Ari Larissa Heinrich
It is through frameworks emphasizing co-enmeshment that our new terrains of material design, and our speculated new infrastructures and economies can do something other than breathe and pulse in the same empiric ways.
Rachel C. Lee, The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, Biosociality, and Posthuman Ecologies
What is the smallest unit of race? Anthropologist Duana Fullwiley has argued that it’s the molecule. She describes an unintended consequence of early attempts by genomics researchers to sort newly available DNA data according to “race.” Though the researchers meant to promote “health equity through the biological prism of race,” she observes, they failed to account for the social meanings of “race” that had unconsciously shaped their research. As a result, the researchers wound up reinforcing dangerous cultural myths about race’s “biological” foundations. “[T]his back and forth between DNA and its seemingly natural organization by societal descriptors of race,” Fullwiley argues, “works to molecularize race itself. This happens through practices of marked recruitment, storage, organization and reporting that rely on sorting DNA by US racial population differences[.]”
About ten years later, in 2018, sociologists Sibille Merz and Ros Williams complement Fullwiley’s critique of the reification of biological race in early genome sequencing with a call to factor in the “broader socio-economic and political inequalities minority communities face” as well. Merz and Williams point out that “[t]he rise of the Black Lives Matter movement illustrates that establishing more equitable social conditions requires much more—of all of us—than participation in clinical trials and tissue donation. Analyses of how race is put to work for the production of value in biomedicine must be attuned to this political and social reality. Racialised bodies do matter in the lab and the clinic.” Merz and Williams conclude: “Beyond this domain…the value of these same bodies remains firmly in question.” In thinking about the “molecularization of race,” there continues to be a disconnect between the evolving idealisms of the laboratory and the realities of the communities who stand to benefit from these idealisms.
In a more material sense, a “molecule” often associated with race is melanin. And since melanin is the biological foundation of color in everything from human skin to mold and fungi to squid ink, you could also say that melanin is aesthetic by nature. In “Obscure Functions: Experiments in Decolonizing Melanin,” Jes Fan approaches the molecularization of race through aesthetics by abstracting melanin from its usual associations with what he calls the “social organizing principle…known as race.” He does this by producing melanin exogenously in collaboration with the local laboratory Brooklyn Bio (experimenting with using DNA sequences and also the fungus Cryptococcus neoformans), then mixing the lab-grown melanin with rubber. The resulting mixture is then placed inside bean-shaped blisters of clear custom glass, benign blown bubbles that fold where they land on the sinewy scaffolding of the installation’s central sculpture, “Systems I.” Some of the melanin mixture is also placed in glove box chambers at intervals throughout the gallery space, where visitors can reach in and “touch” the melanin. And on October 12th, 2018, the artist will stage a dyeing workshop, where participants can experiment with dyeing textiles in melanin.
At Recess Gallery, a radical intervention that Fan makes as an artist is to partner with laboratory scientists to make melanin that is, for the most part, divorced from associations with human hosts: to decontextualize and then recontextualize melanin in the gallery space. In conceiving this project, Fan therefore plays with the tension between the prevailing older social connotations of melanin and the more recent iterations of melanin’s materiality that emerge from within these social formations. Fan first isolates melanin as an object, in other words, and then fabricates an experimental social environment for it in the gallery. What if we could re-invent the social life of melanin from scratch?
In referencing the social life of melanin, I refer here to those meanings and associations with melanin that—though no less “real”—happen beyond the realm of the purely material or physical. Here Fan’s work resonates strongly with Mel Chen’s study of the racialized “animacy” of the metal lead during the “lead scare” in the U.S. in 2007. In their study of mainstream media, Chen describes how “the lead painted onto children’s toys was animated and racialized as Chinese,” while “its potential victims were depicted as largely white.” For Fan, melanin too possesses a kind of racialized “animacy,” namely in melanin’s role as a building-block in what Rachel C. Lee and other scholars have termed the “epidermal notion of race.” (As Lee notes, “When we speak of races—for example, Blumenbach’s influential quintuple chromatic schema, we refer to the differentiation of humans [homo sapiens] into subdivided populations distinguished, for the most part, phenotypically [aka by ‘observable traits’].”)
