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Science and art in "Gene(sis)" exhibition

 A frame from the short animated film "Organum"
A frame from the short animated film, "Organum," by Greg Niemeyer, Chris Chafe, and Christine Liu. The film's story board is on display at the Townsend Center for the Humanities in 22 stills that tell a linear narrative that is the basis for the complete film. Niemeyer says that the film itself, however, is non-linear.
 

– The San Francisco Bay Area is home to dozens of biotechnology firms delving into the cutting edge of genetic research. It's also home to artists and scholars exploring the ramifications of contemporary tinkering with Mother Nature.

Starting Wednesday, Aug. 27, the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) will host what's considered the first art exhibition devoted to genomics that takes a comprehensive and scholarly approach.

"Artists and filmmakers are uniquely able to transcend science in order to probe its possibilities, question its meanings, and explore its possible outcomes," said Kevin E. Consey, director of BAM/PFA.

"Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics" will include a display of nearly 100 works by contemporary artists, a "Genetic Screenings" program featuring films that reflect various forms of genetic engineering, a panel discussion between artists and scientists, and a lecture series on the role of genomics in the humanities.

This traveling exhibition was curated and organized through a partnership between UC Berkeley and the University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery, where it was on display last year. The UC Berkeley program, however, includes newer work as well as an expanded program that reaches out to the sciences and humanities on campus, and to the surrounding community.

Berkeley artist Gail Wight was commissioned to create a new work for BAM and has produced "Kings Play Cards...," an interactive, multi-media installation with video and audio clips of her interviews with UC Berkeley researchers on the fringes of the Human Genome Project.

"It (the project) permeates everyone's lives, affects everyone, and sometimes in very surprising ways," Wight said.

Her installation features a remote control mouse and a big screen filled with images of 23 petri dishes containing tiny people. The dishes represent the 23 chromosomes found on the human gene. As the mouse moves over each dish, a different video pops up.

One video is a list of all the diseases linked to chromosome 5, and another contains a dozen logos of corporations linked to genomic research, or interviews with researchers. No faces of the researchers are shown, Wight said, because they otherwise would not have felt free to talk.

"Kings Play Cards..." takes its name from a mnemonic device that helps one remember terms used to classify living things and the order in which they occur. The device - Kings Play Cards on Fairly Good Soft Velvet - stands for kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species and variety. The ellipsis on the end is part of the title, Wight said, as it refers both to the mnemonic device, and to the missing future.

San Francisco artist Jim Campbell was commissioned to do "Memory Array," a sculptural installation using new technology to transmit images that explore how joy, enlightenment, suffering and other experiences are encoded in the human brain, and how seemingly insignificant changes can forever affect human lives. Campbell, trained in mathematics and engineering, developed most of the technologies used in his work.

"Genetic Screenings"

Across the street from the museum at the Pacific Film Archive, Assistant Curator Steve Seid has assembled a quirky lineup of films for the Sept. 4-Oct. 30 "Genetic Screenings." There's the 1932 "Island of Lost Souls," in which animal evolution is accelerated through gruesome experimentation, and "Tecknolust" (2002), in which a bio-geneticist clones herself not once, but three times. Contemporary films include a documentary about eugenics and "Gattaca" (1997), about a bio-engineered dystopia.

"Organum," a short animated film by Greg Niemeyer, UC Berkeley assistant professor of art, technology and culture in the departments of art practice and film studies, debuts on Oct. 30 at the Pacific Film Archive. Niemeyer - who worked on the film with colleague Chris Chafe of Stanford University and Niemeyer's former student Christine Liu - presents a surreal, dry, cave-like world inhabited by sets of thirsty, flying and constantly singing voice boxes that must regularly contact a central brain.

"We always think of ourselves as independent creatures, and that's not true," he said. "Interdependence and the insufficiency of the individual is what 'Organum' is about."

Organum is Latin for "instrument of any kind," a name of a classical choral composition system, and the root word for the English word "organ."

Niemeyer, influenced by science fiction writer Jules Verne, said he is interested in the cultural and political implications of current efforts in genetic engineering and genetics research.

A story board with 22 frames from "Organum" will be displayed at the Townsend Center for the Humanities at UC Berkeley as part of the "Gene(sis)" exhibition.

Public programs

A roundtable discussion, "Making Worlds: Artists, Scientists, and Genomics," by artists and scientists from UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and the Molecular Sciences Institute, will be held at the museum from 3-5 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 14.

Participants will include UC Berkeley's Iain Boal, a social historian of science and technology, and Ignacio Chapela, assistant professor of microbial ecology in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management. They will be joined by San Francisco artist Catherine Wagner and artist Meredith Tromble. Also on the panel will be Roger Brent, a professor of genetics at UC San Francisco and CEO of the nonprofit genomic research lab he founded. Gail Wight also will participate.

The Townsend Center for the Humanities also will contribute to the discussion about genomic research with a Tuesday, Sept. 16, lecture, "From Cyborgs to Companion Species: Dogs, People and Technoculture," by Donna Haraway, professor and former chair of the history of consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz.

A six-part lecture series, "Thinking About Genomics," will explore the implications of human genomics for anthropology, art history, sociology, history and philosophy. It will launch Sunday, Sept. 28, and continue through Nov. 23.

Speakers will include UC Berkeley anthropologist Paul Rabinow, discussing "A Machine to Make the Future: An Anthropologist in the World of Biotechnology." Rabinow is conducting fieldwork at two East Bay biotech labs, talking to the scientists about their work. His talk will be moderated by Paul Billings, co-founder of GeneSage, Inc.

Rabinow also is teaming up with Roger Brent of the Molecular Sciences Institute of Berkeley to teach a Freshman Seminar at UC Berkeley this fall about genomics and citizenship.

Maynard Olson of the University of Washington's Human Genome Institute will talk about the genome and human culture from the view of a scientist. Charles Weiner, professor emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will discuss "Genetic Engineering: Who Draws the Line?"

Eveyln Fox Keller of MIT's philosophy of science department will talk about the "space between fiction and fact," while Barbara Stafford of the University of Chicago's art history department will address art and genetic research, and Troy Duster of UC Berkeley's sociology department will talk about the burgeoning "social side-effects" of the revolution in human molecular biology.

Streaming video versions of the lectures will be available at www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/conversations/.

In addition, BAM/PFA will host a reception at the museum for the James Watson Lecture on Oct. 11 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix.

Tours

Guided tours of "Gene(sis)" by specially trained UC Berkeley graduate students will take place Thursdays at 12:15 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., and on Sundays at 2 p.m.

Guide Elizabeth Dungan, a post-doctoral student at UC Berkeley's Center for Medicine, Humanities and Law, said she hopes Gene(sis) will help viewers think about the human body in new ways.

After the program ends at UC Berkeley, it will travel to the Frederick Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis and to the Mary & Leigh Bloch Museum of Art in Evanston, Ill. BAM/PFA will continue to host the "Gene(sis)" website. The site will include a "g-commerce" section reflecting the potential future sales of genetic materials and services.