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Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA.- The Berkeley Art Museum presents today “Gene(sis) – Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics.” In response to the accelerated pace of genetic research and the potential socio-cultural impact of recent scientific developments on people’s daily lives, the Henry Art Gallery, in affiliation with the Berkeley Art Museum, has organized a major traveling exhibition that raises questions and provides commentary about the as-yet-uncharted ethical and cultural possibilities of genomics, one of the most compelling issues of contemporary culture. Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics seeks to bridge art and science while showcasing powerful new artwork created in direct response to the Human Genome Project, and cultivating important public dialogue.

Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics Curator Robin Held has developed this complex exhibition over the course of three-and-a-half years, through on-going dialogue with artists, scientists (including senior scientists working on the Human Genome Project), educators, historians and museum professionals. Interweaving humorous commentary, theatrical installations, documentary images and pseudo- (or actual) scientific laboratory situations, the artwork in the exhibition elucidates technical advances and probes ethical issues raised by genomic research. An extensive array of public programming is slated at each tour venue to encourage public discourse and cultivate a deeper understanding of genomics and its relationship to contemporary culture and life (see the Public Programming press release for a complete listing).

From digitally-altered photographs of "manimals" and artistic explorations of other transgenic beings, to DNA portraits and abstract "gene-mapping" paintings, Gene(sis) explores the potential social, emotional and ethical implications of genomics. The exhibition features more than 50 works by renowned and emerging artists, including the West Coast premiere of Eduardo Kac’s important transgenic installation, Genesis (1999); the U.S. premiere of an interactive public performance by Critical Art Ensemble, and recent MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s photographic series, The Garden of Delights (1998). The Henry has also commissioned three new works created specifically for the exhibition by artists in collaboration with consultants from the field of genomics.

Gene(sis) is organized into four sections representing the following themes:

SEQUENCE-Work that interrogates both the language and structures of genomic and genetic research, including video documentation and performance artifacts of the performance, Cult of the New Eve by Critical Art Ensemble, and artist-designed coffee cups with DNA jokes commissioned by non-profit arts organization Creative Time.

BOUNDARY-Work that showcases artists’ investigations of the newly-permeable boundaries between species and the ways in which transgenics has long haunted both Western and Eastern cultural imaginings, including Eduardo Kac’s transgenic GFP Bunny aka "Alba," and large-scale, digitally-altered photographs by Daniel Lee.

SPECIMEN-Work that engages issues of DNA ownership and personal privacy, new sites of anxiety in the "genomic revolution," the archiving and management of genetic information and artists’ use of biological specimens, including photographic still-lifes by Catherine Wagner, and abstract DNA mapping paintings by Seattle artist Jaq Chartier.

SUBJECT-Artists’ re-imaginings of notions of individual subjectivity, family and human "nature" in the wake of recent genomic developments, including large-scale digital photographs exploring youth and aging by Margi Geerlinks, and Joan Fontcuberta’s Hemograms -- enlarged photos of blood specimens.

The three commissioned works:

Family Tree II by Jill Reynolds-a sculptural installation that engages one of the earliest insights of The Human Genome Project-that the human genome shares surprising similarities with the genomes of other species, such as the mouse, roundworm, fruit fly and yeast. Reynolds’ installation comprises a towering tree-like structure wrapped in a web of glass rods that spiral around the tree, connected to each other by small sample dishes, which contain growing yeast samples. In metaphorical terms this structure is an evolutionary tree, a genealogical family tree and the mythological tree of life. It is also suggestive of the form of the chromatin at the core of the DNA strand. (Theme: Subject)

The Relative Velocity Inscription Device by Paul Vanouse-an interactive multimedia installation that uses game theory to address historical issues of eugenics, contemporary notions of human biodiversity (or "race"), genetic identity and scientific spectacle. Referencing the 1929 work of early genetics researcher Charles Davenport on "race-crossing" in Jamaica, the installation juxtaposes early twentieth-century eugenic discourse with the artist’s own interracial family history. Vanouse uses DNA samples taken from his family members to construct a literal "race" about race. A genetic sequencing gel serves as the track for the competition as the genetic specimens "fight" for the lead. Viewers interact with the installation via computer touch-screens. (Theme: Subject)

