'Century 21 Calling'
Mixed media installation with video projection
Running time: 7 minutes
Using a Rolodex card file, rickety wooden 1950s
desk and footage from 'Century 21 Calling' (a Bell Laboratories
promotional film shot at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair brimming
with energetic optimism for the future), the installation interweaves
contemporary events, concerns and media stories with biographical
fragments relating to Maurice Wilkins and his work on DNA. The work
contrasts the popular/optimistic mid-20th-century conception of
scientific discovery with personal and social chronologies. (Footage
London, 1953: there was a multiplicity of worlds you could be living
in. You could be a downtrodden resident of Airstrip One, ashen-faced
from years of rationing and austerity. Faced with the nuclear superpower
squeeze, constantly reminded that you were one of the wartime victors
but with little to show for the triumph, you would live as best
you could among shortages, smog and escapist cinema.
You could be an enthusiast for the New Elizabethan Age; facing the
future brightly, with the former subjects of the Empire standing
shoulder to shoulder with us in the Commonwealth, that amorphous
and comforting confection. The atom was our friend, and National
Service showed every young man a little of the world. Malaya, for
You might try and continue much as before the war: a simulation
of suburban happiness, commuting on tired but bearable trains. Discordant
notes would sound in the increasingly besieged idyll: portable radios,
restless working people, the first hints of the prototype teenager.
Particularly for women, it would all seem increasingly artificial.
With imagination and empathy, you could live in all of these places
at once, and more.
Whoever you were, the world was a bigger and more interconnected
place. With a bit of education, your outlook was good. Meritocracy
was in the air. That and playing the game. But life was not always
fair. You might get the dream job only to find that departmental
political games were being played above your head. Traditional ties
still mattered. Difficulties with colleagues, an insistence on empiricism,
and the brash brilliance of two young conceptualists at Cambridge
meant that you shared in the prize but not in the glory.
Moving from the general to the particular;
the career in science of Maurice Wilkins embodies a search for ethical
progress in both biophysics and the social. His involvement in the
Manhattan Project left him deeply opposed to the development and
use of nuclear weapons, and he was central to the foundation of
the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. His role
in the discovery of the structure of DNA became overshadowed by
the success of Crick and Watson. Even the discovery of DNA became
a political football, seen against the disastrous neo-Lamarckianism
of Lysenko in Stalinist Russia. The discovery of DNA became seen
as part of a generalized triumph of the West in the same way as
Abstract Expressionism and the Cadillac.
The 'Century 21 Calling' multiple takes
material from a lost travelogue for the Seattle World’s Fair.
Re-positioning it from film into the form of a flipbook, it conceptually
revisits the necessary leap into three-dimensionality which enabled
the DNA structure to be deciphered. This leap from the flat screen
into a spatial dimension mirrors the leap of scientific imagination
necessary to decipher DNA structure, the area which Maurice Wilkins
was responsible for developing.