‘Poetry machine’ artwork exploring the Human Genome Project comes home

Date: 3 October 2016

Renowned artists Thomson & Craighead display their artwork exploring the human genome, Stutterer, at the UK home of the Human Genome Project.

Renowned visual artists Thomson & Craighead will display their unique artwork, Stutterer, which explores the human genome, at the UK home of the Human Genome Project for the first time from this week.

The work, which the artists call a ‘poetry machine’, plays the 3.2 billion letters of the human genome, our complete set of genetic instructions, like a musical score. As each letter plays out on one screen, the artwork randomly plucks a clip from English language media that was broadcast during the thirteen years it took to sequence the first human genome and plays the clip on a second screen. A condition is that the speech in the clip begins with an A, C, G or T, to match the letters that represent DNA.

Stutterer originally commissioned by LifeSpace at the University of Dundee with support from the Wellcome Trust, highlights the scale of biological information contained in each of our cells – if the work played continuously it would run for sixty years. But it also highlights the rich period of history that was the backdrop to this monumental scientific project; beginning in 1990 with the release of Nelson Mandela, to the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003.

The Human Genome Project was an international collaboration between twenty research institutes in six countries, and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute based at the Wellcome Genome Campus was its UK hub. The Sanger was the single biggest contributor, sequencing one third of the genome. Stutterer will be exhibited alongside objects from the Human Genome Project, including a DNA sequencing machine, which demonstrate the process of getting from an organic sample of DNA to the final string of letters visualised in Stutterer.

Becky Gilmore, exhibition curator at the Wellcome Genome Campus, said: “It is a great privilege to be able to bring Thomson & Craighead’s intriguing and thought-provoking work to the Wellcome Genome Campus. With Stutterer the artists remind us that scientific endeavour does not happen in isolation. The Wellcome Genome Campus is a place of cutting-edge research but it is also a site of great scientific heritage. By exhibiting Stutterer, which offers much reflection on this achievement, it’s as if the artwork is returning home.”

Artist Jon Thomson said: “We are delighted to be exhibiting Stutterer at the Wellcome Genome Campus. In devising and developing the work with computational biologists we were struck by the scale of the information held within the genome but also by the historical moment of its decoding. We wanted to create a work that would reflect both the messiness and the order of this process. By using two screens we represent the same information, presented in different ways; simultaneously and working in synchronicity.”

Julian Rayner, Director of Connecting Science at the Wellcome Genome Campus, said: “Stutterer is the latest in a rolling programme of exhibitions and events at the Wellcome Genome Campus. Through our rich and varied programme of public engagement activities, training and conferences we inspire curiosity and spark discussion about genomics and biodata. Stutterer, rooted in our history but also reflecting the Wellcome Genome Campus’ on-going endeavour, embodies these ambitions.”

Stutterer will be switched on to coincide with National Poetry Day on Thursday 6 October. It will be on display at the Wellcome Genome Campus from Friday 7 October 2016 until 22 January 2017.