DNA 50

Neil Chapman

'The Song of the Whale'
January–March 2003
Sound installation

Neil Chapman’s contribution to ‘Four Plus: Writing DNA’ tackles the problem of making a work in sound, through the use of a voice and textual material. He has worked collaboratively with developer Marcus Howarth, producing a piece of software that is able to subject text to various levels of manipulation. The recorded piece included in the show has been produced with the help of Louise Simon and Klif Fuller, both members of the Wellcome Trust’s Library and Information Service staff.

The Song of the Whale engages with the exhibition’s theme in a number of ways; much of the content of the piece might appear to be appropriate in a straightforward sense as it is drawn from the published histories of the discovery of DNA structure. But the piece, in the process of its production, is also a parallel to the replication and mutation which are fundamental qualities of the genetic machine. As with natural selection, to follow this pattern might be to give the piece a measure of survival value in its environment.

"I have been making work for some time which looks at the place of error and the concept of failure within creative production. As a consequence, this present line of thinking, and the current work, would seem to be related in a useful way."

The work produced for this exhibition lets Chapman employ some of his recent research into writers exploring the materiality of language and the limits of sense in writing. This is appropriate for an exhibition which celebrates the much-debated historical text (1953 'Nature' paper), and allows the discourse surrounding the subject to become a resource in the making of the work. In this respect, the piece has a general relation to archives and their use in creative practice. The work has drawn on Internet sources and generally available printed material. Chapman works with textual material in a way that causes it to mutate, producing, from a starting point in the familiar discourse around the history of the discovery of DNA structure, a kind of errant or distracted narrative.

An Asterisk Placed Centrally On the Page
On the day, four or five years ago, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed by all parties involved, Tony Blair made a public statement. In it, he expressed a wish to “draw a line under the bloody past”. This is an odd phrase. It is one of the kind that seems, inexplicably, to appear more frequently (in newspapers, in television interviews, in the conversation of friends) after one first begins to consider exactly what it means. For the reader or listener, to imagine the circumstances literally produces conflicting senses which will not be reconciled: is the figure meant to indicate time as a continuum progressing in a downwards direction, with our present moment protected from the violence and hatred of the past (above) by the performatively produced barrier? The line being drawn could be a kind of page break, or a mark of the kind made to help add a column of figures. But in the latter case, would the ‘sum total’ not be inscribed under the line – that is to say, in the same partition in which we are being asked to picture ourselves? And would this total not have the precise result of infecting our present with the same violence and bloodshed that was intended to be segregated off into the past? No victim of violence would argue that the events should be forgotten. The line drawn in this case, then, has to be understood more as a kind of filter; a barrier against which certain objects are stopped, while others are allowed to pass.

An asterisk placed centrally on the page between two paragraphs – or any of a variety of other gaps in the written or spoken text – is a similar gesture; there is a termination which allows one to begin again. And yet, the beginning is not fresh; something gets stranded, something else gets past. Perhaps the skill in writing is an ability to modulate the use of these breaks, to cause readers to accelerate through the ease of continuity between sentences before confronting them, as it were, with an obstacle that must be negotiated more slowly. To read, in this sense, is to find one’s way through a carefully constructed course. It is to risk entrapment or broken limbs. But superimposed over this topography produced by the writer’s guile, another layer of fracturing which may be a result of peculiarities in the act of reading as well as in the way a piece has been written, causes interference patterns that are impossible to predict. The frequency of sense is inconsistent and this inconsistency is, itself, productive of meaning.

Contemplating these things, you might remember a park in which you played as a child.

Separating two streets in the town, this recreation area slopes steeply on both sides towards a stream which runs through the centre. The water is visible before it is directed underground into a concrete pipe similar to the one from which it emerges a hundred yards or so further up. At both openings, a steel grill is in place, perhaps to stop children – like yourself – from attempting a journey through the pipe towards that spot of light in the far distance. The grill also has the effect of catching a variety of objects washed down at times when there is sufficient water to carry them. Against the bars is caught; 1) a heavy duty blue polythene sack which once contained animal feed or chemical fertiliser, 2) several pieces of timber, 3) a plastic bucket, 4) an aggregate of smaller detritus, circling and making visible a current in the water which is its organizing principle.

When Francis Crick and James Watson published their findings on the structure of DNA, their conclusion, indicating that they were aware of the remarkable consequences of their work, was delivered with notorious understatement. “It has not,” they commented, “escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” The results of the discovery, accepted as one of the most momentous produced by science, might seem to be relegated by this remark to little more than a footnote. But the smallness of the aperture which Crick and Watson afford us onto the field produced by the discovery of the genetic replicator, has the effect of bringing the vastness of this new space into focus. To be faced with an expanse of implications and possibilities is, paradoxically, to be halted for a moment, but only before being drawn all the more rapidly down one route or another.

As a by-product of their expression – almost by a kind of reverse move – Crick and Watson betray in their paper something of the exuberant enjoyment and vitality they found in the working process of their inquiries. In more recently recorded interviews, they testify to the incompleteness of their knowledge, and the poverty of their professional experience when approaching the questions that needed to be addressed during this crucial period. Even taking into account a certain level of mythologizing, it is clear that their collaboration was a peculiar, inconsistent, unstable mechanism. Their facility was, perhaps, a willingness to embrace this inconsistency; to use it, very much like the microscopic object of their inquiry, as a productive machine.