Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 December 2021
Tamara Pertamina, a transgender artist who lives in a sprawling Southeast Asian slum, hopes to decolonize the science of genetic engineering. One day in June 2018 she borrowed a cart from a street food vendor and gave it a quick makeover. A hand-painted sign and logo announced, “CRISPR Sperm Bank: Experience Trans-Species Possibilities.” The food cart was a makeshift wooden contraption that balanced on bicycle wheels—a common sight on the streets of Yogyakarta, an Indonesian city with vibrant night markets and a cutting-edge arts community. While Jiankui He was quietly proceeding with his experiment in Shenzhen some 2,000 miles to the north, Tamara was dreaming about how biotechnology innovations in China and the United States would have reverberating impacts on the rest of the world.
As Tamara pushed her makeshift CRISPR Sperm Bank through the streets with some of her transgender friends, most passersby were startled and amused. The project was a surprise installation on the sidelines of Art Jog 2018, an international festival. Catcalls from young Indonesian boys on motorbikes—“I want to buy some!”—suggested that they didn't understand the English-language sign. The boys seemed to think that Tamara and the others were sex workers rather than performance artists.
The cart actually held supplies for cendol, a sweet dessert, consisting of ice with coconut milk, palm sugar syrup, and a variety of toppings: diced jackfruit, green mung beans, and small wormy shapes made of jelly. They just borrowed the cart from a street food vendor for the afternoon, for a small fee. After Tamara parked the cart at Art Jog, some of her friends spied the coconut milk in an unlabeled bottle and thought it was semen. The project was startling in part because even normal sperm banks are outlawed in Indonesia.
Tamara did not actually genetically modify any human sperm. Instead, she used the CRISPR Sperm Bank as a conversation piece to generate dialogue about possible futures for humanity. Among other pressing questions, she wanted to know: If parents have the option to choose the skin color of their children, will the future have a place for brown and black babies?