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External Memory Devices: Art Project Questions DNA Digital Data Storage

Over the next few weeks, we will be highlighting some of the many outstanding projects by 2017 Alumni Scholarship Award winners. First up is MFA Photography, Video and Related Media student Alex Hovet on her External Memory Devices project, a multimedia installation that examines the new scientific process of encoding a person’s digital files within DNA.

Tell us about your project. What inspired the idea?

External Memory Devices is a body of work that examines the convergence of physical and digital memory by questioning the emerging scientific process of encoding our digital memories within a DNA archive. Scientific teams, many funded by commercial and industrial corporations, are taking the binary 1s and 0s of digital files and translating them into the ATCG sequences of DNA, promising a durable, long-lasting site for memory storage. My thesis project, a multimedia installation of video, photographic prints and sculptural objects, questions the safety and potential of our collective memories being housed by corporations outside of our bodies. Constructing representations of DNA storage and its impact on our physical selves, I investigate the attempts to condense our biology in order to immortalize our data.

This project evolves from my ongoing investigation into the instability of physical memory, which began after my father suffered a cerebral hemorrhage over 10 years ago, causing persistent short-term memory loss. After initially making work explicitly exploring the relationship between my father’s memory and my own, I began investigating the process of digital archiving. The digital’s ubiquitous emphasis on remembering rather than forgetting may diminish our need to remember or even locate memory in our physical bodies. The natural ability of our physical bodies to forget certain kinds of information can allow us to evolve and create new memories. Forgetting can often be an asset, particularly when emotional memories could otherwise anchor us to a time from which we cannot move past. This idea has been essential to my understanding of memory in my own life, allowing me to feel less hostility toward the forgetting that my father experiences. Even when unhampered by the extremity of tragic and uncontrollable interventions, memory is still meant to ebb, evolve and fade.

What most surprised you once you started working on the project?

This project has a lot of different levels and is both personal but deals with larger societal issues, so finding a balance and accessible visual entryways into it has been challenging. I also do a lot of research about memory and neurology, science and DNA, and data storage and archiving, and it has been easy to get stuck in my knowledge of these topics in a way that can inhibit the really important need for accessibility in visual art when it's so deeply rooted in a myriad of research. I am still working on making my research more visible and my feelings about it more tangible.

What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program?

Explore as many different directions as you can early on, and know that you will work toward editing and revising and focusing later. The work you do, including your thesis, is still preliminary in many ways. It's not the best work you'll ever make, and it shouldn't even necessarily be finished when you're done. It should open a path for years of productive work ahead of you. Keeping that in mind and having that encouragement from professors is helpful and has allowed me to be more open and less hung up on making a completely finished brilliant product.

What was a highlight of living and studying in New York City?

Making connections through the program and in the art community at large that lead to other opportunities and friendships.

This year, a record 78 students were chosen from a pool of over 300 applicants, and were awarded scholarships worth more than $83,000 for projects as varied as narrative film, animation, painting and sculpture. For more information about the Alumni Scholarship Awards and to see a complete list of this year's recipients, click here.

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