Sarah Cook

Curator / Dundee Fellow at University of Dundee

Bachelor of Arts (Hons.), Contemporary Studies and History, 1996

I was in a position to pay attention to something that other people weren’t.

Ticking away on a computer screen in the lobby of a building at the University of Dundee in Scotland, is the entire sequence of the human genome. The entire thing. The constant parade of the letters GCAT, that represent the building blocks of DNA, is almost endless.

“It takes a very long time to read the genome from beginning to end,” says Sarah Cook. “It will take your entire lifetime, 80 years.”

Next to it, another screen, a boxy black video monitor, shows clips from old TV shows edited down to single words. Every word you hear begins with the letter showing on the first screen. The computer picks the matching words randomly from a vast database.

“So you might get Afghanistan, Afghanistan, terror, God, cats or whatever… Those clips of television showing what the world was like and what was happening in the 1990s, all of those words, make for a kind of poetry,” Sarah explains. “It is a memorial to the decoding of the human genome.”

Art imitating life, culture and human achievement. Take that, Oscar Wilde.

This work, called ‘Stutterer’ is an art installation by artists Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead that Sarah commissioned in her role as curator of LifeSpace, the research gallery in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee.  She is also a new media art historian, a lecturer, a research fellow, an invited speaker at museums and galleries around the world.

Sarah’s interest in contemporary art’s ability to communicate something about our ‘information age’ began when she was at King’s. She was part of the first class of Contemporary Studies. She studied the philosophy of technology. She became interested in how art could reveal a deeper understanding of social and political thought. The seeds were planted.

Sarah went on to New York’s Bard College for an MA in Curatorial Studies in the mid-nineties and turned her mind to a fascinating new field of study.

“Web browsers had just been released. Artists were starting to make art on the web and with the net. I had had the grounding in the philosophy of technology and I wasn’t afraid of that, artists using technology in their art (though I had some catching up to do – artists had been using media technologies, such as video, since the 1970s),” Sarah says. “However, I became aware that more traditional curators in museums were playing it a bit safe with thinking that what artists were doing with new technology wasn’t relevant to the history of art and so they weren’t going to pay attention. So I was in a position to pay attention to something that other people weren’t.”

And she did. She went to the Banff New Media Institute as a curatorial resident. This was the place to go to learn what artists and engineers were doing with electronic media (she later co-authored with Sara Diamond Euphoria and Dystopia, a compendium of thought on art and technology). She went on to get her PhD in the UK, studying the “interface between museums and new media art”.

And now, in Dundee, Sarah is pushing the boundaries, bringing scientists and artists together “to see what they can make”.  She is part of a shift in the role of the curator. She says: “It’s moved, as contemporary art has moved to be more of a social and public experience often outside the museum. So curators have changed their roles, to be more like cultural brokers. ”

And on those screens - GCAT continue their march. The spoken words, poetry for our technologically mediated, data-driven times.

Photo Credit: Ernst van Deursen

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