Article categories: Scientific Serendipity
March 17th, 2010

Justine Cooper has been working across the fields of art and science since 1995. Her work utilises medical and scientific imaging technologies to explore new ways of viewing the body and investigating complex social, cultural and scientific notions of self and identity. Rather than focusing on external markers of the body that make up our sense of self and identity such as hair, facial features, skin colour and body shape, Cooper uses imaging technologies to show us views of the internal bodyscape and the microscopic worlds housed within our cells. These new views of the body reveal an identity that is both personal in its extreme intimacy and yet alien as it is usually hidden and unseen.

To access imaging technologies such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) Cooper has established relationships with a variety of scientific and medical institutions in Sydney (Australia). These institutions include Vislab, Ray Scan Imaging (a private imaging lab), Children’s Hospital Radiology Department (Westmead) and the Australian Key Centre for Microscopy and Microanalysis (Sydney University). She has also worked with individual scientists in the Histology Department at Sydney University.

In her 1998 video work Rapt, Cooper used MRI to capture her body in a series of interior transversal slices. These slices were then animated to create a beautiful yet disturbing view of the body – a self-portrait which is constructed, built up slice by slice, and then destroyed – deconstructed before our eyes.

Trap (1998) and Lamina (2000) also used imaging technologies to explore the notion of identity and the self-portrait. In Trap, Cooper used MRI scans of her head printed on photographic film and sandwiched between 19 sheets of perspex to create a 3-D sculptural ‘bust’ of her head. In Lamina the idea of personal identity is abstracted even further to the level of DNA. Cooper used the DNA sequence of her ACE gene, replicating it to cover two nested 2 metre high cylinders, creating a revolving light sculpture. As the inner column spins, the DNA patterns continually combine and recombine, endlessly creating and re-creating different DNA sequences, different identities. Cooper describes the work as ‘a (r)evolving self-portrait’.

Reducing identity to the level of DNA follows new discoveries in the field of genetics and a growing scientific paradigm which sees identity as being determined by our genetic make up. We are who we are because of our DNA, or as Richard Dawkins would put it, we are “walking code”. This new genetic determinism and questions of ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’ inform Cooper’s new work Transformers which uses hair samples, fingerprints and photographs from a variety of participants to investigate contemporary cultural and scientific notions of identity.

In 2001, Cooper started an ANAT Scientific Serendipity residency at The American Museum of Natural History in New York to continue her work on the Transformers project. Cooper was the first ever artist in residence at the Museum.

Can you describe the process of how you developed the residency at The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the role ANAT played in this?
I had a previous relationship with the Museum through the Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival. The director of the festival, Elaine Charnov, suggested I approach the Museum to be my host. ANAT provided funding and support which allowed the Museum to feel comfortable having me there. I wasn’t this sort of ‘lone artist’ being let loose amongst them.

Technically the funded residency was not very long. To allow for serendipity, I chose to spread the time over a longer period, by not being there fulltime. This meant things could evolve, instead of pushing through to get them done. I went more for a ripple-effect approach.

Once I was on the inside (ID badge secured) I started investigating the different departments. Of course the priority was to find a molecular biology lab and a co-operative scientist. I had access to visit and view the facilities, but in order to use them I had to have a legitimate purpose. So to use the labs to sequence the hair samples for Transformers was fine. If I’d wanted to go and hang out with the flesh-eating beetles I might have had a problem. The Museum presents vast opportunities. Yet there comes a point when you need to more carefully aim your bow. At that point you begin to negotiate your right to do so. That said there is an openness in the museum environment especially among people interested in similar projects. As the first person to do a residency there, there was no protocol. But I was fortunate. Even within the year since I was there the museum has gone into a mode of heightened security – due to both the realisation of how valuable their collections actually are and the September 11th attacks. Access is increasingly more difficult to obtain.

Transformers, the work you were developing during the residency, deals with concepts of identity including both biological and cultural markers of identity. Can you describe the project in a bit more detail?
In Transformers I was interested in the significance of biotechnologies on the individual, and on the idea of identity. Science and technology are increasingly mediating identity, or being relied on in that way. We have only to look at genetic screening clinics and DNA fingerprinting as examples of this. While acknowledging the knowledge (and creativity) of science, I preferred to situate science somewhere other than the centre. For Transformers I collected physical evidence of identity from 12 subjects; hair, from which I used the follicles to extract DNA to sequence, fingerprints and photographs, along with more intangible and cultural identifying information like personal histories. Combining the tools of science – Scanning Electron Microscopy (both stills and video) and DNA sequencing – with the construction of identity as a rhizomatic experience, the intention was to retain the elasticity of who we are and what we can become, without resorting to a simplistic nature versus nurture type argument. In fact these distinctions seem to serve very little purpose. What I would rather focus on is a need to value difference. Although the project grew out of my interest in genetics, ultimately Transformers was a counterpoint to the weight being given to genetic determinism.

What areas of scientific expertise did the residency give you access to?
Dr. Jim Bonacum, in invertebrate zoology, was enormously zealous about molecular systemics and evolutionary biology. He was interested in discussing any manner of things relating to it. Owing to him, I feel my understanding of the processes involved is much greater. He also directly helped with the most outwardly pressing aspect of my project, to extract and sequence DNA for Transformers.

A big breakthrough for me was reconfiguring how I think of genetics. Instead of a gene for something, I learned to think of genes more conceptually. I used two genes – one that represented difference and one that represented similarity, without concern for what the gene codes for.

I have been lucky to be able to access equipment on short notice, even after the residency ended. For example, I needed a scanning electron microscope to scan and make stills and video from the hair follicles of my subjects for Transformers. Much of the earlier material had been destroyed in my World Trade Center studio.1 Fortunately the hair was still at the Museum because it had been sequenced there. With a few phone calls and favours called in I was able to get time on their machine.

