DNA 50

Gair Dunlop

'Century 21 Calling'

Mixed media installation with video projection
Dimensions variable
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 courtesy of

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 example.

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.