Con­nect­ing the dots

ARTIST SU­SAN REYNOLDS ON THE HU­MAN NET­WORK

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - Michael Abatemarco

Artist Su­san Reynolds on the hu­man net­work

just five steps, you can link Mary As­tor to Kevin Ba­con. As­tute film buffs can do it in even fewer steps, per­haps, but here goes noth­ing. As­tor was in Meet

Me in St. Louis with Judy Gar­land, whose daugh­ter Liza Min­nelli was in Rent-a-Cop with Burt Reynolds, who was in Boo­gie Nights with Wil­liam H. Macy, who was in Mur­der in the First with Kevin Ba­con. That was easy — and it took only 10 min­utes or so to puz­zle out, af­ter hav­ing se­lected As­tor at ran­dom. Are we all that well-con­nected? Ge­net­ics says yes, and a grow­ing art move­ment called “net­work­ism” is help­ing us to see the con­nec­tions.

By its very na­ture, art that can be la­beled net­work­ism — a type of art that takes data as its sub­ject — is ab­stract. Net­work artists aren’t nec­es­sar­ily deal­ing with ob­serv­able sub­jects like a por­trait or still-life painter does. Rather, they take in­for­ma­tion, which is some­times in­com­plete, and de­velop com­po­si­tions based on those facts, look­ing for pat­terns and es­tab­lish­ing cor­re­spon­dences be­tween one data set and the next. “Net­work­ism, as de­fined by Manuel Lima, is map­ping pat­terns of in­for­ma­tion — any kind of sci­en­tific, tech­no­log­i­cal, or ge­netic data that’s avail­able — and there’s so much now,” Hills­boro-based vis­ual artist Su­san Reynolds said. Reynolds most re­cently ex­hib­ited her work at Art Santa Fe this sum­mer. “Net­work­ism is a new art form. It was coined about 15 years ago by Manuel, who got his MFA at Par­sons School of De­sign,” she said. “He did his grad­u­ate work on con­nect­ed­ness through the in­ter­net be­cause the in­ter­net was fairly new still.”

Reynolds’ own work in ge­nealog­i­cal re­search de­vel­oped be­cause of a fam­ily mys­tery. “My mother passed in 1978, and that’s when we learned that she’d been adopted, so we didn’t know her her­itage,” she said. “I’m the one in the fam­ily that kind of jumped into the ge­neal­ogy.” There are nu­mer­ous ways, per­haps even in­nu­mer­able ways, to de­pict ge­nealog­i­cal data in vis­ual form, but Reynolds doesn’t make plain the fact that her com­po­si­tions — which are made up of hand-drawn lines that rep­re­sent ge­netic re­la­tion­ships and col­ored dots that rep­re­sent peo­ple — are the re­sult of her re­search. They look much sim­pler and more freeform than they re­ally are, re­sem­bling fluid, or­ganic forms like sea anemones or jel­ly­fish that gen­tly rise and fall with the un­der­cur­rents. “Hav­ing grown up with no first cousins, to find out from my DNA that I’ve crossed the 600 thresh­old for fourth cousins or closer, it be­came an over­whelm­ing in­ter­est to me,” she said.

Each dot in her works on pa­per rep­re­sents an in­di­vid­ual who is known to Reynolds through her in­quiry

but uniden­ti­fied in the art­work. Ev­ery in­di­vid­ual dot is a cen­ter from which the drawn lines em­anate out­ward. In DNA #25, for in­stance, one dot is linked to 19 others and while she didn’t il­lus­trate it in this piece, each of those 19 are linked, as well, to many more peo­ple. These re­la­tion­ship help the viewer to un­der­stand, for ex­am­ple, why a game like Six De­grees of Kevin Ba­con is al­most al­ways suc­cess­ful. In the ab­stracted lin­eages Reynolds de­picts, the greater the num­ber of peo­ple rep­re­sented by her data, the greater the chances of dis­cov­er­ing un­ex­pected re­la­tion­ships grows. “I was draw­ing lit­tle DNA cir­cles try­ing to find sur­names to fol­low and see if they led to my mom,” she said. “They just evolved into big­ger forms.”

The steps that tie to­gether two in­di­vid­u­als who are re­lated by blood — even if only dis­tantly — could be nu­mer­ous. To sug­gest there are only six, as in the Kevin Ba­con game, might be over­sim­pli­fy­ing things in terms of the big­ger pic­ture ( ame pretty much sticks to ac­tors and movies), but the idea of con­nec­tiv­ity is sound, and ge­net­ics bears it out. “For me, it cel­e­brates one hu­man­ity,” she said. “You get your DNA done and you find out that you’re con­nected to all kinds of peo­ple and back­grounds.”

A chal­lenge and provo­ca­tion ex­ists be­cause of the fact that the data only ex­ists for those who have been tested. The num­ber is grow­ing, thanks to the avail­abil­ity of kits that al­low in­di­vid­u­als to test them­selves. But if so many con­nec­tions can be drawn on what is now only a small sam­pling of hu­man pop­u­la­tions, fur­ther data seems likely to in­crease the prob­a­bil­ity of greater ge­netic re­la­tion­ships among in­di­vid­u­als and groups. “There’s a sci­ence word — mycelium — for a root sys­tem of a par­tic­u­lar kind of fun­gus or plant that grows un­der­ground and ex­plodes out,” Reynolds said. “We’re liv­ing in a time of mas­sive global mi­gra­tion. Peo­ple are on the move to all kinds of new places, so the ge­netic pool, within one hun­dred, two hun­dred years, is go­ing to change dra­mat­i­cally. Mys­ter­ies are be­ing solved all over the world right now. Se­crets are be­ing un­veiled. I per­son­ally think it’s go­ing to make us a stronger hu­man race.”

We’re liv­ing in a time of mas­sive global mi­gra­tion. Peo­ple are on the move to all kinds of new places, so the ge­netic pool, within one hun­dred, two hun­dred years, is go­ing to change dra­mat­i­cally. — Su­san Reynolds

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