JUSTINE COOPER - New York
T r a n s f o
r m e r s
In the second half of the year, 2001,
Australian artist Justine Cooper was in residence at the Museum of Natural
History, New York. As Justine spends time living between Sydney and New York,
she had developed a relationship with the Museum and specifically with Elaine
Charnov from the Margaret Mead Film Festival. Justine had successfully applied
for an ANAT Scientific Serendipity residency in 1999, but it was not until
2001 that it came to fruition. Whilst at the Museum, Justine pursued her interest
in genetics through assisting with the development of the Genomic Revolution
exhibition at the museum. Some of the issues Justine explored while at the
Museum were the Eugenics movement, genetic determination of personality and
identity and ownership of genetic information.
Cooper (NSW) at Museum of Natural History, New York
Summary of Residency at the
American Museum of Natural History (2001) funded through the Australian Network
for Art and Technologys Scientific Serendipity program.
By Justine Cooper
My residency at the Museum
of Natural History came about through pure chance, or what some might call
a fortuitous alignment of the planets.
In 1999 the museums
annual Margaret Mead Film Festival (named after the anthropologist who spent
over 50 years working at the Museum), had shown my animation Rapt. On a visit
to New York a few months before that I had met with the Director of the festival,
Elaine Charnov, to discuss the possibility of future events, such as forums
on medical science and art intersections.
A good year and a half passed before I contacted Elaine to see if she could
suggest any genetics labs that might be interested in hosting my Scientific
Serendipity residency. It was only then that I discovered this amazing treasury
of laboratories and research that was taking place within the Museums
complex (20 buildings over four city blocks).
There are over 200 scientists
engaged in disciplines ranging from vertebrate zoology to maintaining frozen
tissue collections, with well over 40 of those 200 conducting genetics and
genomics research. Elaine offered to facilitate the hosting of my residency
by the Museum itself. In an institution with so many departments, also known
as fiefdoms, her offer inherently smoothed the way.
My residency took place in
the spring (northern hemisphere) of 2001, which coincided with the opening
of the Genomic Revolution exhibition at the Museum in May. The exhibition
was to be accompanied by a series of public lectures, panel discussions and
film programs. Although much of the exhibition design and content was already
in place, I had the opportunity to collaborate with the Mead staff in developing
content and themes for the panel discussions. These took the form of socio-ethical
questions raised by the genome, such as eugenics, biotechnology and agriculture,
and the Human Genome Diversity Project*.
In particular, I was involved
with a panel entitled Science for Arts Sake, revolving around how artists
use and interpret the techniques and issues of biotechnology. Aside from myself
it also included the artists Natalie Jeremijenko and Gary Schneider, along
with Dr. Dorothy Warburton, Professor of Genetics and Development at Columbia
University. Kathy Brew, the Director of Thundergulch, a new media arts organization,
moderated the panel. She polled the audience of roughly 150 attendees as to
whether they were artists or scientists. The result revealed an equal balance
(or division) of the two.
The panel itself turned out
to be a fairly volatile and diverse mix, with Natalie concentrating on her
misgivings about the institutions and principles of science in general, whereas
Gary concentrated almost exclusively on the aesthetics of genetics. Dr. Warburton
voiced a rational defense to some of Natalies attacks, while demonstrating
some of the uses of visualizing the genome in her own work. I concentrated
on the usefulness of intersecting the technologies of genetic research in
my own work along with a belief that the methodologies of art and science
do not diverge as much as some would think.
At another one of the forums
called The Promise and Perils of the Genomic Revolution, I had the pleasure
of demonstrating Australian artist Patricia Piccininis The Mutant Genome
Project CD-ROM Interactive.
In general it was an immensely
satisfying process to work on this public programming, not only because of
the outcomes in engaging with the public, but also for the opportunity to
tease out some of the issues and debates arising from the Genomic Revolution.
I felt that I was given a short but intensive period of time to invest another
layer of meaning and reflection in my own work.
On the production side of
the residency I had one main directive - to sequence the hair samples that
I had collected from subjects in Beijing as part of a project called Transformers.
This project will be exhibited as part of the 2002 Adelaide Biennial of Australian
Art in March.
In order to sequence the
hair I wanted to be in conversation with a scientist in order to discuss what
might be a useful or interesting gene to look at. To that end my first order
of business was to hunt one down (a scientist that is). I was fortunate in
being introduced to Dr. Jim Bonacum in the Invertebrate Zoology department.
Jim is both an evolutionary biologist and a molecular systematist. At the
time of our meeting he was also the newly appointed Director of the Genome
Learning Laboratory (GLL).
The GLL is a working laboratory
within the exhibition space of the Genomic Revolution show. It allows for
groups of students and the public to actually extract some of their own DNA
and have it sequenced. Later these sequences are accessible online, where
the participants can compare their genetic material to those of other mammals
and humans, both prehistoric and modern.
Dr. Bonacum, a voluble scientist
who is both knowledgeable and passionate about his field, was developing the
educational content and working lab environment for the GLL when I met him.
He not only gave me a better understanding of molecular biology and genetics,
but he also offered to do the sequencing in his lab. In exchange I helped
him develop the online
lab for the GLL, which I was ultimately contracted to design and produce.
Perhaps the most rewarding
aspect of all was my license, as artist-in-residence, to poke my nose into
nooks and crannys of the Museum that are off limits. Generally an exchange
went something like this...
JC: "Hello, Im
Justine Cooper, Im the artist-in-residence, Id love to come and
look at your collection/lab/research facility"
Them: "I didnt
know we had an artist-in-residence"
JC: "You never have,
Im the first, Ill tell you all about it if you like"
Them: "When do you want
Many of the curatorial associates
and research scientists I encountered had been at the Museum a long time.
They were incredibly generous with their time and enthusiastic about their
work. The vastness of the collection is really quite awesome, only a small
percentage is actually on view. I became interested in the methods of storage
as much as, if not more than, the specimens and articles themselves. Yes,
there are certainly issues surrounding some of the collections as with many
institutions that have 19th century origins. However, the evolution of the
collecting and storing process itself surfaces through the disparity in methods
The elephant bones in the
attic are softening and disintegrating from the heat and light, while the
frozen tissue collection is nitrogen cooled and bar coded. What was so moving
and potent, for me, was the use of actual physical space in conjunction with
multiple referenced points in time, the two together embodied in the Museums
*The HGDP collects genetic
material from isolated populations and peoples. Scientists argue that it is
safeguarding against genetic extinction, but it is also useful in research
because these are closed genetic communities. So they become valued resources
for the study of disease and human advancement. However, which
humans advancement is one question, along with the claim that it is
simply another form of colonialism.
Justine Cooper (NSW) at Museum
of Natural History, New York
Justine Cooper's page at conVerge
& Ionat Zurr