Can art and science co-exist? RAC exhibit says yes

When you walk intoRochester Art Centerthis summer, prepare to interact with the exhibits, as well as your own genetic code.


When you walk into Rochester Art Center this summer, prepare to interact with the exhibits, as well as your own genetic code.

"Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code" is meant to teach visitors about their genes.

The exhibit was developed by the Smithsonian Museum and is presented and sponsored by the Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine.

Viewers walk through sections of the display where they’ll learn about genomics, the impact of DNA on medicine and therapy, and answer ethical questions about the use of genetic information in research. The exhibit doesn’t stop there, though. The RAC is filling the entire building, bottom to top, with art and displays related to the human genome.

Art and science in the same building?


Sheila Dickinson, RAC’s interim curator of art and public programs, doesn’t think that’s strange at all. "Whatever an artist decides to create is always new, and science is about new things - it’s about a discovery made through trial and error," Dickinson said. "And that’s how art is really made as well. It’s through experimentation and trial and error, and doing new things. … In terms of science and art, I think there’s a natural coalescence and coming-together."

RAC sourced collections related to genomics and genetic diseases from all over the U.S. However, when asking artists to create new, interactive pieces for the exhibit, Dickinson looked a little closer to home.

Two of the artists she found reside in Rochester, in fact: Shah Noor Shafqat and Eric Anderson. Their interactive art pieces are on exhibit on the second and third floors.

Shafqat’s installation, "Intimate Gravity," looks like a solar system with textured, colored discs spaced across a dark background. But those discs actually represent microscope slides, the Rochester artist said.

Shafqat’s daughter has eczema and dermatitis, and Shafqat studied the condition fruitlessly to find a cause. She came to the conclusion that it was genetic, and channeled her frustration into the piece, made of paint and textured, embroidered fabric, which mimics the feel of skin.

"I want people to go close to these discs and feel the rough texture of them," Shafqat said. "I want them to interact with it, because if they don’t feel it, they won’t know how the disease feels. When I was dealing with it as a mother, it was kind of heartbreaking, touching her baby skin and feeling it so rough."

Additional paintings to be displayed delve into the "fear and frustration of being a mother and possibly having another child, and passing that same disease to them," she said.

Anderson’s work has more of a tech-y feel, but you’re still encouraged to get close.


His first work, "Myriphon," is an interactive soundscape. After selecting genetic traits (widow’s peak or no widow’s peak, for example), visitors will wave their hands above a sensor to create music with instruments coded to those physical characteristics.

Anderson’s second piece, "First Person Plural," is a computer program that rebuilds participants’ faces using photos from its database.

Many of the 13,000 faces Anderson "fed" the program are from public databases. Some of those are the faces of people who died from opioid overdoses. The end result, Anderson said, is supposed to resemble the view a physician has of a single patient, filtered through the data of thousands of similar cases before them.

"The end product will never show one face," Anderson said. "It’s seeing your eyes, mouth, and jaw, and making you out of lots of other people."

What: Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code

When: June 23 through Sept. 21

Where: Rochester Art Center, 40 Civic Center Dr. SE


Cost: $5 adults, $10 families.

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