The human genome is a vast and complex set of instructions, which – with the exception of identical twins – is entirely unique to each of us. It comprises three billion pieces of information, represented by four letters A, T, C and G.
This deceptively simple string of letters holds potential answers to many of our biggest questions about human health and disease.
For Crick scientists, searching for patterns is one way to tackle the challenge of translating the genetic code into something understandable. During their time working with scientists at the institute, Sarah and Chu-Li became particularly intrigued by the human endeavour of searching for meaning within gigantic sequencing datasets, like hunting for a needle in a haystack.
Their resulting artwork,‘A New Music’ delves into the form, function and rhythm of the genome, highlighting the beauty and wonder of the natural world, whilst exploring the concept of the unknown as a source of inspiration. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the challenge faced by both artist and scientist to find new ways to articulate the abstract with clarity and meaning.
Sarah Howe: Poem recital
Poet Sarah Howe used a tiny section of the human genome to act as her poem’s ‘structuring spine’.
She explains, “… each line begins with a letter representing one of the DNA bases (adenine, thymine, cytosine, guanine) and ends with the corresponding letter on the helix’s opposite strand (A always pairs with T, C with G). The result is a weave of repeated sounds and rhymes the listener’s ear will pick up on, perhaps half-consciously”.
A New Music: Making sense of the noise
Chu-Li Shewring Soundscape
20:22 minutes. Featuring the voices of Crick researchers and poet Sarah Howe.
Sound artist Chu-Li Shewring worked with Sarah Howe’s poems, collections of recorded discussions with scientists, sounds captured from within Crick labs and white noise sounds found in nature.
She explains how the piece developed during her time at the Crick:
“As the conversations went on, the idea of identifying patterns within the noise of the genome sequence began to emerge time and time again. I started to become interested in exploring the idea of noise and how we find an understanding, or in the case of the genome, a pattern within that as a way to interpret what we see or hear … I’ve always found sonic ambiguity fascinating and how a micro-second of detail helps us to understand what we hear… It is impossible to listen to and understand everything – our ears have to focus in on the details, start to build up the rhythms in relation to one another and then anticipate what we might hear next.
“The only artificial sounds in the piece are generated white, pink and brown noise and an interpretation mediated via machine (as is DNA via a sequencer) beamed down by the now extinct Cassini from Saturn. Merging into a vibrating lightbulb filament picked up by a miniature microphone, this juxtaposition serves as a nod to both the enormous and tiny scale of DNA.”
Infinite Instructions: In Conversation
Listen to Sarah Howe, Chu-Li Shewring and the former Head of Advanced Sequencing as they met to discuss and reflect on the poetry commission.
Audio interview produced by Ellie Mackay.