For the love of art, science and Afrofuturism, we boarded a spacecraft full of DNA catchers.
London, from our correspondent
Thursday evening, December 7, London, a few steps away from King’s Cross station. About 50 people are gathered in a room barely large enough to contain them. The event has long been sold out. “DNA Ancestry testing” promised the announcement of the event hosted by Arts Catalyst, an arts organization at the crossroads of arts and sciences (known in part for supporting the atmospheric projects of Tomás Saraceno and Marko Peljhan’s Makrolab). Tempting.
“You’re inside a spacecraft, and we have traveled through time from the future,” says a woman wearing a blue suit with a gold D.N.A patch. Zaynab Bunsie, artist and producer of the performance, unravels a narrative thread from an Afrofuturist sci-fi perspective that explores the themes of migration, ethnic groups, biopolitics and culture: “A quest for homogeneity has weakened the human race and made it vulnerable to diseases. The implications are not only genetic but also cultural. The growth of human knowledge, technological progress and capacity for storytelling have reached a dead end. Humanity is on the brink of extinction.”
If the spacecraft has traveled through time, it’s so that the DNA catchers (people in the blue suits) could gather samples of stories and knowledge. “We don’t take blood or saliva samples,” Zaynab explains. “We learn a lot more from stories and memory.”
Since 2015, the Mission Misplaced Memory collective, directed by the author and presenter Gaylene Gould, has been touring cultural institutions: the Tate, Selfridges, V&A Museum of Childhood in London, Vivid Projects in Birmingham, Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The Afrofuturism-inspired collective organizes installations, performances and talks for experts and the general public. Based at Arts Catalyst in King’s Cross since November, Mission Misplaced Memory invites visitors to tell their stories and transform them into interactive works in the form of a guest book, audio recordings or infrared texts printed on the walls. DNA, or Dreamed Native Ancestry, is the title of this interactive exhibition installed in London through January 27, 2018.
View of “Dreamed Native Ancestry” exhibition at Arts Catalyst:
“Do you have a memory of migration in your family?” asks Zaynab, holding an audio recorder. “A particularly evocative smell? Something you learned from a relative?” Telling stories about your family, your roots and relocations to a stranger is a personal and emotional experience. This feeling is artfully conveyed in the anonymous and often trivial anecdotes that can be read or heard in the exhibition: tarot reading after a meal, fish & chips on a Wednesday night, Bollywood films watched with the whole family, or the impression of an English woman living in Bolivia whose roots reach back so far that she feels like she came from nowhere. “Traces and proofs that migration is a good thing and a celebration of diversity,” declared Nicola Triscott, director of Arts Catalyst, at the event opening.
So where does DNA come in? That evening in the tiny room, Arts Catalyst welcomed two newcomers to this decidedly multifaceted project: Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, two artists whose practice has often led them to “deconstruct their history in order to understand their future”, according to Blandy. For this new project, still in its embryonic stage, they wanted to take a series of three DNA tests. Just to see. “And some stuff appeared,” Blandy laughs.
They came to talk about the “stuff”. Across from them sat a panel of experts in genetics and bioethics, moderated by the bubbling Bobbie Farsides, professor of clinical and biomedical ethics at the University of Sussex and lead ethicist of Trust Me, I’m an Artist—a European program of events and performances around the ethics of collaboration between arts and sciences, and the third collective involved in tonight’s event (alongside Arts Catalyst and Mission Misplaced Memory).
They shared raw impressions. First, “the feeling that there are lots of stories,” Blandy begins. While DNA tests can precisely indicate a source continent, geographical subsections are more fuzzy. “Because of the variables, it’s hard to believe anything.” There was also a disparity in the data available for Blandy, whose genes are more then 90% European, and for Achiampong, 98.5% African. While Blandy could trace his regional origins with relative exactitude, Achiampong simply didn’t have the data. “What seems like a trivial difference,” Farsides later commented, “in fact shows a bigger health problem.” More specifically, the lack of DNA databases in Africa. This lack can be explained above all by the lack of confidence by local people who refuse to give their DNA, which could have consequences for public health, Farsides continues. “This data could be used to effectively fight tropical diseases,” she says.
For an hour and a half, the panel exchanged with the artists and the audience about the ethical implications of commercial DNA analysis. Who owns the genetic data (one of the main companies, 23andMe, counts Google among its investors and sells collected data to the pharmaceutical industry)? Should we be afraid that these databases will be hacked? Could the possibility of finding distant relatives become a danger? Can we find potential organ donors? Can genetic data be used for political purposes, for example, to revoke the right of an individual to reside in a territory? Someone brought up the case of China, which according to Human Rights Watch, has accumulated a database of more than 44 million entries “without oversight, transparency, or privacy protections”. Someone else, of course, mentioned Trump. But above all, we wondered if all this is really important—if genes constitute our identity. “I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know,” Achiampong announced in his preamble.
Listening to the soundscape of “Dreamed Native Ancestry” at Arts Catalyst:
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And this is where Dreamed Native Ancestry is especially powerful. On one side, raw data, percentages that raise expectations but finally tell very little about an individual’s personal background. On the other side, memory samples with relative scientific reach, but much more emotionally and historically charged. “We learn much more from collecting memories than from blood samples,” Zaynab warned us from the start. We believe her.
“Dreamed Native Ancestry (DNA)”, exhibition through January 27 at Arts Catalyst, 74-76 Cromer Street, London