Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Human Lust Inducing Virus

I just got back from two weeks on the mainland United States, including my first real exposure to The South.

It was a terrific trip.

But more on that later. For this, my first post of 02008, we might as well pick up where we left off last year -- with Howard Rheingold in Honolulu, and close encounters of the oddly futuristic kind.

There was what I half-remembered as a future artifact anecdote, about which I couldn't quite recall enough to muster a coherent question over dinner on Rheingold's last night in town, in his 01988 work Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind: A Book of Memes. It's out of print and not digitised yet (sigh) so I had to wait for a hard copy from the library to refresh my memory.

Today I found it, in the article titled "Saturday Night with the Technarchists", Rheingold's eyewitness account of a characteristically earth-shaking show by the pyrotechnicians at Survival Research Laboratories. But the bit I'd wanted to follow up wasn't about SRL. His story concludes thus (pp. 45-46):

As soon as I unpried my fingers from their grip on the chainlink fence and turned to leave, someone whose face I didn't see handed me a small matchbox-sized container. I shook it. Nothing rattled. I looked at it, noted that it was a clever kind of flyer of some kind, and put it in my pocket.

The next day, when I reached in my pocket, looking for something else, I pulled out an unexpected object. It was a matchbox, made of flimsy cardboard, covered by a photocopy of a scanning electron photomicrographic image of a gang of viruses. Printed notices covered four sides.

I held the box up to the light and took a close look at one of the two broader sides, which said: "HLIV -- Human Lust Inducing Virus -- developed by OK GENETIC ENGINEERING to solve an important world problem -- what to do when he/she just wants to be friends. IMPORTANT -- OK GENETIC ENGINEERING has no idea how this product will effect [sic] the ecological balance in Northern California. DO NOT OPEN THIS BOX without reading the warning on the back!"

I turned it over. The proclamation on the other side said: "WARNING -- OK GENETIC ENGINEERING has not received permission to release this organism from NIH. We used a Stanford patent without paying the license fee, and we do not know how to file an Environmental Impact Statement. We are distributing HLIV free. Please make your own decision whether or not to release these organisms."

I read the message on one of the narrow sides, where the match-striker would be, and it said: "This box contains at least 220 HLIV virions in culture." On the other narrow side: "OK GENETIC ENGINEERING -- J.P. Malloy, Pres. -- 'Quality Clones Since 1984.'" I opened it. Inside, a neatly typed label, glued to the bottom of the matchbox, said: "uh-oh." It was like getting a message from an apollonian evangelist on the way home from a dionysian rapture.

I keep the box on a shelf, near the coach where guests sit down in my living room, and use it as an observational instrument. Not one person has failed to open it.

Feeling intrepid, I googled "human lust inducing virus" and got six hits, which led me to the website of Judy Malloy (J.P. Malloy, Pres.), "a magic realist who works at the conjunction of poetry, hypernarrative, and information art" -- and the person responsible for the boxes of "HLIV". Her 01988 article in Leonardo about this work requires a subscription I don't have, but a version on a currently inactive page of her website is available via an Internet Archive copy dated 3 June 02001. (Isn't the web great?)

To gather the information for the projects discussed in this paper, I formed my own research and development companies. Not only was it easier to acquire vendor information as President of OK Research, OK Genetic Engineering, and Bad information, but also, by becoming a part of the subject myself, I was able to look at and describe it as an insider. In the way court painters became a part of the court, I have tried to become a part of the technical community.

