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Exhibition Review: I:DNA

16 March 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1039

I:DNA is an artistic installation created from research data collated by Dr Felicity Boardman from the University of Warwick in collaboration with Santé Theatre and Media Productions (STAMP). Dr Broadman's research explores the perspectives of adults and families living with genetic conditions towards the expansion of genetic medicine, particularly in relation to genetic screening. As a sociologist who researches human germline genome editing in relation to disease, disability and reproductive choice, I was intrigued by her research. 

In addition to my academic interest in the project, I also have a passion for public engagement with academic research. All in all this meant that I simply had to see I:DNA first-hand. I was finally able to view the installation in March 2020 while it was at the Millennium Point in Birmingham. 

The installation primarily consists of a nine minute video and a sculpture of a DNA helix, and was designed to represent a journey through the lives of families affected by inherited genetic conditions. The journey is expressed through the metaphor of an airport departure lounge and therefore starts with checking in to embark upon a journey. In this case, an unknown journey through life influenced by the genetic predispositions in your DNA. 

The concept entails passing through a mock security scanner to embark upon an unknown journey through life. While travellers are waiting in the departure lounge to experience their journey, they are shown a video which features stories and voices of people living with or are somehow affected by genetic conditions.

The insightful stories in the video were derived verbatim from interviews conducted by Dr Boardman, and are relayed in a mix of spoken word and song, interspersed with interesting statistics relating to genetic screening and diagnoses. The video is a culmination of extensive thought and a clear desire to represent the thoughts and experiences of people affected by genetic conditions. One person shared 'you can cope with things [disability], it is society that needs to change'. Hearing that statement resonated with me, both on a personal level and with my current research. The video loop is intellectually stimulating and an excellent learning resource for all, regardless of age or background. I sincerely hope the video is eventually made available online so that more people can benefit from engaging with it. 

The journey ends with the mesmerising sculpture of the DNA helix. As with most artistic sculptures, the 'unravelling DNA' decorated with various pieces of colourful luggage can be interpreted in many different ways. The unravelling helix evokes questions as to what advances in genetic screening and medicine might mean for our future lives, identities, health, relationships, as well as the societies in which we live. 

However, its official concept, as described in the sculpture's accompanying information, is to reflect genetic inheritance and the genetic baggage we all carry. Initially, I thought the luggage represented that people can be carriers of genetic conditions, ie people can know they are a carrier of a specific condition, but sometimes this is not known, hence departing on an journey to explore the unknown of your DNA through genetic screening. I would be interested to know what others thought the helix with luggage meant when they initially saw the sculpture. 

The installation is currently touring the UK, and is complimented by an awesome online interactive storytelling experience to enable greater engagement with it. The interactive experience was created by Esther Appleyard-Fox, a visual artist, and BRiGHTBLaCK. The online experience can be easily shared and it is a fantastic way to instigate or continue conversations on the important topical matter of genomic medicine and genetic screening. 

Further discussion on I:DNA can be found on Twitter.

Warwick Medical School |  1 February 2020
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