Viola Arduini knocked on a door in the biology department of the University of New Mexico. She knew that someone in there was doing work with the genetic engineering technique CRISPR and she wanted to work with CRISPR, too. As a visual artist, her background was not innately suited to that kind of work, but she had a purpose; she wanted a poem, a symbol and ultimately the story of the progenitorial Mexican gray wolf Nina to grow, evolve, mutate and carry on in the language of living cells. She found a scientist there to teach her how to introduce DNA into living organisms; Lobos help each other.
To understand Viola Arduini’s work, you need to first understand the importance of Nina. Nina was a Mexican gray wolf. The last female in the wild, found with her small pack in Mexico and swept up to become a necessary element of a plan to restore the Mexican gray wolf species to the Southwest. “I look at the Mexican gray wolf as a case study. It is a very powerful story,” says Arduini. “She became Eve.” The restoration of the Mexican gray wolf, with all its genetic flaws, angry ranchers and environmental activists, successes, heartbreaks and wild determination, starts with Nina. Viola Arduini’s Ananke starts with Nina. “In this work I narrate her story using the bones of her first daughter, Cecilia,” says Arduini. But Nina, her daughter and the restoration of the Mexican gray wolf is just the beginning of the story that Arduini wanted to tell.
For Arduini, Nina’s story lets her explore the language of what the ancient Greeks called Ananke. As Arduini describes it, “Ancient Greeks had three different ideas of fate: something you choose, something that happens to you and then Ananke. Ananke is mechanical.” That is where the DNA comes in. She began writing about Nina and looking for a symbolic language to describe Nina’s story. “I translated a poem and this symbol into DNA, then put that into bacteria. That is how I started this work. Looking at genetics and looking into DNA as a language. DNA is mechanical. It is a string of information that makes what we are—what everything is.”
Arduini created living bacteria with the story of Nina and the Mexican gray wolves’ restoration within its DNA. It lives in a glass Petri dish. It will be on display at this exhibit. Why? “The Mexican gray wolf is suffering such a great genetic loss that I wanted to symbolically, almost as an alchemical process, to bring it back to life. This story is now in living cells. They are going to mutate. They are going to bring back some creative energy,” she says.
Ananke is an intertwined work in three parts. The first is the bacteria. The second is the photographs that offer physical evidence of the story of Nina. They are a series of still life images, arranged and shot in the UNM Biology Museum using the bones of Nina’s daughter, Cecilia. “The photographs on the wall and the bacteria both tell this story in different ways. The photographs are more like documentation of what is there and the bacteria are this transformative energy.”
Finally, there is the soundscape that acts as a shadow over the exhibit. Arduini wanted to manifest the presence of the ecological crisis of the Anthropocene that was the cause of the Mexican gray wolf’s near-extinction. Again, she turned to the language of DNA, this time picking the human p53 gene and translating it into music. “DNA is read in triplets in your body so each three letters become an amino acid, and then they create protein that creates everything else. I used the same method. I read triplets, then I gave each triplet a note according to the molecular mass. I see all of this as a process of translation. When you translate something, you lose something and you also add something.”
This symphonic gene was then recorded and placed on a loop triggered by a motion sensor. When you approach the exhibit, the music plays, or if you like, the human gene is “expressed.” It is an aural specter of our own self-created ecological crisis. As Arduini says, “The human genome is taking over in a way.”
Asked what she hopes exhibit-goers will get from Ananke, Arduini quickly replies, “questions.” She sees her work as a prompt for further inquiry, not an explanation. “As an artist and an educator, I feel that questions are powerful tools. I don’t think it’s my role to give answers necessarily.”