Such was her ingeniously subversive starting point, described in the introduction. The following comes from her description of the OK Genetic Engineering project -- quoted verbatim; only the ellipses are mine. (For the record, a brief outline of this project in more or less the same terms also appeared in the Winter 01987 edition of Whole Earth Review.)
As President of OK Genetic Engineering (1983-1985), I collected information about genetic engineering research and development. I used that information to make a series of reports and products -- small reproducible combinations of words and images that were distributed as free handouts or by mail.
In the first months, as publicity for the project and to find out how people feel about genetic engineering, I drove a company car [...] with "OK Genetic Engineering - Quality Clones Since 1984" painted on its side panels. [note that it was actually 1983 when the car took to the streets of Berkeley] Typical reactions were: "Can they really do that?", "What's that stuff you do that begins with a 'C'?" "Do you have any jobs?"
OKGE put out three products and five reports. The products were HLIV (Human Lust Inducing Virus), SH gene (Shrinkage Hormone Gene) and NFD bacteria (Nuclear Fuel Devouring Bacteria). the five reports dealt with various aspects of the biotechnology industry. Some used slogans from the information. Others were based on my personal experience as president of OKGE.
I distributed over 400 [handmade] boxes of Human Lust Inducing Virus and had quite a few favorable reports about its efficacy. It appears that most people do not worry about disturbing the ecological balance when it concerns a product they feel they really need. I know of only two people who choose not to open the box. One, a rock musician, was motivated by environmental concerns. The other, a gentleman in his eighties, said that he was old enough to know when he had enough of a good thing.

A marvellous bit of interactive art that seems suitably ahead of its time, in topic and approach alike, for 01983. It also has an air of future-shock therapy about it -- and raises an ethical dimension that I haven't yet discussed much here at this blog, but which does require further attention. Malloy reflected on this aspect of the HLIV experiment some years later, during a 01997 interview on the WELL:

[I stood] on the street corners in San Francisco in appropriate/inapproriate outfits and hand[ed] out containers of "Human Lust Inducing Virus". Lots of people wouldn't think it was art, but nevertheless might be interested in the concept of whether or not to open a container that clearly stated it could be harmful to the environment but contained something you might want.

It really doesn't matter whether the recipients of the HLIV thought it was art or not. What matters is the hopefully the work stimulated them to think about how far they would go in the use of a genetically engineered product. However, it was also clear - whether they thought it was art or not - that it was a performance of some kind.

If instead, I had choosen to address the subject of lust by hiring actors to go into bars and make dates with people they met and then behave in certain ways. I could have designed an interesting experiment. I could even have put people in a similar position as the HLIV did, but the HLIV was hypothetical - stimulating people to *thought*. If I did the work in real life, I could trigger behavior that I would have no way of predicting and - unless it was made clear to the participants *in advance* - I might be effecting other people's lives in ways that could have serious repercussions, ways that I might not be able to envision.

I can see that someone might think this was art. That's the problem I think we all need to look at as our work begins to cross these boundaries. There is an uncomfortable similarity between work that is designed to interfere with someone's life without that person's knowledge and the thinking behind Nazi genetic experiments.
In my hypothetical HLIV bar situation, it might be ok to do this if I talked to the participants before hand and explained exactly what I was doing even though I'm aware that this could slant the results. Otherwise, even if they guessed that it was a work of art because the theatrical nature was apparent, they might misunderstand its intent or be sensitive in some way I couldn't foresee to this alteration of their environment.

Now, the extent to which ethics figures in the manifestation of disturbing futures does depend, I think, on the extent to which people could reasonably mistake them for facts. In FoundFutures:Chinatown, for instance, we were careful to label all the most prominent bird flu artifacts with future dates -- a decade away, in order to "stimulate people to thought" (to paraphrase Malloy), yet without inviting panic (witness the Boston bomb scare in 02007), or unflattering comparisons to Nazi genetic experiments.

Rheingold's loungeroom guests, like Malloy's other subjects exposed to Human Lust Inducing Virus, may have been unperturbed by the "warnings" perhaps because the matchboxes spoke with an artistic or satirical voice, a parody of the presumably stentorian tones of virus distributors. (But what do I know, I've only read about them.)

In all, I do find myself wondering how to gauge responses to future artifacts more systematically, aspiring as I do to an understanding grounded in something more solid than speculation as to how encounters with embodied futures really affect what people think. This, coupled with the ethical issue, makes for a pretty lumpy methodological soup.

I also wonder how the experiment with "Human Lust Inducing Virus" would fare these days.

And I wonder where I can get some.

You might think of it as paradise, but Hawaii can be such a lonely place.

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