Genetic Automata by Larry Achiampong and David Blandy forms the first part of an ambitious new body of works by the artists, exploring race and identity in an age of avatars, video games, and DNA Ancestry testing.
Concepts of race and ethnicity in science over the last century have been split between two main perspectives. One, rooted in the eugenics movement, treats racial and ethnic categories as biological classifications. The other, stemming from social science, regards race and ethnicity primarily as cultural and historical constructs with very little biological significance. Even after the human genome was decoded in 2003, which scientists believe proved there was no biological basis for race, the arguments continue to rage.
Genetic Automata is a new commission by artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy. It forms the first part of an ambitious new body of film-based works by the artists that attempt to address this complex history of classification and segregation.
Referencing the history of the theory of evolution, and the relationship between Darwin and his taxidermy teacher John Edmonstone, a freed slave, the artists’ new commission for Arts Catalyst takes the form of a video installation combining animation, spoken word and text interspersed with microscopic topographies of varied shades of skin, digital renditions of skin from video games, and film footage of taxidermied bird life from Darwin’s bird skin collection at the Natural History Museum. Viewers are taken on an immersive journey marked by encounters with histories of racial science, computer-generated virtual landscapes and the molecular speculations of genetic testing.
The work investigates how invisible histories – such as the transfer of knowledge from Edmonstone to Darwin – have helped to inform mainstream western scientific thinking while remaining unrecognised. It is now believed that Edmonstone was pivotal in advancing Darwin’s theory of evolution, inspiring Darwin to visit South America and teaching him taxidermy skills that enabled the preservation of specimens of finches Darwin discovered on his voyage to the Galapagos Islands, which helped him to develop his theory of natural selection. Through Genetic Automata, the artists question how these narratives shape our perception of the history of scientific thought and who determines such history. They ask, whose voices are erased from mainstream narratives?
Weaving together imagery and narratives from various popular cultural interpretations of genetic manipulation, from Metal Gear Solid to Resident Evil to Final Fantasy and the Metroid series, the artists will explore the legacy and language of concepts around eugenics and human agency.
As part of the installation, the artists have invited London-based illustrator, muralist and animator Wumi ‘Wumzum’ Olaosebikan to create two new murals responding to the themes and ideas addressed in Genetic Automata.
Genetic Automata forms part of Arts Catalyst’s long-term curatorial programme Radical Ancestry, a cultural collective inquiry exploring how artists can transform new knowledge from genetic science into a re-thinking of race, identity and migration. The work emerges from Achiampong and Blandy’s research into DNA ancestry genetics, for which the artists undertook a series of DNA ancestry tests before discussing the results in a public talk at Arts Catalyst’s Centre in 2017.
The artists will be in-conversation discussing the exhibition on Wednesday 20 February.
Visit the Arts Catalyst‘s website for more information.
Genetic Automata: Larry Achiampong | David Blandy
24 January – 30 March
74-76 Cromer Street
London WC1H 8DR
Image: Film still courtesy Larry Achiampong and David Blandy