Genetic Automata
Captions and transcripts

‘Genetic Automata’ is an ongoing body of video works by artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, exploring race and identity in an age of avatars, video games and DNA ancestry.

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What is the role of science in shaping how we think about race?

Artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy pose this question in ‘Genetic Automata’. This four-part series of video installations explores understandings of race and identity in the age of avatars, videogames and DNA ancestry.

Achiampong and Blandy’s collaboration is grounded in their friendship, love of popular culture and shared interest in the postcolonial condition. Much of their joint work investigates the difference in their experiences. Achiampong is a working-class Black man of Ghanaian heritage from east London and Blandy is a middle-class white man of English heritage from west London.

‘Genetic Automata’ explores scientific racism: the false belief there are innate differences and abilities between races. This argument was used to legitimise colonialism and discrimination throughout the twentieth century. The human genome was decoded in 2003 and proved that there is no biological basis for race. But systemic racism is so embedded in society that ideas about racial difference persist.

Merging historical artefacts with digital environments, ‘Genetic Automata’ considers how scientific racism currently manifests. It also presents hopes for an alternative future.


The exhibition premieres ‘_GOD_MODE_’, the newest part of the series, commissioned by Wellcome Collection, Black Cultural Archives and Wellcome Connecting Science. The films can be viewed in any order.

Please be advised the works in this exhibition openly address themes of racism, ableism and discrimination. If you would like further information, please speak to a member of staff.

Lobby display case with artists’ reference material

This multimedia scrapbook offers a snapshot of material that Achiampong and Blandy reference in ‘Genetic Automata’. It ranges from popular culture, such as music videos and videogames, through to critical theory and literature. 

1. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain (2016). PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Steam [Game]. Tokyo, Japan: Konami.

2. Hollow Knight (2017). Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac, Linux and Wii U [Game]. Adelaide, Australia: Team Cherry.

3. Octavia E. Butler (1993). Parable of the Sower. Headline Ltd, 2019.

4. Audre Lorde (1979). The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House. Penguin Modern, 2018.

5. Charles Darwin (1859). On the Origin of Species. Macmillan Collectors Library, 2017. (Originally published as ‘On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’)

6. Metrocosm (2016). Country-to-country net migration (2010–2015) [Map].

7. Hideo Kojima (1998). Metal Gear Solid [Game]. Konami. Japan. Excerpt 3 min 37 sec

In this non-interactive cut-scene, the game’s protagonist, Solid Snake, learns from his twin brother, Liquid Snake, that they have been genetically engineered and are part of a Genome Army. Metal Gear Solid is one of the many games with bio-terrorist plots referenced in Genetic Automata.

8. Frantz Fanon (1952). Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008.

9. Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert (2018). W.E.B Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America. Princeton Architectural Press.

A compilation of groundbreaking data visualisations created by American sociologist WEB Du Bois. He first presented them at the 1900 Paris Exposition and used them to advocate for African American progress. A version of the font Du Bois designed for the posters features in this exhibition.

10. Francis Galton (1892). Finger Prints: The classic 1892 treatise. Dover Publications, 2005.

11. James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg (1999). The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the transition to the Information Age. Touchstone, 2020.        

12. David Blandy (2019). Emoji compilation, 1 min 3 sec.

13. Michael Jackson (1991). Black or White. Dangerous, Epic Records, 1 min excerpt.

This silent clip from the music video for Michael Jackson’s song against racism shows people of different ages, genders, ethnicities and body types morphing into one another. It was a direct influence for a similar sequence involving videogame avatars for Achiampong and Blandy’s first film in the series, A Terrible Fiction.   

14. Art Spiegelman (1986). The Complete MAUS. Penguin, 2003.

15. Momondo (2016). The DNA Journey. Excerpt 6 min 15 sec.

16. James Tynion IV (2017). Eugenic. BOOM! Studios, 2018.

17. Nnedi Okorafor, Tana Ford and James Devlin (2019). LaGuardia: A very modern story of immigration. Berger Books.

18. Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece (2008). Incognegro: A graphic mystery. Berger Books, 2018.

Legacies of Eugenics

The latest part of the ‘Genetic Automata’ series, ‘_GOD_MODE_’, probes the cultural legacy of eugenics. This movement was started by Francis Galton at University College London in the early 1900s. “Eugenics” comes from the Ancient Greek for “good in birth”. Galton coined the term to refer to his idea that selective breeding could improve humans.