Historically speaking, this understanding of race as a science of phenotypes, though it claims to be based in age-old scientific “truth,” is actually highly contextual; just compare to other global histories where the introduction of visual taxonomy as authoritative race “science” (and colonial values) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries clashed with more local explanations of difference. In the case of China, for instance, serious objections were raised to race-based taxonomies when the ideas were first introduced; only later, when the various agendas of “science” were backed by military power and economic authority did a more phenotypically-oriented understanding of race start to take hold, eventually becoming part of a more familiar view of race and racial hierarchies today. Yet as Lee and others remind us, even science now confirms that “race” is a social construct, since “greater genetic variability exists between individual members of the same racial group than across supposedly distinct racial groups.” As something that by nature functions visually (e.g., phenotypically), melanin as a social object has therefore been “reverse engineered” to explain or support the taxonomization of humans according to “race.” In this sense, if in the “lead scare” of 2007 the molecule of race binds to the molecule of lead almost allegorically, then here the molecule of race and the molecule of melanin bind together as one, almost inseparable.
Yet even as the social life of melanin is made meaningful through the construction of mythologies of epidermal race (and even as the real-time danger of these narratives remains as powerful as ever), melanin’s molecular material life has evolved rapidly. Today a scientist can call in an order for a certain chemical sequence—in this case tyrosinase or laccase—and then melanin can be synthesized in the laboratory from L-dopa or tyrosine based on the activity of these laccase or tyrosinase genes, sort of like using a scoby to start a kombucha. Melanin can be purchased online for around $385/gram, though you can shop around. 
In short, the material and social lives of melanin are becoming easier to tease apart. Material Melanin can now be cultured outside the body (outside any body, whether human or otherwise, cephalopod, or fungal), and it can be transported, and maybe even consumed. This mobility in turn renders melanin more legible to neoliberal economics: melanin becomes (almost) a commodity in its own right, while speculations about how to capitalize on its many unique properties emerge accordingly.
In a general sense, the concept behind “Obscure Functions” calls attention to the ways we imbue certain biological materials with subjective values. But more specifically, as Recess program director Gee Wesley notes, “In isolating melanin, [Fan’s project]…allow[s] visitors to feel a fundamental feature of POC skin, but…as sheer materiality, divorced from the encounter with the human bearer.” 
Does the exhibit’s methodic attention to the materiality of melanin therefore also limit the artwork’s ability to offer what Rachel C. Lee might call a “thick…description” of “companion relationality”?  Does “Obscure Functions” decontextualize feeling? Is the gallery a clinic?
Fan’s installation accentuates feeling while creating the conditions for new social bonds. As with Fan’s other works, an interactive, tactile aspect—a cambered invitation, a suggestion of yearning for connection—informs “Obscure Functions.” In Fan’s early 2018 installation “Mother is a Woman,” for instance, the artist uses estrogen extracted from his mother’s urine to create a skin cream; gallery visitors are invited to apply the cream to their own skin. As curator Hera Chan points out, “By allowing the hormone to penetrate their skin, users establish a physical relation with Fan’s mother, raising questions about our understanding of kinship. As opposed to redefining the terms of kinship from a social standpoint, Fan researches and uses pharmaceutical hormones and other materials for body modification to determine different forms of biological attachment.” 
Likewise, “Obscure Functions” takes a pharmaceutical material typically associated with the fixedness of heritability—melanin, the molecular building-block of “epidermal race”—and explores the utopian possibility of repurposing it as an agent of connection. This exploration begins, of course, with the disarticulation of melanin in the lab. But then it carries over to the exhibition space, where the possibility of forging oblique or secondary attachments among viewers is created first by concentrating sensation in multiple touch-stations—the glove box chambers where viewers can insert their hands—and then by displacing it onto the central sculptural installation, “Systems 1.” The multiple touch-stations, for instance, scramble touch among visitors so that melanin in the environment of the gallery becomes both external to one’s own body and yet at the same time—at least experientially—shareable. Yet almost as soon as this shared hapticality of melanin can be registered, it is redistributed through the dynamics of the gallery space to the load-bearing scaffold at the center: “Systems 1,” the highly literal “framework [for] co-enmeshment” tasked with bearing the burden of our collective experience. Here glass “molecules” flecked with melanin, as if projected by the force of a powerful exhalation, catch on the bars of a frame sculpted in caked and polished layers of red, purple, and yellow resin reminiscent of a Rainbow Eucalyptus tree—or a human body’s exploded internal architecture.[ Fan’s melanin project thus makes room for unscripted connections among visitors that are all the stronger for the implicit challenge they pose to more deterministic understandings of kinship.
On the whole, the artist thus shows an almost romantic propensity for destroying “nature,” first by interrupting the immutability of sex, gender, and kinship through the creation of externalizable hormonal bonds in earlier work, and here by interrupting the divisive values often associated with that other biochemical agent we take for granted: melanin. Idealistically speaking, by turning cutting-edge medical technologies in on themselves, Fan’s work helps undermine biopolitical justifications for multiple forms of inequality. These justifications include both reproductivity and heritability.
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