Andrew Carson says he misses intimacy. As a young man in his 30s, Covid-19 lockdown restrictions have temporarily robbed him of the ability to hold hands, or even hug people.
Before the pandemic, Carson experienced many surprising twists and turns in his sex life. He reached the end of a seven year monogamous relationship and found himself doing something he never thought he would – having casual sex with multiple partners.
Then something even more unexpected happened. Carson turned his sexual encounters into music.
Carson, an installation artist whose work focuses on how the body interacts with digital technology, asked some of the men he was sleeping with if he could use samples of their DNA for an art project.
He then assigned the DNA — gathered from saliva — to musical notes through a computer programme, creating a piece of music for each of the participants based on the data from their DNA.
Carson has gathered the music into an exhibition, Until It’s Time For You To Go, which runs in the MART Gallery in Rathmines on 26 August until 18 September.
The work is an exploration of queer intimacy and connection — it also looks at his own feelings around having casual sex in a non-judgemental way, he says.
“For me it was about the connection,” says Carson. “The disjointedness between a really intimate and sensual act and the throw-away nature of casual sex.”
Carson has also created a series of drawings created by a machine, which together with the musical interpretations of the DNA and a poem written by one of the participants will form the exhibition.
Love Song to a Stranger
On a recent Tuesday, the café attached to the Centra on Dame Street is quiet.
“It all started from looking at family trees”, says Carson, a dark haired man with a beard and glasses. He sits in an armchair at a small round table, with a coffee in front of him.
The family trees all had the man on the left and the woman on the right, says Carson.
He was interested in exploring these issues, and wondered how, as a gay man, he was going to keep his genetic data alive, he says.
Carson points to a diagram of a DNA sequence on his laptop screen, it is curved like a snake and is made up of pairs of letters. “Your DNA is made up of pairs,” he says. “The sequence in which they combine is what makes us unique.”
That code determines whether you have brown or blue eyes, for example, says Carson.
Carson takes the code from the DNA of each of his participants and assigns a musical note to match each type of DNA strand. Then he feeds it into a computer programme which is an altered HTML script, he says which in turn, harmonises it, turning it into a tune.
So the music flows according to the same pattern as the DNA.
Once the pattern is finalised, the same sets of notes can be set to any type of music, he says — heavy metal, classical, pop or any other genre. He works collaboratively with the project participants to choose the type of music that best fits them so he creates something personal to them.
Carson started doing this with his own DNA last summer. His final project for his masters in fine art in the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), finished last June was entitled Love Song to a Stranger.
He plays the song of his own DNA on the laptop — it sounds tingly like a child’s toy music box or a machine at a funfair.
Enjoying the Single Life
Single in his 30s Carson started meeting people online for casual sex, he says, and some of the experiences were not the healthiest.
He felt torn between the intimacy of making love to someone, and not having a romantic relationship with them, he says.
“We were essentially sharing DNA but not in the way that a heterosexual couple would, in creating new life potentially,” he says.
He had the idea for the project and called up eight of his previous partners, and asked if they would participate and five said yes.
He took saliva from each of the participants and then sent it away for testing using commercially available DNA tests, which cost €100 each, he says.
They tell you about your DNA code, and a little bit about your ancestry too, he says.
“When the results came back I’d sit down with them and talk them through it,” he says.
“A lot of my work is to do with our relationship with technology and how that affects personal relationships,” he says.
“We communicate through this black box,” he says as he lifts his phone, which has a black cover off the round, wooden table and then puts it back down.
He met the participants online, so like many modern relationships they all started on the phone.
He has a machine for cutting vinyl but he changed the settings to make that machine draw his participant’s hands which form which part of the exhibition.
“It is all about the semblance and the mimicry, so the act of having sex is the semblance of an intimate connection,” he says. “It is like a parrot talking, you are repeating the sounds but you are missing the meaning.”
The machine can make the drawings, but that is not what it is designed to do, so sometimes it glitches. “It is in the glitches that the interest lies for me,” he says. “It is in that breakdown.”
He is disappointed that due to Covid–19 he can’t have the music played live by an orchestra, he says. Instead, he hopes the musical recordings being played will set the atmosphere in the exhibition space, alongside the drawings.
An unusual project reflects a very common human experience. “For me it’s an inner longing to connect, to feel connected to be part of something,” says Carson.
Until it’s Time For You To Leave is curated by Ciara Scanlan and runs from 26 August 2020 to 18 September 2020 in MART Gallery in Rathmines.