The objects in this room, and others like them, feature in ‘_GOD_MODE_’. They were owned by Galton and Karl Pearson, a follower of Galton and the first Professor of Eugenics at University College London.  Eugenicists created a hierarchy of people based on race, character and health. They aimed ultimately to rid society of those they deemed unfit by encouraging only those they considered to have desirable traits to have children.

The items on display were used to measure and categorise people. Their results were presented as “objective science” to support eugenic beliefs.

All objects lent courtesy UCL Science Collections.

Please be advised this display contains antisemitic, racist and ableist content. There are references to sexist discrimination and suicide. Please ask staff if you would like further information.

Measuring equipment

Head callipers

Made around 1882 by Murray and Heath, London

This instrument measured and recorded head size and shape. It was used in Francis Galton’s first Anthropometric Laboratory, founded in 1884. Anthropometry involves the systematic measurement of humans’ physical features. Galton believed these to be indicators of ability and behaviour. He promoted the laboratory in the spirit of competition. People willingly submitted their data to find out how they contributed to the nation’s fitness. Galton would go on to conduct his later studies without his subjects’ knowledge.

Pocket registrator

Made around 1880 by Hawkesley and Son

Francis Galton designed this counting device to secretly study people in crowds. He would conceal it in his gloved hand or pocket and use a lever mechanism to categorise the people he observed as one of up to five ‘types’, depending on his focus of study. Each was activated by a different finger. Galton used a similar invention to sort women into three categories: ‘attractive’, ‘indifferent’ and ‘repugnant’. He applied his own assessment of beauty as an indicator of superior breeding potential. 



Plaster death mask of Carl Gottlob Irmscher, 1840.
Plaster death mask of Johanne Rehn, 1852.Part of Robert Noel's Casts of Heads of Criminals & Suicides series.
Plaster life mask of Count Franz von Thun un Hohenstein, 1838. Part of Robert Noel's Casts of Intellectuals series.

Phrenology is the false belief that skull shape determines personality and intellect. Phrenologist Robert Noel collected these busts to analyse the difference between criminals’ and intellectuals’ heads. According to Noel, the areas on criminals’ skulls indicating benevolence are small, while areas related to destructiveness are large. The criminals’ busts were cast after their execution and without consent. The intellectuals in Noel’s study were often his friends or celebrities of the day. Phrenology was highly fashionable in the early 1800s, but was already discredited as a science by the 1840s. Nevertheless, they found a home in Karl Pearson’s eugenics department, later the department of statistics.

Death mask of Francis Galton


This was cast from Francis Galton’s corpse so portraits could be made from it. Death masks were a commonplace Victorian practice for members of high society, and not necessarily related to phrenology. Galton did have his head measured by London’s Phrenological Institute as a young man. The results found him to be full of “self-will, self-regard and no small share of obstinacy” with undistinguished intellectual capabilities. This was perhaps why Galton himself did not subscribe to phrenology.

Studies of Jewish school children

Composite photographs of human faces

Lantern slides
Around 1882 

Francis Galton commissioned these photographic slides of Jewish school boys. He used them to supposedly demonstrate that Jewish people had distinct facial characteristics. Photographs of individuals were layered together to investigate a racialised ‘type’. The largest sample used as ‘evidence’ for this was just 13 boys. Conclusions based on these racist assumptions were shared widely and circulated in academic journals.   

Please be advised this case contains antisemitic content.

Box of 16 glass eyes

Designed by Dr Rudolf Martin
Around 1903–7 

Karl Pearson and his research partner Margaret Moul used this eye colour gauge in a study of Russian and Polish Jewish school children living in the East End of London in the 1920s. They used eye colour, vision and intelligence tests to measure the eugenic worth of immigrant children. Their report was published as ‘The problem of alien immigrations into Great Britain’. Claiming to be an objective analysis of the effects of “indiscriminate immigration”, it fuelled antisemitic domestic policies.  



11 minutes 41 seconds
Commissioned by Wellcome Collection, Black Cultural Archives and Wellcome Connecting Science
Wellcome Collection

‘_GOD_MODE_’ considers the roots and implications of scientific racism. It explores how eugenic practices have left traces across society today, from education to medicine and politics.

The work’s title refers to a version of videogame play where the player is rendered invincible. It is filmed in two halves. The first half, voiced by David Blandy, alludes to the far-reaching consequences of Francis Galton’s eugenic legacy, including intelligence tests and laws governing reproductive rights. It features footage filmed at UCL’s Science Collection and the Wellcome Genome Campus, a centre for contemporary genomic research.