Chimera Obscura by Shawn Brixey and Richard Rinehart-both gallery installation and Internet artwork, Chimera Obscura is constructed around a telerobotic agent that Internet visitors use to navigate and decode a highly complex maze that takes the general form of a human thumbprint. The installation is inspired by the historical anxieties, eugenic fantasies and emerging realities at the frontier of contemporary genetics research. The project employs a mutating game-style structure allowing participants to leave a virtual trail of media memes behind them for others to read, duplicate or delete in the search for a unique sequence that will decode the maze. (Theme: Sequence)

Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics is organized by the Henry Art Gallery and curated by Henry Art Gallery Assistant Curator Robin Held.

Along with the commissioned works, Gene(sis) comprises approximately 50 existing works. These works include multi-media installations, paintings, sculpture, photography, video, web work and performance. Among the artists whose work is included are Barbara Bloom, Christine Borland, Catherine Chalmers, Jaq Chartier, Roz Chast, Critical Art Ensemble, Joan Fontcuberta, Margi Geerlinks, Eduardo Kac, Maira Kalman, Daniel Lee, Cary Leibowitz/Candyass, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Larry Miller, Gregor Mobius, Kori Newkirk, Orit Raff, Susan Robb, Dario Robleto, Bill Scanga, Tom Tomorrow and Catherine Wagner.

The following advisors have been active participants in this project and will continue to consult with the Henry throughout its realization: Leah Ceccarelli (Assistant Professor, Department of Speech Communication, UW); Scott Edwards (Associate Professor of Zoology and Curator of Genetic Resources, The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, UW); Richard Francois (Director of Development and Community Relations, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, Seattle); Leroy Hood (President and Director, Institute for Systems Biology, Seattle); Mary-Claire King (Professor, Medicine, Division of Medical Genetics, UW); Edward Larson (Richard B. Russell Professor of History and Law, University of Georgia); Maynard Olson (Director, Human Genome Center, and Professor, Molecular Biotechnology and Medicine, UW); Phillip Thurtle (Lecturer, Communication/Comparative History of Ideas, UW); Lisa Vincler (Bioethicist, Assistant Attorney General, UW); Marek Wieczorek (Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, UW); Philip Bereano (Professor, Technical Communication, UW, and member, Council for Responsible Genetics).

The exhibition is documented by web, print and CD-ROM components featuring essays by participating scientists, historians, the exhibition curator and other cultural commentators, images of the work in the exhibition, and texts on the artist projects. The website (, which goes live March 1), developed in conjunction with the Berkeley Art Museum, is the source not only for in-depth information on the exhibition and schedule of its public programs, but also the venue where museum visitors (on-site or at home) can interact with several of the multi-media installations, changing the structure of the pieces themselves. A CD-ROM catalog, including video clips of the installations, will be available for sale after the Seattle presentation of the exhibition.

Exhibition Tour:
Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics premieres at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle from April 6 - August 25, 2002, followed by a two-year national tour with stops at the Berkeley Art Museum, UC Berkeley (August 26 - November 16, 2003) and the Frederick Weisman Museum of Art, Minneapolis (January 25 - May 2, 2004). Additional tour venues to be announced. Each touring venue will also present their own community and public programming activities.

Funding: The exhibition and related programs are made possible with generous support from ing Democracy Initiative, a program of Americans for the Arts, funded by the Ford Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; The Rockefeller Foundation; the Allen Foundation for the Arts; PONCHO; the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities; SAFECO; King County Arts Commission Special Projects Program; ZymoGenetics, Inc.; UW College of Arts and Sciences and in-kind support from Apple Computer; Carl Zeiss, Inc.; Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media; The Elliott Grand Hyatt Seattle; KUOW Public Radio; New Concepts Prototyping; WRQ, Inc., and Northwest Mannequin.

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