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.

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Justine 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 Technology’s 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 museum’s 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 Museum’s 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 Art’s 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 Natalie’s 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 Piccinini’s 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 cranny’s of the Museum that are off limits. Generally an exchange went something like this...

JC: "Hello, I’m Justine Cooper, I’m the artist-in-residence, I’d love to come and look at your collection/lab/research facility"

Them: "I didn’t know we had an artist-in-residence"

JC: "You never have, I’m the first, I’ll tell you all about it if you like"

Them: "When do you want to visit?"

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 and content.

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 Museum’s collections.

*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 human’s advancement is one question, along with the claim that it is simply another form of colonialism.

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Justine Cooper (NSW) at Museum of Natural History, New York

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