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Between the Lines

Between the Lines is a creative intervention that uses DNA data storage to embed the lived experiences of individuals subjected to the UK border regime back into the bureaucratic systems that govern them.

Between the Lines

Between the Lines weaves the personal experiences of individuals subjected to the UK border regime back into the systems that govern them. By combining traditional administrative tools of pen and paper with cutting-edge DNA data storage technology, the project infiltrates the bureaucratic systems of the UK Border Regime.

Though we often associate ‘borders’ with geographic boundaries, the UK border regime is an increasingly distributed, technopolitical system. Corporate Watch defines the border regime as ‘a name for the overall system that tries to control people’s ability to move and live, depending on our immigration status’ (Corporate Watch, 2018). It is an assemblage reliant on the collaboration of many parts and individuals, who may be formal or informal actors.

During the project, individuals subjected to the UK border regime record their testimonies and experiences, which are then converted into binary data and encoded into synthetic DNA. The synthetic DNA is mixed with writing ink and injected into pens, which are distributed to the frontline administrative workers of the UK border regime.

As the pens are used, the synthetic DNA transfers to the paper, embedding the lived experiences of those impacted back into the bureaucratic system that governs them and subsequently spreading throughout the administrative systems of the UK border regime.

The project seeks to highlight the human experiences behind the numbers and statistics, raising public awareness of the dehumanising nature of the border regime. It aims to create a sense of shared responsibility towards upholding the rights and dignity of all individuals impacted by the border regime and promote a more compassionate and inclusive understanding of immigration policies.



DNA data storage is the process of encoding and decoding binary data to, and from, synthesised strands of DNA. Much like data can be stored on memory sticks or the cloud, DNA can be used to store digital information.

Image outlining the steps involved in DNA data storage. Source: 

Initially, I aimed to gain an understanding of the process of converting digital information  into DNA nucleotides. This process entails translating digital data into binary format and  further encoding it into DNA nucleotides. For instance, '00' corresponds to the  nucleotide 'A,' '01' to 'C,' '10' to 'G,' and '11' to 'T.' I developed a Python script for  converting a text document into binary data before encoding it as nucleotides. However,  discussions with researchers revealed the complexity due to biochemical constraints, including the unreliability of long  homopolymer runs (e.g., AAAAAA...), and the need for additional steps such as annealing sites.

Output from initial Python script encoding text document to DNA nucleotides

I was directed to the open-source GitHub repository 'DNA Fountain' by Yaniv Erlich and  Dina Zielinski, designed to address DNA data storage constraints with high retrieval  reliability and near-capacity density. To execute the program, I set up a virtual machine  with the recommended operating system and followed the GitHub repository instructions  to encode the text document into DNA nucleotides. You can view the entire process here.

Screenshot from the encoding process using Yaniv Erlich and Dina Zielinski's open-source GitHub repo 'DNA-Fountain'. Image credit: Artist

After successfully encoding the data into DNA, I partnered with Twist Bioscience who assisted in encoding the document using their software and synthesising the subsequent DNA sequence. The resulting DNA was returned in sealed metal capsules. 

DNA capsule next to one penny coin for scale, Credit: Artist

I chose writing ink and pens as the vessel for the DNA. These traditional administrative tools serve as a metaphorical bridge between bureaucracy and control, invoking the adage 'the pen is mightier than the sword' to highlight the  power of administration over traditional forms of violence. I opted for a simple, transparent pen to underscore its deceptively innocuous nature, contrasting it with the ink containing the testimonies, making their presence visible and impactful.

Image of the completed pens, Credit: Artist

Collaborating with a lab at UWE Bristol, we created DNA ink through autoclaving writing  ink and jars, and adding TE buffer to preserve DNA integrity. The DNA was extracted  and added to the ink. 

The DNA-infused writing ink was injected into 191 pens, corresponding to the number of  universities with student sponsorship licences. These pens were sent out with a letter  and a manual outlining the project. The letter included a link to a TypeForm survey  gathering responses such as the recipient's acceptance of pen responsibilities, job role,  and comments. I assigned each pen a unique identification number and created a  database using Google Sheets for tracking purposes. Google Sheets provided a  convenient overview of each pen's status, including whether the accompanying QR  code had been scanned, the time and location, and TypeForm responses. To interact  with the database, I developed a custom webpage on my website enabling data transfer  to the sheet.

To demonstrate the sequencing process for retrieving the original encoded data, I  collaborated with Exeter sequencing, which involved DNA extraction, amplification using  PCR, and sequencing with an Illumina 6000 sequencing machine. You can view the  entire process here.

Still taken from DNA sequencing documentation video filmed at Exeter Sequencing Services.





Twist Bioscience (Data encoding and DNA Synthesis)

Exeter Sequencing Service (DNA Sequencing)

UWE Bristol Health and Applied Sciences Faculty

King’s Forensics, King's College London 


Beyond Detention

Cari Hyde-Vaamonde 

Loughborough Feminist Society 

People and Planet at Loughborough University

Video of sequencing process filmed, edited and produced by Michael Sides

With special thanks to the anonymous individuals who shared their experiences, Ellen Carter, Steff Cave, and Fred Dalmasso of the Politicised Practice Research Group at Loughborough University, David Ballard of King’s Forensics, Rod Dickinson Man-Kim Cheung and Joe Tomlinson.

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