A photograph taken by the 19th century Finnish anthropologist Into Konrad Inha appears in a number of Chris Dorsett’s early museum installations, performances and video pieces. It shows two brothers from the Karelian village of Uhtua ritualistically chanting their family tree. Their actions appear to encapsulate the interaction of evolutionary science and material culture at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, the collection in which Dorsett first encountered Inha’s photograph in the early 1980s. His long curatorial partnership with this institution and its staff (Instruments, 1985; Gathering Rites, 1988; Upturned Ark, 1990; Snares of Privacy and Fiction, 1992; Divers Memories, 1994) has been just such a clutching at the possibility of kinship and joint creativity. The brothers pull each other back and forth as they chant. So too the aesthetic and political ambitions of experimental art practices pushed and pulled with an environment created to demonstrate the Darwinian evolution of ‘common-place and everyday’ things in pre-industrial cultures. When we speak of ‘negotiation’ in CNoS, Dorsett always cites this experience.
Dorsett has led many science-related projects since (a botanical ‘fieldwork’ residency with the Brazilian National Institute of Amazonian Research, a sequence of ‘medical humanities’ PhDs developed with the NHS, and so on) but says that nothing matches those early artist-initiated engagements (he calls them 'practice-prompted') with evolutionary theory at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Recently, however, his daily train journey to and from Northumbria University has revived a comparable, open-ended space for negotiation. More than any formal arrangement, unmanaged everyday meetings with researchers from Newcastle University’s Institute of Genetic Medicine test Dorsett’s intuitions as an artist. Across a moving carriage they swap ideas about non-coding ('junk') DNA and museum reserve collections. Current research suggests that genetic inactivity shapes evolution. At present nothing prompts this artist-curator’s practice more than talking to geneticists about cultural objects sitting unused in museum storerooms.
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