What Am I? : A Look at Scientific Identity through Art by Shloka Kini


Often we go to see artwork that enlightens us about the non-statistical part of the human condition. Our emotions and relations are often popular subjects. However, Camille Utterback was commissioned to complete an artwork called Drawing from Life.


This work was simple in its design and concept, but brings to light the real concept of DNA. The point has always been driven home to us in science classes that DNA is composed of four nucleotide bases arranged in a sequence that is like a code for every physical and biological trait we have in our body. The idea that everything about our form can be expressed definitely in a language we can now decipher can be quite unnerving. Individuality becomes almost digital as we are forced to look at ourselves like computers, with the 1’s and O’s becoming cytosine, guanine, thiamine, and adenine (CGTA). However, rather than being based in data, Utterback takes a visual and interactive approach to her artwork.


Drawing from Life was commissioned for a show called “Genetic Revolution” at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.1 The piece uses motion sensors and cameras to display on a large screen the people and figures moving in front of the screen. Rather than showing the figures themselves, the figures are deconstructed into shadows of colored letters on a black screen formed from the letters C, A, T and G. And to make the figures more aesthetic, “The color saturation of any particular letter is based on the brightness of the color in the incoming video, so some amount of detail about each person is visible.”2 This means the light and dark parts of the video are reflected in the light and dark colors of the letters in the figure.


The figure also draws on some techniques used in shadow art. Similar to the Japanese technique of shoji shadow art, this artwork projects the shadows of users onto a screen.3 This traditional shadow art is found not just in Japan, but also in China, Indonesia, and India. The difference now is that the users don’t view shadows created by other performers as in shoji now the users themselves create their own shadows, and these shadows reflect not abstraction but a more intimate look at their own genetic making.


The artwork forces the audience members to look at themselves in a biological sense and forces them to see the genes “swimming around” in their bodies. The fact that the entire figure is made of the four simple genes brings the minimal number of genes and their incredible ability to form the makings of our body to light.


Compared to Utterback’s artwork Text Rain, Drawing from Life is very similar in its interface and display because it makes the user more aware of themselves and their bodies in the context of letters.4 While Text Rain uses the body as a boundary to falling streams of letters, here the letters of DNA are bounded within the forms of moving people.


When seeing this artwork, I was astounded by its simple brilliance. Scientific data beyond light saturation was not used to form each figure. Each person was not constructed by the letters forming their genetic code. The letters were randomized and were only enough to form a figure. Obviously there are millions upon billions of genes coded by these letters, and writing all those letters on the figure would be too much visually for the audience member to comprehend. Although the figures are aesthetic, they force people to see themselves in a scientific sense for this genetics show. Maybe the next step is to use actual genetic code to form these figures, but in a way that could be meaningful to the user, a bit like Blind Genes by Andreas Müller-Pohle.



1. http://camilleutterback.com/projects/drawing-from-life/

2. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/multitiered

3. Yugo Minomo, Yasuaki Kakehi, and Makoto Iida. 2005. Transforming your shadow into colorful visual media: multi-projection of complementary colors. In Proceedings of the 2005 ACM SIGCHI International Conference on Advances in computer entertainment technology (ACE ’05). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 61-68. DOI=10.1145/1178477.1178485 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1178477.1178485

4. Lee, H.. The screen as boundary object in the realm of imagination. Ph.D. dissertation, Georgia Institute of Technology, United States — Georgia. Retrieved January 24, 2012, from Dissertations & Theses: A&I.(Publication No. AAT 3364237).