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Alistair Gentry, ‘Drosophila’ 2007, Three Times True video projection

Enlightenment is never evenly distributed: not even in the minds of enlightened people. There are always a few little scars of former ignorance, always a corner of an eye still cacked up with a residue of former irrationality. Edinburgh’s favourite monument, Walter Scott, wrote in Ivanhoe of Jews being ‘watchful, suspicious and timid.’ He also describes the character Isaac as suffering from typical Jewish ‘obstinacy and avarice’. While it was hardly an original slur, Scott did at least admit that Jewish people might have good reason to be suspicious of the Christians who exploited, persecuted and insulted them so mercilessly. Another bright spark of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, wrote rather more bluntly that he was ‘apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to whites’.

Moving back to the present, the constant attacks on religion by Richard Dawkins (of Selfish Gene and memetics fame/infamy) are almost as intemperate, irrational and dogmatic as the fundamentalists that obviously whip him up into such a paddy. He’s never claimed that any of his favourite books justify people being executed, censored,covered or blown up—unlike many of the radically unenlightened religious people who I agree are burdening us all these days. He’s undoubtedly the proud owner of a serious intellect, and does still have some legitimate grip of his high horse’s reins. Unfortunately, the whole approach of his ‘Brights’ group has an unreconstructed technocratic and patrician character that the likes of ‘Sir Wally’ or ‘Racist Dave’ would probably have recognised with an approving little nod. Even the name these ‘Brights’ have awarded themselves partakes of the familiar combination of slapworthy nerdiness and obnoxious arrogance that some scientists just can’t seem to help or shake off. It’s no coincidence that the phrase ‘nobody likes a smartarse’ originates in Britain, but the scientific community still occasionally seems unable or unwilling to accept that they’ll never get anyone to listen or engage in any kind of meaningful debate when the first thing they do is flummox people with jargon or just plain piss everybody off with their bad attitude.

Even science’s occasional stars who have social skills (Susan Greenfield springs to mind) sometimes wrestle unsuccessfully with the deeply rooted distrust that entangles any kind of intellectual activity. That suspicion is probably more ingrained and more pronounced in our culture than it has been for some time, and it comes from the top as well as the bottom. This is after all a period in which celebrities have their autobiographies written for them at 20 years old. It’s an era in which you needn’t even pretend you’ve done anything worth while to be celebrated and rewarded. What you say is less important than what you can get—or get away with—by saying it. You don’t necessarily need to have achieved much more than brand recognition to be in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery; have you seen the TV personalities (sic) on the walls there? I can simultaneously read, speak and wear an earpiece, too. Following that curatorial logic ad absurdum, they should have some paintings of people who can pat their heads and rub their tummies simultaneously, because that demonstrates a similar crossing point of competency and inconsequence.

Alistair Gentry, 'Speciation Map', 2007, Three Times True video projection
Alistair Gentry, ‘Speciation Map’, 2007, Three Times True video projection

Artists also frequently battle anti-cerebral bias at every level, from curators who should know better, right up to government, who at this stage you’d hardly expect to have much time for anyone who’s too clever. Making art is your job? Really? And it takes you how long? You can’t be as essential to the well being of society as Kirsty Wark is.

Even some artists still seem ambivalent about the value of thought and ideas, a fact usually betrayed by their pusillanimous avoidance of the consequences or implications of what they make. Oh, I just do the work. I’m thinking primarily of the cutters and shitters here, literal or otherwise; the ones who never seem to have got over an adolescent anxiety about the human body and social relations.

Failure of paternity is also a recurring criticism of scientists, partly thanks to the long shadow cast by a century and a half of mad, bad, fictional scientists—the Frankenstein effect, cousin of the Van Gogh effect for artists—but there’s undeniably some validity to it as well. Some scientists and artists are only just beginning to think about actually exercising a modicum of responsible control over what messages they’re sending out, rather than merely dismissing anyone who disagrees with them or doesn’t get it as not being very Bright.

Golden ages and utopias don’t exist . At least not in the present.

Firstly, the word utopia means simply ‘no place’. It does not exist. Ceci n’est pas un endroit. Secondly, in Thomas More’s original Utopia, people have to follow strict and rather arbitrary rules. The usual rich old men are in control, and everyone else must always be doing something productive. There’s a constant buzz of puritan prejudice against anything that makes life enjoyable. The state regards atheists as untrustworthy at best, at worst positively seditionary. I certainly wouldn’t want to go there, and Dickie Dawkins would have an apoplexy within five minutes of stepping off the boat. Actually, I was wrong. This country does exist, it’s called the USA and I never want to live there either.

Despite my derision-with-hindsight, More and his peers considered what he was writing so radical that he hid behind a character and published it in Latin so the masses didn’t get any funny ideas. His circumspection not withstanding, he still ended up being the only headless, posthumously canonised lawyer to provoke so many complicated daydreams. Now there are as many perfect worlds as there are people with imaginations. But all utopias area like; they’re always hedged around with rules, or literally hidden from the outside world. They have to be; otherwise they’d implode under the pressure of how people really are. The fictional Shangri-Laonly functions because almost nobody can find it; its various Marxist, Feminist and Otherist kin ditto. The progressive or radical utopia—the kind Enlightenment thinkers might have hoped or imagined that their reforms might bring about—has to lie elsewhere and most likely far in the future as well. Conservatives tend to look backwards because the present is always such a let down. The unenlightened mourn idealised historical utopias of decades or centuries past. Of course these never really existed either.

