Click photo to enlarge
Conceptual artist Jonathon Keats at the opening of his "Epigenetic Cloning Agency" at Modernism Gallery in San Francisco.(Courtesy of Modernism Inc., San Francisco)

When one thinks of cloning, as one so often does, Woody Allen's 1973 comedy "Sleeper" springs to mind. Allen plays a mild-mannered health food store owner who's transported to the future and enlisted to assassinate a dictator's disembodied nose before its cells can be cloned to reproduce the tyrant in full-bodied form. Hilarity ensued, of course. A steamroller was involved. It wasn't pretty.

And who can forget Dolly the sheep? She was the first mammal successfully cloned in 1996 from an adult cell -- presumably not a nose, but who knows -- by scientists at the Roslin Institute in Scotland. Dolly became world famous and lived at the institute until her death in 2003, after which she was stuffed and placed in Edinburgh's Royal Museum, where she continues, presumably, to sit pretty.

But now, thanks to modern almost-real technology, neither sheep nor schnoz is necessary. Now you can make your own homegrown clone. Or even better, clone yourself into the spittin' image of someone else. And you don't even need the spit.

Behold the Epigenetic Cloning Agency, a project of Bay Area conceptual artist and experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats. His "agency," recently on display at Modernism Gallery in San Francisco, offers the world's first trouble-free cloning technique able to make the replication of famous people "as routine as downloading movies," Keats said in a phone interview last week. At least I think it was him. Could have been one of his clones.

Dabbling in doppelgangers

Epigenetics, a real branch of real science, takes into account environmental factors including diet, stress and exposure to toxins in an individual's development. So in theory, you could become George Washington, Queen Elizabeth or even Jesus -- not by using their DNA (a handy factor, particularly in the case of Jesus because, well, you know) -- but rather by introducing the same external chemicals that formed these famous folk into the famous folk they were.

To become, say, Napoleon, you would bulk up on the equivalent of what one would absorb from the emperor's regular diet of a rooster a day, augmented with doses of arsenic and sulfur, with which his skin and stomach problems were treated. Yum. Over time, you would begin to express distinctive traits of Napoleon. Why, it's so easy, you could do it with half a brain tied behind your back!

With Keats' technique, there's also the option to possess the person you desire. Say, if you want some Lady Gaga, you could regularly douse live cells of brewer's yeast with grain alcohol, adding sodium and sucrose in a petri dish to emulate her drinking habits and junk food binges. In a few weeks, this concoction would congeal into a gelatinous Gaga. The cells would not sing, but you'd have her essence on a molecular level. Chances are she wasn't born that way.

Double trouble

OK, so all this is pretty much, kind of, not actually for real. It is real in the sense that it is a real thought experiment. And Keats really did purchase various chemicals at Walgreens, put them in little bottles and sat at a desk in the gallery for several hours. Were you to pay his exorbitant prices ($35 a bottle, which is only a one-day supply), you could actually buy this stuff and ingest it. After signing some release forms, of course.

"I don't wanna get sued," he said.

Ultimately, the idea is to get you to think about stuff -- in this case about society's obsession with celebrities, how we seek their presence, follow their every move and sometimes try to emulate them.

"We say we want to be the people we admire," Keats posited. "But do we?"

Keats clearly thinks about stuff a lot himself, evidenced by some of his past projects: producing "intergalactic art" from radio signals from outer space; developing a Ouija board voting booth system; launching his own space agency with potatoes as astronauts; pushing for a law of logic in Berkeley to make every entity identical to itself. It's not clear how the latter would apply to the cloning thing. I mean, if everything's already identical to itself then isn't it already inherently a sort of a clone and ... ouch, my brain.

It's cool that cloning is now so easy. Personally, we -- that is, me, myself and I -- do not wish to clone or be cloned. I'm OK with being me. It's what I gotta be. And I'm happy to keep my nose out of other people's petri dishes.

Contact Angela Hill at ahill@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/giveemhill.