What was the response of the scientists towards your work?
They were very supportive. I spent just as much time, if not more, with ‘non-scientists’ as I did with scientists. This included the exhibitions staff, the special collections folk, the curatorial associates, and of course, the Education Department where I was based.

Richard Dawkins says that we are all walking genes, we are all determined by our genetic makeup. What is your view on this?
I used to be much more enchanted with the idea of genetic determinism, of the gene in control, the substantiation of personality as directed by our code, than I am right now. It takes a lot of pressure off oneself to think something else is running the show.

However I’m sceptical at a very basic level. The scientific metaphor I would use is the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Interestingly, Niles Eldridge (from AMNH) and Stephen Jay Gould developed this theory in the early 1970s. What it amounted to was that Darwinism alone couldn’t explain the variation and speciation in life (although he did include chance in his theory as it related to natural selection.) Randomness and contingency had to be brought into the evolutionary equation. An example would be the belief that asteroid impacts are thought to be responsible for mass extinctions. Now if you apply this to the population at large, why not suggest that ‘punctuated equilibrium’ can happen at the individual level as well. This may be a fanciful interpretation on my part, and I guess some would simply call this the affect of the environment on the individual. In the 19th century Lamarck had argued that changes in the organism were caused by changes in the environment. Of course this has been reinterpreted and objected to as a belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

However, at the bottom of all of this is the fact that I would view Dawkins as misunderstood. Yes, for him the job of genes is to copy themselves and a belief we operate at a genetic level, not a group (species) level, as far as self-interest goes. However, he doesn’t discount how the environment affects us behaviourally, he doesn’t say you cannot learn altruism. So I don’t disagree that genes created us, I just don’t think they control us.

During the residency at The AMNH you took part in the Science for Art’s Sake Panel that accompanied The Genomic Revolution exhibition. Tell us more about this.
Elaine Charnov, Melanie Kent and Kate Hurowitz, of the Margaret Mead Festival, also create public programming, to coincide with The Genomic Revolution show, they worked to develop a number of panels revolving around the issues of genetics. I was invited to participate in that process, viewing possible films for inclusion, discussing relevant themes, especially in relation to what would be a forum called Science for Art’s Sake. This gave me the time to develop a deeper understanding and rationale for my motivations in making Transformers.

You say that you don’t think the methodologies of artist and scientist diverge as much as some would think. Can you elaborate on that? What do artists and scientists have to offer each other in this area?
Well scientists and artists can have similar processes, procedures, and even natures. The desire to learn and question isn’t exclusive to one or the other. Intrinsically as a scientist asks the question ‘how’ the artist asks ‘why’. It’s not a question of semantics here – it’s fundamental. To ask why is to lend the object of study a subjectivity, a motivation. These questions aren’t quantitative. Maybe I’m being too empirical in my thinking of science here. I’m finding the dichotomy of scientist and artist to be unproductive. Both are capable (or incapable) of creative thought, rational thought and expertise. So doesn’t it ultimately come down to a symbiotic skill set and a willingness to engage with another brain? I can’t be prescriptive here.

What do you think artist residencies have to offer the host institution? What are the benefits for them?
Well the obvious thing is perspective. Generally artists operate from the margin. By positioning them on the inside you get the residual affect of their former location. Most artists are self-motivated, adept at seeking knowledge and developing ideas. I could also be talking about a scientist in that last sentence. In the context of a host institution I think they would benefit by the creative capital, in conjunction with the alternate perspective that the right artist has in tow.

Do you have any advice for artists entering into residencies with scientific institutions?
On one level it plain old comes down to personality; you need to be able to get along with folks and communicate effectively. Something I have been fairly persistent about is the absolute necessity of knowing why you have chosen a particular institution and what it is you want to accomplish there. It is much better to initiate something in a concrete manner and allow the experimentation to spiral out of that. Oftentimes artists take the inverse approach. Vagueness is supposed to lead to clarity. I’m not persuaded that’s an effective model.

You were the first artist in residence at the American Museum of Natural History. Do you know if they are planning more residencies?
Charlene Teters, a Native American artist from New Mexico, is there at the moment. There is a show called Baseball as America currently running at the Museum. Her idea was to create a work that was a better concept of what America is. Similarly she brought funding from outside. However this is a different model from the one I think the Museum would like to set in place. I have worked with Elaine Charnov, the Director of Public Programming, to set up guidelines and possible scenarios for implementation of a residency program.

Describe Transformers as it was exhibited at conVerge? What was the audience response to your work?
The piece was exhibited as it had been proposed – a six-metre long, two-metre high latex tent. I had created a 12-subject layered animation, six per side. Four DVD players drove four projectors, mounted to project in parallel with the walls of the tent. It was a simple structure. The idea of the tent shape came from the notion that we erect and collapse them as necessary, an extra skin. It alluded to identity as a similarly built process. The audience response is impossible to gauge because it’s not a scientific experiment, there’s no control group. I’m thrilled to hear that people were lying down in the tent, not just walking through. That’s always my preferable type of interactant, someone who curates an experience for him or herself.

Have any new projects arisen for you as a result of the residency?
I’m attempting to do a project later this year [2002] on various storage areas within the Museum. All that is good about the institution is represented through their collections; preservation, scientific investigation, record keeping, and all that is dubious about it as well; a 19th century legacy of colonialist violation, greed, and pseudo-scientific validation (eugenics.) A complex web of science, history, and human desire – across geographical space, and over time – is encapsulated within the storage. In many ways it’s the latent meaning I find so intriguing.


1. Justine Cooper was part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s World Views residency program at the time of the September 11 attack. Much of her current work and archives were destroyed.

More information about Justine Cooper’s work can be found at:

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