BY Kadish Morris in Opinion | 08 MAR 19

Artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy Probe the Pseudoscience Behind How We Think About Race

‘Genetic Automata’ at London’s Arts Catalyst uses video games, emoji and Darwin to reveal falsehoods around race and intellect

BY Kadish Morris in Opinion | 08 MAR 19

Pseudoscience is the false prophet before which racism, for many decades, has genuflected. This ominous truth confronts you soon after entering ‘Genetic Automata’, an exhibition by Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, which poses a host of tricky questions about race, its exponents and its naysayers. These range from the existential (Is race a fabricated construct that speaks more to fantasy than it does to nature?) to the esoteric (How has the concept of eugenics influenced video games?). Joining forces to investigate the current politics around ethnicity through a series of video installations, the artists also probe long-standing theories held by a select group of anthropologists, IQ researchers and psychologists regarding the ‘correlation’ between intellect and race – i.e. the idea that black people are less intelligent than white people. ‘Genetic Automata’ seeks to shine a light on the shadowy figures that have populated our belief systems in this way with little inquisition.  

Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, Genetic Automata, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Arts Catalyst, London. Courtesy: Arts Catalyst, London

It feels apt to start a conversation of this kind with Charles Darwin. The exhibition’s main film, the titular Genetic Automata (all works 2018), features both microscopic topographies of real skin and digital renditions, opening with footage of the geologist’s bird-skin taxidermy collection at the Natural History Museum. Taxidermy was pivotal to Darwin’s theory of evolution, enabling him to preserve specimens that, in turn, aided the development of his concept of natural selection. Yet, the fact that his taxidermy teacher at Edinburgh University, John Edmonstone, was a freed slave, remains relatively unknown – perhaps because it challenges the narrative that blackness is only good for shining the shoes of white supremacy. In a voice-over set to a dramatic musical score, the artists provide valuable subjective perspective, depicting the troubled landscape before them. Discussing how society’s adherence to and execution of racial divisions have grotesquely begat a world of inequality, othering and institutional bias, the artists layer their indignant declarations on top of each other’s, as if passing a paint brush back and forth to reinforce the pigment of a stroke. ‘My right to opacity is ignored,’ Achiampong says. ‘Nothing is pure in nature,’ adds Blandy. Together, their poetic reflections on the adverse effects of classification create a tension around the inherent insensitivity of scientific argument. 

Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, ‘Genetic Automata’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Arts Catalyst, London. Courtesy: Arts Catalyst, London

In another room, as part of an untitled work, a clip screens from Michael Jackson’s music video for ‘Black or White’(1991): buoyant ‘talking heads’ of different races seamlessly morph into one another, in a bid to demonstrate that we are all fundamentally the same. That’s how we saw race in the early 1990s, through optics that needn’t decipher colour. To some extent, we were right: biologically speaking, race doesn’t exist – a truth this exhibition is intent on asserting. In fact, there is greater genetic diversity in Africa, where most inhabitants would be considered black, than there is the rest of the world. Yet, the eugenics movement was fuelled by the entirely unsupported belief that there are consistent molecular differences within the anatomies of certain races and, still today, many remain seduced by the helix of DNA. In recent years, we have seen the rise of ancestry testing – a response, perhaps, to the fact that categories such as ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘resident’ and ‘migrant’ are no longer sufficiently comprehensive. Achiampong and Blandy often use themselves as anthropological subjects in their practice and, for this exhibition, both artists took one of these DNA tests, which they deem to be phoney, using the results to inform the works on display. Genetic Automata, for instance, features various avatars whose appearances reflect the geographical locations where – according to the test results – the artists have DNA heritage.

Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, Genetic Automata, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Arts Catalyst, London. Courtesy: Arts Catalyst, London

With all that there is to say about why race is mere folklore, the infamous expression ‘I don’t see colour’, written into a specially commissioned mural by Wumi ‘Wumzum’ Olaosebikan on the gallery wall, seems neither a progressive nor empathetic means to equality. Because race does exist – socio-culturally, structurally and abstractly. You get the sense that the exhibition is in a tug of war between what is intangible yet experiential. 

A closer look at how humans exist in the digital world can offer insight into the murky waters of categorization. In another untitled work, various male and female emoji of different skin tones loop on a screen installed next to another monitor displaying a live migration map. Before modifiers were added in 2015 to convey diverse skin tones for human emojis, the default colour was often yellow. While this may have resulted from an arbitrary choice made by developers such as Apple, various examples exist of yellow being used to represent white cartoon characters (e.g. The Simpsons, 1989–ongoing) while people of colour aren’t depicted as blue or green, but clearly identified as brown. This chapter of digital history is discussed briefly in Genetic Automata, underscoring the limitations technology imposes on the act of self-portrayal for some and the flexibility it warrants to others. While there have been a number of conversations around decolonizing tech design, the field still isn’t neutral and is primarily anchored to an Anglo-Saxon perspective. Yet, the shadowy infiniteness of the internet allows for things like ‘black fishing’ to proliferate. In 2018, several white women were called out for presenting themselves as light-skinned black women on Instagram through their considered choice of makeup, hair styles, image editing and filters. Far more so than in the real world, race online can be self-determined by premeditated choreography. Vocabulary, slang, profile pictures, emoji and even GIF usage all act as coded symbols to imply your demographic. 

Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, ‘Genetic Automata’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Arts Catalyst, London. Courtesy: Arts Catalyst, London

Delving further into the virtual, another untitled work features a scene from the 1998 video game Metal Gear Solid, in which the antagonist, Liquid Snake, captures the protagonist, Solid Snake, and reveals to him that they are, in fact, twin brothers. Cinematic cliff-hanger music accompanies the dramatic dialogue. The work speaks to the artists’ interest in how the manipulation and weaponization of DNA is often used as a plot device in video games. Our fixation with genetics has not only coerced us into undertaking personal and scientific quests; our fear of how it might be violently used against us is something we even regard as entertainment.

If there were an exclamation point appending this exhibition, it would surely be how all research, regardless of validity, is propped up by the confirmation bias: the cognitive tendency to favour results that affirm existing beliefs. This is how discrimination becomes rationalized and re-presented as truth. While dismantling racism might be possible through the kind of nuanced interrogation Achiampong and Blandy propose in ‘Genetic Automata’, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that humans’ innate need for sovereignty will forever override logic and empathy. The bleakness of this disheartening reality will accompany some visitors after they leave the gallery and until they arrive home; for others, it will haunt them through every stage of their lives. 

‘Genetic Automata’ is on view at Arts Catalyst, London, until 30 March 2019.

Main image: Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, ‘Genetic Automata’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Arts Catalyst, London. Courtesy: Arts Catalyst, London

Kadish Morris is editorial assistant and staff writer of frieze, based in London, UK.