of software and file format forcing software in interpreting data and delivering information foreign to their infrastructure. These improper operations triggered information mutations as each element was polluted and modified by injecting foreign data and altering its natural order and composition beyond its functional standard.

In particular, .OBJ data was polluted by injecting .txt data in the stream, forcing text editing software to render altered information and comply with their task the best it could. Those information were then imported into a 3D software and the machine had to interpret this altered information organized by the text editor software the best it could to deliver an output. The same logic was applied for the video format but in this case video data were injected with audio data. In this glitching process known as data-bending, various exporting from a system to another were carried out resulting in another series of mutations caused by the process of encoding from a format to another.

Data-bending, encoding, exporting, importing, were the acts that caused the mutations. Some of those were forced by humans, others happened within the machine and systems.

Used software

We have combined a plurality of software including: Processing, Three.js, Notepad++, Audacity, FFmpeg, ShareX, Photoshop, After Effects, Meshmixer, Premier, Pd.

Eva — GATCAC

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