David Blandy’s and Larry Achiampong’s most recent moving image artwork, Genetic Automata at Arts Catalyst, Adam Rutherford’s exposition on the confusion caused by DNA ancestry analysis at the same venue, Edith Wharton’s 1905 best-selling novel exposing the darker side of fashionable New York society, The House of Mirth and Anna Washburn’s dissection of the ongoing US political crisis in her play Shipwrecked at the Almeida Theatre, have stirred up a heady brew of thoughts about race which this post will attempt to boil down.
In The House of Mirth, Wharton attributes a Jewish character’s attraction to the beautiful heroine Lily Bart to “that mixture of artistic sensibility and business astuteness that characterises his race”. But she also uses “race” when refering to the stereotyped behaviour of both women and the “lower classes” suggesting that in the early 20th Century the term is a catch-all for any group that is thought to possess an inherent or innate character. Even today the conflation of race with nationality, ethnicity, genetic variability and/or religion demonstrates that it remains a powerful metaphor for human difference that clearly has an attraction for us. Unless we can separate out these conflicting categories, race will continue to be misused in political discourse and lead the human species into all manner of dangerous dead-ends.
Inexpensive DNA tests have now become immensely popular allowing individuals to tease out the different “races” hidden in their genetic ancestry. Although the results are based on scientifically invalid assumptions about human evolution and racial identity, they seem to provide a personal narrative for some people who then try to integrate it into their existing identity. The reason the ethnic breakdown is invalid is because it takes no account of the massive migratory movements around the world that are a distinguishing feature of our species and that make us all mongrels. As Rutherford explained in his Arts Catalyst presentation it means nothing to say you are 20% German when we cannot define what the German gene pool looks like. Genes flow with little regard for arbitrary human borders. The striking visual counterpoint to this in Genetic Automata is a screen displaying a world map animation digitally representing the current global flow of migrants to and from the UK.
Another screen presents Youtube footage from a promotional gimmick dreamed up by the internet travel company, monmodo, who filmed selected consumers responding to the ethnic breakdown of their DNA test results. Muted and slightly slowed down, the facial expressions are our only clue: shock, surprise, incredulity, scepticism and delight compete for dominance as long-held assumptions about their identity are thrown into the air. I remember a similar sequence on a TV documentary that showed a rabid English nationalist seriously discombobulated by his discovery of unsuspected Turkish and Romany ancestors.
When I put it to Rutherford that alt-right racists faced with DNA evidence of their own diverse origins might change their rigid perception of race, he countered with a nostrum of Voltaire’s paraphrased as: “Rational argument cannot challenge the beliefs of a man whose believes them to be founded on rational argument”. He says the phrase “If you were offered a solution of 80% water and 20% cyanide would you drink it?” is the standard response of the racist community to DNA results demonstrating a mixed racial origin. Rutherford’s response is probably not that far from the truth but as an ex-teacher I cannot help feeling that minds can be opened if we get them early enough. Pessimists would argue that the insidious influence of media and popular culture is more powerful than education.
Michael Jackson’s demise was partly attributable to the crushing of his personal identity between the forces of an avaricious music industry and the adulation of his fans. His legacy as a case study in celebrity disintegration is bound up with the blurring of his own racial identity through skin whiteners, depigmentation due to vitiligo and cosmetic surgery to de-Africanise his face. Massive irony then that this image is reinforced by John Landis’s groundbreaking music video for “Black or White”, shown muted as part of the Genetic Automata installation, released 30 years ago and accruing 270M Youtube views. It can be read either as an appeal for universal love or a whitewash of US post-colonial colour-blindness or a cynical globally targeted marketing stunt. For me it comes into the category of a hugely sentimental clarion call that one is suckered into unwillingly. Yet again we focus on the diversity of human faces. They lip-synch the song morphing between races and genders, foreshadowing the current epidemic of body image enhancement that Instagram and apps like Facetune are promoting. Perhaps body fascism needs to be located in the wider historical context of the growth of racism, anti-semitism and authoritarian politics. The Third Reich was not the only society that idolised the “body beautiful”. In Wharton’s Gilded Age New York the elevated purchasing power of female beauty was symptomatic of a deeper social malaise.
An update of the digitally manipulated face features prominently in the 12 minute film included in the installation. An array of faces do not morph but stand alone as fully realised idiosyncratic personalities with indeterminate racial origin. Unlike the Landis version we get no clear codification of racial archetypes and we left pondering where they might have come from. Close ups of human skin and feathers from Darwin’s stuffed finches reinforce the feeling that our perceptions are always literally superficial.
The complexities of racial stereotyping are neatly highlighted by one of the characters in the play Shipwrecked, played movingly by the brilliant Fisayo Akinade. He is a young African orphaned in Kenya and adopted by evangelical Christians and Trump supporters living in redneck country. His main complaint is that his blackness is used by his classmates to place him in the indigenous African-American category whose heritage of slavery and civil rights abuse he does not share. “But I’m African, it is not the same!”
In one sense the human face could be a route out of our current mess. The universality of human non-verbal facial expressions means that we can look beyond the surface when interacting with each other, connecting to a common ancestry and consciousness. Once the glamour of online interaction starts to pall, perhaps we will realise that face to face communication and direct eye contact has evolved to bring the human species together rather than to divide it.