In the second half, voiced by Larry Achiampong, we enter a videogame environment and follow a huge spider as it travels through different landscapes. This references the West African folk legend of Anansi, a demi-god who changes form to achieve their aims. The narrative questions whether empathy is enough in the struggle against injustice and asks: what actions do we need to take to enact real world change?

A Lament For Power

13 minutes, 15 seconds
Commissioned by Art Exchange, University of Essex and supported by Arts Council England
Wellcome Collection

The second film in the ‘Genetic Automata’ series questions the ethics behind advances in biological science and medicine.

It is told from the fictionalised viewpoint of Henrietta Lacks, a Black American woman whose cancer cells were taken without her or her family’s knowledge in 1951. Her cells became known anonymously as HeLa cells. They are considered to be immortal because they can replicate endlessly. Lacks’s cells have been used in some of the world’s most significant biomedical developments, including the polio and COVID-19 vaccines, and decoding the human genome.

The film references the controversial videogame Resident Evil 5, which is based on a plot about bio-terrorism in West Africa. It features Black people who appear as zombies that are designed to be killed repeatedly. The film draws parallels with the undying nature of the HeLa cell line and associated concerns about agency and consent.

Henrietta Lacks’s contributions to science are explored further in the ‘Being Human’ exhibition located on this floor.  

Race and genetics

Sasha Henriques, Genetic counsellor and PhD candidate at Wellcome Connecting Science talks about race and genetics.

Dust to Data

15 minutes, 25 seconds
Commissioned by FACT Liverpool
Wellcome Collection

The third instalment of the series examines the tangled histories of archaeology, colonialism and eugenics.

It is grounded in correspondence between US sociologist and civil rights leader W E B Du Bois and Flinders Petrie, a British Egyptologist and archaeologist, exchanged in 1912. Petrie was closely associated with the eugenics movement at University College London. He believed there was a direct correlation between skull size, race and intelligence. He also used archaeology to justify colonialism. Petrie’s theories were rejected by Du Bois and other contemporaries, but embraced by the academic establishment at the time. He remains well respected as one of the founders of modern archaeology.

Larry Achiampong and David Blandy draw an analogy between archaeology and modern-day data-mining. Data-mining searches for patterns within large sets of information, such as in DNA databanks and algorithms used for social media. Both rely on fragments of evidence to construct origin stories about our past and present.

A Terrible Fiction

11 minutes 51 seconds
Commissioned by Arts Catalyst and supported by Arts Council England and Elephant Trust
Wellcome Collection

The initial chapter in Larry Achiampong and David Blandy's ‘Genetic Automata’ series investigates classification, categorisation and ordering of the natural world.

It highlights John Edmonstone, a formerly enslaved Black man living in Edinburgh, who taught taxidermy to Charles Darwin. Edmonstone gave Darwin the skills to preserve and study chaffinches from the Galapagos. This enabled Darwin to formulate the theory of natural selection. Edmonstone’s significance remains largely unacknowledged.

The film layers Darwin’s bird collection with the artists’ skin and animated avatars inspired by their own DNA ancestry results. Visually, it references videogames involving the misuse of genetic material, such as Metal Gear Solid and the Final Fantasy and Metroid series.

Ancestry testing kits are becoming increasingly popular. They are often promoted and discussed as if race has a biological basis. Yet scientists agree this is untrue. The film asks whether this ‘terrible fiction’ is any different from the scientific racism of the past.


Curator: Shamita Sharmacharja

Exhibition Producer: Matt Nightingale

Registrar: David Chan

Production Manager: Christian Kingham

AV Technician: Jeremy Bryans

3D Design: JA Projects

2D Design: Mark El-khatib Studio

Graphic Production: BAF Graphics / Impress Print Services Ltd

Construction: Exib Limited

Audio Description: VocalEyes

British Sign Language: Remark!

Acoustic Consultants: Gillieron Scott Acoustic Design

We would like to thank Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, Black Cultural Archives, Wellcome Connecting Science, University College London Science Collections, Lisa Anderson, Subhadra Das, Beth Elliott, Damian Hebron, Sasha Henriques, Ruth Horry, JC Niala, and our colleagues who have generously lent their expertise and ideas to this exhibition and contributed to its planning and delivery.

Where no credit line is shown on an object label, we have sourced the item as display material for the exhibition. We are committed to respecting the copyright of works on display. if you believe any content infringes your rights or those of someone else, please contact a member of staff.