A photograph taken by I. K. Inha, the 19th century Finnish anthropologist, appears in a number of Chris Dorsett’s early museum installations and video pieces. It shows two brothers from the remote Karelian village of Uhtua ritualistically chanting their family tree. They rhythmically pull each other back and forth as they perform their geneological history. So too with the experimental sensibilities of contemporary artists – during a career dedicated to pioneering exchanges between experimental art practices and the museum sector, Dorsett has pushed and pulled at the publicly imagined past that our collection-holding institutions classify and conserve. Having retired from art school teaching and PhD supervision, he continues his research as an affiliate of the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, the institution in which he first developed his particular approach to interventionist exhibition-making and where his archives have now been located.
The photographic documentation that has been accessioned records the unexpected and alternative engagements Dorsett curated in this anthropological museum from the mid-1980s onwards. His archives also document the follow-up projects he developed with collections and heritage sites in Sweden, Finland, Hong Kong and Brazil. As each project became more socially representative, the artists who joined him were those who most wanted to challenge the scientific bases on which museums have collected and displayed cultural material. As a result, his highly collaborative exhibitions often anticipated the post-colonial re-assessments that are now such a feature of museum life.
As a founding member of CNoS, Dorsett describes the process of ‘negotiation’ as a push-pull action in which art and science struggle to reinterpret and reconfigure collected specimens and artefacts. In the curated conversations he organised on the commuter train he shared with researchers from Newcastle University’s Institute of Genetic Medicine, he compared his museum activities to working on the inactive DNA that travels across the generations as so-called ‘junk’. As the discussants swapped ideas, a moment of equillibrium was reached when the scientists described how genetic material need not be functional in order to have evolutionary consequences. The arts and museum based participants could only agree – it is something like this that keeps them researching collections and archives. Consequently, varients of the geneticists’ non-coding-code motif now regularly occur in Dorsett’s artworks and publications.