Three Times True 2007-2013

Animation, video installation

“He had bought a large map representing the sea, without the least vestige of land, and the crew were well pleased for they found it to be a map they could all understand.”

Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark, 1876.

A large scale, triple screen video installation made during my residency at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, University of Edinburgh, Scotland. It was first shown during January and February of 2007 at the University’s Old College quadrangle (outside the Talbot Rice Gallery). Old College is a large neo-classical building in Edinburgh city centre, designed by Robert Adam. Three Times True was remastered for a show at Detroit Institute of Arts in 2011, and re-remastered and restaged in 2013 for the ESRC’s genomics conference in Westminster, London. Following the success of Three Times True ESRC GP+RF also commissioned a companion piece, Ideograph, as an animated digital mural. Images from the installation have featured in various magazines and on book covers.


The images in Three Times True were inspired by research on or applications of genomics, genetics, heredity, cloning and stem cells. The installation also included an alphabetical listing of the most poetic, interesting or funny gene names that I uncovered during my own research, starting with “Agnostic” and ending with “Zipper”. The title, like the film’s epigraph, comes from Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark in which explorers reach their destination with the aid of a blank map.

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One of my aims was to make something inspired by genomics, genes and biotechnology, with the look of microscopy but without resorting to the clichéd images of scrolling GTAC arrays and the double helix, which have already been fully appropriated, assimilated and neutralised by the advertising industry and Hollywood. I also wanted to put as much distance as possible between this work and the expressions of body horror and biological anxiety that seem to be the default when artists get involved in life sciences. The animations use Chinese and Japanese characters (or their radicals) as analogues or pointers to the biological/biochemical processes involved in DNA replication or protein coding, and their effects in living organisms. Some of the characters in the stills on this page can be read as “mother”, “stem” (as in stem cell) and “heart”. There are many others in the films and in the accompanying book. The super-saturated palette and prismatic effects are inspired by the multicoloured, fluorescent “jellyfish” proteins used to mark different types of cells for viewing under a microscope.

Three Times True
Three Times True

The look and concept of the film was also somewhat inspired by the developments that were happening at the time in synthetic biology, which was little known to the general public or mass media. Recently, of course, synthetic biology has been all over the world’s news.

I’m pleased to say that images from Three Times True have been in demand by scientists for book covers, talks and symposia; one was used as the cover of a synthetic biology book called ‘Nature After the Genome’, for example.

I also made a book, initially available as a limited edition, reworked and reissued in 2011 as an unlimited print on demand edition. I worked on the original in the same Georgian gallery (formerly part of the library) where Charles Darwin studied before he gave up medicine and decided to become a naturalist.

Some images from the book are below: Primer pages lacking vital information and activity pages suggesting activities that even the most advanced researchers struggle to answer simply (top and third rows); animated dynamic haplogroup icons (second row); evolution of human skin pigmentation, with shifting shiro [white] and kuro [black] labels (fourth row), plus diagram of the founder effect; in the bottom row, an alphabetical listing of colloquial names for genes with known functions, circa 2007.

Book design by Alistair Gentry and Jane Grainger at Grainger Dunsmore, Edinburgh.




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