Alistair Gentry, 'Sheep Splice', 2007, Three Times True video projection
Alistair Gentry, ‘Sheep Splice’, 2007, Three Times True video projection

You can’t know whether you’re having a golden age or not while you’re in one— or while you’re not in one, as the case may be. That’s because you only know about the past by the fragments of it that hang around in the present, and in not knowing the future you can also rarely predict whether any given aspect of it is going to improve or deteriorate. Other people will come along later and decide whether on balance what you did made things worse or made things better.Sometimes it’s neither. Sometimes you just make things different.

Dolly the sheep is not real . She’s in the National Museum of Scotland, but she is non-existent. If you’ve ever seen a real sheep,or smelled one, you know that the thing you’re looking at there is not a sheep. Dolly’s all white and fluffy, like she’s been in a tumble dryer. In fact, she could quite easily have been laundered since she’s now just a skin with glass eyes stretched over a taxidermy form. And anyway, just because a museum or anyone else says an object is what it is, doesn’t necessarily make it so. They say it’s Dolly, but it could be any sheep, or not a sheep at all. Ceci n’est pas une sheep.

Although she’s being presented as an icon in a Madame-Tussaud’s-do-the-Beckhams sense, Dolly’s actually more like an icon on your computer’s desktop. Something you click on and the whole back end does some kind of inscrutable maths, automagically unloading a whole nexus of issues, complexes and imagery in yo’ unsuspecting ass: motherhood and family—though, despite her mumsy name, she’s actually named after Dolly Parton, a crude reference to her being cloned from a mammary cell; we have the mental scars from a hundred B movies—Dolly was originally called 6LL3, which I like better because it’s so sci-fi; our ambivalence and squeamishness about farming; Jason and the Golden Fleece; birth, death and our selfish fear of how both change our lives when we’re not the ones checking in or out; our awareness of nature’s cruelty versus the equally certain knowledge that human beings can be sick bastards; our love of cute animals versus our need to slaughter things and eat them; Nazis; the hope that someone clever will do something to save us all before our own terrifying moral weakness does us in.

I’m absolutely fascinated by all this. There’s enough material for a whole career’s worth of work, if I wanted to be the ‘Genetics Guy’ for the rest of my life, like Rachel Whiteread’s the ‘Casting Empty Spaces Lady’ or Ron Mueck’s the ‘Quite Realistic Figures Made a Bit Bigger or Smaller Bloke’. I don’t, as it happens, but it’s still absorbing. I’ll be satisfied with making a film about genomics that doesn’t feature the double helix, cell nuclei, pipettes and test tubes, or spewing readouts of Gs, As, Ts and Cs. Another thing that interests me (and that many scientists seem to fret constantly about) is the widespread idea that genomics and the ever-increasing mastery of DNA are innovations as revolutionary as the wheel or the printing press. The consensus in the field seems to be that it isn’t, and that media speculation about the whole thing has mostly been highly irresponsible and unrealistic, exaggerating the risks or giving false hope.

Alistair Gentry, 'Human Hox Faces', 2007, Three Times True video projection
Alistair Gentry, ‘Human Hox Faces’, 2007, Three Times True video projection

It’s also about narratives, which are a major concern in all my work—the narratives that are imposed on complex ideas and issues by the mass media, and the narratives that we all either consciously or unconsciously participate in, scientists very much included. Craig Venter, for example, was a driving force behind the Human Genome Project and obviously sees himself in a heroic role. The ‘human genome’ sequence is less universal than you may imagine; it’s rumoured that a large proportion of the DNA for the project came from one male donor. The biggest bitches suggest it was Venter himself. Beset by this kind of speculation, he’s now sailing round the world, living out the tragic rejection part that’s apparently necessary to his Joseph Campbell story arc.

The fact that thinking about her provokes all this suggests Dolly is one of the more useful non-existent things. There’s a lot of research going on to do with every aspect of how we live and function (or malfunction) as human beings, and a lot of thinking about that research and what we’re going to do with it. A large proportion of it is happening in Scotland without most people having any idea it’s going on. The Wilmut team made hundreds of defective clones in Edinburgh before 6LL3 was born six years ago. Though it is a bit weird, in reality there’s nothing particularly sinister about it. But who knew? At the Genomics Forum where I’ve been working on a film, there are specialists in security, plant genomics and intellectual property (among others) which gives you some idea of how many and how long are the tentacles of genomics. I’ve been at meetings where scientists themselves are surprised at how little they know of what other professionals, other institutions or other countries are doing with DNA sampling, stem cells or the industries and pseudo-sciences that are rapidly growing up around them.

In the future, some of these things will improve some peoples’ lives. A few of them will do things to individuals and our society that are unremittingly horrible. There’s no golden age occurring and there never was. It’s a crypto-Enlightenment if it’s anything at all, just a lot of stuff happening. Some of it we understand and some, not so much.That may seem either pessimistic or pedantic distinction. Same as it ever was, same as it ever was. Except I think everything’s a little bit better than it ever was, if only because we’ve got several millennia’s-worth of other peoples’ mistakes and break throughs to cushion us.

Not for all of 6.6 billion of us. Most of us don’t appear to be seeing much illumination from our Enlightenment. But there are only two directions possible, and backwards is my least favourite. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to abandon progress and in doing so inevitably go back to a time where you could be old and used-up at 40, or see ten of your 15 children die before they hit double figures.Enlightenment does exist. We just haven’t achieved it yet. A golden age would be good, right about now. But Enlightenment is hard.

Alistair Gentry is artist in residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, University of Edinburgh