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Noreaster Nemo, immortal HeLa monsters & the copyright of flesh & blood:
On the likes of Henrietta Lacks, Sally Hemings & Sixto Rodriguez



self-portrait w/j in Riverside park


Dear Internet,

I interrupt this already irregular programming to bring you an inclemental update to the last indexing post, wherein i posted a time-lapse video of the view out our window .... what i didn't know then is that a hyped-up storm was on the way .. so i dug the tripod back out, used j's better camera with higher res & made another video of the snow accumulation .. 24 hours distilled down to 1 minute.

Not that noreaster 'Nemo' (since when did 'they' start naming winter storms, anyway?) packed nearly the punch they said it would .. as usual. Nothing like the storm in 2003, when we were living in the West Village, nor the one in 2006 when we were in the LES (i posted a few pictures of the aftermath of that here) .... both of which dumped over 2 feet if i remember correctly.

And speaking of unfolding dramas happening outside your window .. there's this video that someone took in Naples, that pretty much summarizes Italy in a nutshell.

Having a nice view can be distracting. Anyway .. i'll get to Henrietta Lacks now, who i said i would talk about in the last post & never did. I first learned of Henrietta Lacks some time ago when i was in between jobs & worked for a few weeks in j's lab, back when she was a post-doc. I was doing some experiment on so-called called «HeLa cells».

HeLa cells

HeLa cells

Being the desert rat i was (fresh off the boat from Arizona), i thought they meant Gila (pronounced 'hela') cells .. coming from the rare & reclusive «Gila monster» that lurks in the hills of Arizona. Back in the 90s when i hiked & climbed & surveyed in them parts, this was the one animal that eluded my sighting .... until finally towards the end of my Southwest sojourn i saw one .. & then a few hours later another, (though i carried no camera at the time to prove it)( ....both on the approach to the backside of Table mountain, for those curious.)

But these cells were spelled HeLa & when i asked what that meant, i was told it stood for Henrietta Lacks .. some woman that died back in the '50s .... but before she died they took some cancerous cells from her cervix & have been culturing them ever since. Most cell culture uses cells derived from this Henrietta Lacks cell line. This idea struck me as outrageous .. that we were growing & incubating the living cells from this woman who'd long since died.

More recently, when we were back in Rome & i was packing up our things, i noticed a book by Rebecca Skloot called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that somehow found its way onto our shelves (j says someone gave it to us).

Skloot book on Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, according to Rebecca Skloot

The book is pretty comprehensive (at least as a human interest story), containing pretty much everything you'd ever want to know about the life of Henrietta Lacks & her surviving family members .... in my opinion, way too much information .. the book could've been written in half as many pages. It's mostly about the ethical debate around cell culture & how they 'stole' the cells from Henrietta Lacks without her consent .. & about Henrietta Lacks' blackness.

The fact that Henrietta Lacks was black, of African descent, seems to be the main focus of the book, though i think it is just an interesting sidenote. A lot of people were wronged by doctors back then .. it could've just as easily been a white person. Sure there was a lot of fucked up & racist experiments done on black people (for example, see the Tuskegee syphilis experiment)(or for that matter (in regards to 'red' people) the blatant stealing for profit of the genetic material of the Karitana indians in the Amazon, under the pretense of taking blood in exchange for medicine), but the taking of Henrietta Lacks's cells was not racially motivated, nor in the beginning was it motivated for profit .. the guy Dr. Gey who first cultured & developed the cell line gave the samples away for free to other scientists. And when he himself got cancer years later, he let himself be used as a human guinea pig rather than get treatment to reduce his own pain & suffering. Taking samples without consent was common practice back then with all patients (in fact more recently in the 70s, the spleen from this guy John Moore was taken & developed into a cell line without his consent).

Henrietta Lacks

the original Henrietta Lacks

What makes HeLa cells special is whereas most of these other cell lines die off, hers continue to thrive & proliferate to this day. In fact her cells are so virulent that they contaminate & take over other cell lines (leading Stanley Michael Gartler to drop the 'HeLa bomb' in 1966, wherein he informed the medical community that all other (what were thought to be non-HeLa) existing cell cultures had in fact been contaminated or were derived from HeLa cells (the implications of which were enormous & repudiated virtually the decade of work done before this).

