We Saw It—Like a Flash

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We Saw It—Like a Flash
Video, 46 minutes, 2003

I was approached by a curator to propose a new work inspired by the archives of the scientists who discovered the structure of DNA, for an exhibition at the Wellcome Trust, “Four Plus: Writing DNA”. Despite my efforts with the Rosalind Franklin archive in Cambridge, and Maurice Wilkins speaking at length on the British Library Sound Server, the archives didn’t speak to me. What I remembered of genetics I had learned from television. Television connected 1953 when Watson and Crick made the first model of the Double Helix to today’s genetic sequencing and cloning. Tomorrow’s World, Horizon, etc. – I would research the television archive, from early live television preserved on film, up to contemporary digital broadcasts. I would look for forgotten stories, overlooked patterns and obsessions among the grand narratives. I watched programmes on VHS tapes in the Wellcome archives, and once the BBC had given me permission I transferred and digitised masters on film and tapes of different vintages. This materiality together with my non-linear digital editing reflected the processes being discussed and illustrated in the footage: recombining DNA, editing genes. My film, We Saw It – Like a Flash, shows how television and genetics developed and together helped shape popular understandings of science over fifty years.[1] It charts the transformation of visual representations and metaphors of the gene, from the model of the Double Helix to Dolly the sheep and computers sequencing genomes. The film’s clips together show how conventional yet powerful tropes of science were polished and performed for television: the Eureka moment, the evil or innocent scientific genius, the positivism of scientific progress, personal stories versus the ‘objective’ truth, the drama of a race to a discovery. All these and more charted both the evolution of television and of genetics.[2] I didn’t understand all this at once. It was through endlessly watching, deconstructing and reassembling material from different times that I came to appreciate the inextricable relations between the craft, ideology and politics of television making. Extract from ‘An artist unpacks the archive’ in Andrew Prescott and Alison Wiggins, editors, Archives: Power, Truth, and Fiction, Oxford University Press: Oxford. (2023)

[1] Ruth Maclennan, We Saw It – Like a Flash, video, 45 minutes, 2003, Wellcome Collection, London.
[2] Ruth Maclennan, ‘We saw it — Like a Flash’, feature for Mute magazine, # 27, winter 2004

Copyright of the edit lies with the artist Ruth Maclennan
Copyright of the archival footage lies with the British Broadcasting Corporation; reproduced by the artist from the original programme master tapes and film rolls with permission and assistance from the BBC.
Commissioned by the Wellcome Trust for the exhibition, Four Plus: Writing DNA, 2003
Purchased by Wellcome Collection for permanent collection, exhibited in Medicine Now, 2007-2017

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