People have always had an urge, both individually and collectively, to deposit their treasured possessions somewhere safe. In the past these were physical objects, from gold and silver to illuminated manuscripts. Nowadays they are increasingly the seeds – both literally and figuratively – of life and culture, from frozen plant and animal tissues to vast vaults of digital data from which the fabric of modern society could be reconstructed.
The Swiss photographer Yann Mingard has devoted the past four years to documenting the way we collect and store human and biological samples as well as electronic data. The result, simply called Deposit, appears as a stunning book and a touring exhibition that opens today at Fotomuseum Winterthur, just outside Zürich.
The images are often dark, partly because storage vaults are dimly lit and partly because Mingard sees a metaphorical darkness in some of his subject matter. Details of the laboratories and archives emerge only on close inspection of the pictures.
Mingard, who is based in Neuchâtel in western Switzerland, set out on the project in 2009. “I was looking for something new to do and I decided to go back to my first career as a landscape gardener,” he says in mellifluous English with a French-Swiss accent. “I started to look at seed banks and Deposit took off from there.”
The most ambitious seed bank he visited is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, inside a mountain in the Norwegian Arctic. Since it opened in 2008, it has accepted almost a million seeds from food crops around the world – with the promise that permafrost and deep rock will keep them frozen indefinitely, whatever happens in the outside world. The vault describes itself as “the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply. It will secure for centuries millions of seeds representing every crop variety available in the world today.”
While Mingard admires Svalbard’s mission and resources, he has doubts about the viability of its strategy in the long term. “We don’t know whether the seeds will be adapted to the climate and conditions on Earth in hundreds of years’ time.”
He also visited some of the world’s 1,500 smaller seed banks. Most memorable, because it was the scene of a remarkable act of self-sacrifice for science, is Russia’s largest seed bank, the N I Vavilov Research Institute in St Petersburg. Its founder Nikolai Vavilov, one of the great botanical collectors, was arrested in 1940 because of his opposition to Lysenkoism – the Stalinist doctrine that acquired characteristics could be inherited, contrary to the tenets of Darwinism – and died in prison in 1943.
Meanwhile a dozen members of staff starved to death during the German siege of Leningrad, protecting the institute against intruders and rats and refusing to consume any of the seeds or edible plants in its collection. In 2010 the scientific community saw off a very different threat to the institute when the Russian government tried to sell its premises at Pavlovsk for property development.
“I was also curious about the postcolonial legacy,” he says. For example, France has the most important collections of ornamental and medicinal African plants while the world’s biggest collection of banana samples is at the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at the Catholic University of Leuven, a research legacy from the Belgian Congo.
From plants, Mingard moved on to animals. He was hugely taken with Nottingham University’s Frozen Ark project, which holds 48,000 samples of DNA and cells from 5,500 species, concentrating on the world’s most endangered animals.
Live animals feature in Deposit, too – notably bulls, stallions and the collection of their semen for artificial insemination. Mingard’s imagination was caught by a child’s milk bottle decorated with dinosaurs at the Swiss National Stud Farm in Avenches. It contains stallion semen which is then diluted in semi-skimmed milk with an antibiotic additive and transferred to straws for cryopreservation. “I love the dinosaurs on the bottle,” he says. “For me they are both touching and symbolic.”
How did the people working in the depositories regard their visitor? “I was honest with them. I made it clear that I wasn’t there to make scientific images and that my mission was more about society, art and even politics,” Mingard says. “They are really passionate about their work and they were curious about what I was doing there.”
Most difficult to penetrate were the world’s high-security data centres but Mingard managed to get into Mount10, the so-called Swiss Fort Knox – a digital depository inside a former Alpine military bunker built by the Swiss army in 1946. Looking into the future, Mingard is intrigued by recent research at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge demonstrating the feasibility of encoding digital data in synthetic DNA – using natural genetic code to store man-made data.
What about his next project? “It’s really too early to talk about it but I have some ideas in the area of landscape and climate change.”
Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor
‘Deposit – Yann Mingard’ is at the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, until May 25 2014; a book of the same title, with essays by Jacques Arnould, Thomas Lemke and an extensive glossary by Lars Willumeit, is published by Steidl.
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