Not once in the book does Skloot mention natural selection, or evolution (there's an index in the back, i checked). She doesn't mention Darwin, nor Dawkins & memes, nor selfish genes. But this is perhaps what fascinates me most about Henrietta Lacks .. is that her DNA (or a corrupted form of it) lives on by virtue of us doing these experiments. Her cells have found a loop-hole in natural selection.

HeLa microscopic

HeLa cells under the microscope

Skloot also doesn't mention animal research. She goes into how the HeLa cell line saved countless number of lives, but she doesn't mention the lives of laboratory animals (or if she does i glossed over it). Cell culture has enabled many, like j & her lab mates, back when j was doing bench science, to do experiments that would otherwise required killing mice or rats or some other animals.

Anyway, now matter how you slice it, or smear it, it's an interesting story (& we wouldn't have the Madonna's pap smear scene in Slacker if it weren't for Henrietta Lacks). It's interesting to put a face to the HeLa cells .... or not, you decide. Maybe it's better to just imagine who she was. Or if you'd rather not read a 400+ page on the subject, Adam Curtis made this documentary about Henrietta Lacks, The Way of All Flesh.

On a related topic, the other day we saw an off-Broadway play called My First Lady that was about Sally Hemings (Jefferson's slave/mistress, with whom he fathered at least one child). Not that the play was any good, but again, it's hard to go wrong with such a story (which i guess is somewhat of a hot topic lately, spurned by verification of DNA evidence & the writing of this best-selling book a few years ago.

It's interesting, this idea of copyrighting DNA, or profiteering from genes, or whether you (or your surviving family members) have the rights to the genetic sequence you were born with. Sure we're each unique, but blood & cells & DNA are a dime a dozen .... what really is unique & innovative is the the science behind the cell line, or the research that make it possible to even know that such a thing as DNA exists in the first place. For the most part, Skloot's book makes the scientists out to be evil & god-less .... in the book she talks about all the great discoveries made with Henrietta's cells, as if Henrietta Lacks was endowed with some supernatural or magic force .. but Skloot hardly gives kudos to the scientists .. as if the discoveries were the doing of the HeLa cells & that Henrietta Lacks & her family should be acknowledged & compensated, but what did her or her family really do? Not that i don't think Henrietta Lacks should be recognized & acknowledged, but way too much emphasis is put strictly on genetics. It's like someone adopting & nurturing a child to adulthood, and when the child becomes famous, the biological parents learn of the success & suddenly demand due credit for it.

Of course, i'm always thinking of such things from a publishing or artistic angle. Without going into specific examples, lets say someone writes a book & kills themself .. then someone finds the manuscript in the attic & publishes it & makes it 'famous'. Part of you says well, his or her estate or family members should get royalties .. regardless of whether or not they had anything to do with the making of the book. But maybe the author hates his or her family? And the bottom line is that the book would've died with the author, if a publisher hadn't published it, made it 'famous'. The DNA of Henrietta Lacks wouldn't be still around & kicking were it not for Dr. Gey (or the lab tech, Mary Kubicek, who actually cultured them) .. while he or she may not be the biological father or mother of the cells, they are the parents responsible for bringing HeLa cells into the world & deserve just as much credit, if not more, than Henrietta Lacks .. and definitely more than any opportunistic family members.

down in the landscape

down in the landscape

The music in the opening time-lapse snow movie is by 'Sugar Man' Rodriguez, a musician from Detroit who back in the 70s made a few albums & then was all but forgotten about .... until a copy of his album Cold Fact found it's way to South Africa & unbeknownst to anyone in America, including Rodriguez himself .. he became hugely popular .. the story of which is told in the documentary Searching For Sugar Man, so i won't bother to reiterate the details.

Unlike The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, i don't think a big enough deal was made in regards to ethnicity in Searching for Sugar Man (Rodriguez was of Mexican descent) .. not that the American public or record producers discriminated against him for being Mexican, but for whatever reason it seems the American public was not ready for a Mexican folk-singer from Detroit, that didn't fit their expectations of how a Mexican folk-singer should sound or look. His Mexicaness had nothing really to do with his music, but this perhaps threw Americans for a loop (especially being that he was from Detroit, more famous for Motown & 'black' music).

This is my theory anyway. South Africans knew nothing about Rodriguez .. all they had to go off was his music & one picture on the cover of his album. Rodriguez probably seemed exotic to South Africans. The other thing is that we are talking about South Africa during Apartheid, so if you were white in South Africa you were probably stuck between a rock & a hard place, labeling everything as black or white .. so to have someone that was neither black nor white but in some neutral gray or brown area, that in some ways was probably refreshing & liberating. It let you off the hook for choosing sides either way .. of liking 'black music' or 'white music'. (Judging from the footage, the majority of the Rodriguez fanatics were white South Africans, i'd assume left-leaning).

sixto rodriguez

the only image South Africans had of Rodriguez

The other thing the movie never considers, is the possibility that South Africans just had bad taste. That his popularity was a completely random fluke. My personal feeling is that Rodriguez' music is OK (surely no where near worthy of comparing with Bob Dylan, which a few people in the movie did). There are 1000s of decent musicians from that time period that could've been a Sugar Man & there are still 1000s today that could be Sugar Man, but for whatever reason never get popular, while many truly marginal people become hugely popular. Well, actually, in this day & age (thanks to you, The Internet) there can be no more sugar men or women (as there are no longer isolated pockets of people).

If there is bad guy in the film, it is Clarence Avant, the head of the label (Sussex) that put out his two albums (though it seems the movie-makers (led by the Swede/Brit Malik Bendjelloul) pulled back their punches when Avant got suspiciously defensive when asked what happened to the royalty money .. bottom line is at the end of the money trail somebody was cashing checks). They also talk about the South African labels that capitalized on the Rogriguez phenomena (though for some reason Bendjelloul chose not to mention the fact that Rodriguez did achieve mild success in Australia & his records were reproduced there). But really, if you stop to think about it these labels were responsible for making Rodriguez the phenomena he was in those countries, or at least they were meeting the demand cause by the initial tastemaker (with bad taste or not) that started the trend.

(& speaking of South Africa & music & apartheid, we also recently saw Under African Skies, the documentary about Paul Simon returning to South Africa to revisit the making of Graceland .. crazy that he got such slack & political backlash for going to South Africa to make this album.)


Unlike Henrietta Lacks, Rodriguez was/is being recognized during his lifetime. But like Henrietta Lacks, it is others that are capitalizing monetarily on his success (Clarence Avant continues to receive the royalties & the people that made the movie are cashing in). What's cool about Rodriguez (if you believe the movie) is that he doesn't give a shit either way about being 'famous' or having money. He seems grateful, and perhaps will die happier knowing that he was popular in South Africa (& now all over the world because of the movie), but it doesn't change who he is.

In many ways, this drive to monetize is what keeps these things surviving, that keeps these memes immortal. But while some people make money off all this stuff, money can't buy you immortality. These business people are merely part of the mortal & disposable 'bodies' that propagate the immortal genes/memes that are Henrietta Lacks & Sugar Man Rodriguez.

And fame & fortune need not be mutually inclusive. I don't desire fame nor fortune, but it's hard for anyone to not admit to the yearning for immortality in some shape or form. It's baked in our selfish genes, otherwise we wouldn't be here.

The beauty of you, The Internet, & file-sharing is now popularity & infamy/immortality need not be tethered to money. Now memes can propagate virtually seamless & free. When i released Ark Codex last year around this time, i decided to not only sell the book but offer the dbook on a voluntary 'pay what you want' basis. As i mentioned here or somewhere, in the first month or two around 20,000 people downloaded the dbook & 4 people donated a few bucks. And it continues .. last month, 4846 people downloaded it. Did anyone pony up a monetary contribution? Of course not. Is this a success for the press? I guess not. is this a success for the book? I guess so. Thing is i can't tell who these people are or whether they are actually reading/digesting it.

Even more baffling is the people that download my old music. Like last month 749 people downloaded this song. Who these people are & where they are coming from i have no idea. Do they know who i am? Do you need to know who the artist is to appreciate the art? The same goes for this blog .... over the last year, 264,283 unique 'visitors' have visited 5cense (significantly less than years before, when i used to be on Facebook & Twitter, et al.). But who are these 'visitors'? Are they visitors from outer space? Are they robots or web spiders? E tu? I suspect 99% are accidental, or incidental .. but does this matter? This perhaps goes with the territory. Blogs are virtually free to write & free to read, this is the beauty of it. We can become immortal (as long as someone keeps footing our hosting bills after we die) .. but is our immortality real? Is anything real anymore?

riverside park

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