Around the World in 80 Days – Part 6: Germany

23 May 2013

Over the course of four months, Barry Gibb visited our major overseas programmes in Africa and Asia to make a film about Wellcome Collection’s Art in Global Health project. In the latest of his diary entries, Barry makes a brief stop somewhere a little closer to home: Berlin.

As a researcher back in the early 90s, I spent several months living and working in Berlin, Germany, doing a spot of ad-hoc science at the Max-Planck-Institute for Molecular Genetics. I remember buses that ran like clockwork, the intense cold and Tacheles, a huge department store that had become a squat and home to some of the most amazing art and raves.

Back at Tegel Airport, memories began fighting their way through the treacle of time as I made my way to meet Katie Paterson, the artist-in-residence at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK (who, before you ask, lives in Germany ­– hence my being here and not back home!).

Arriving at Katie’s place, she and her partner immediately welcomed me into the space in which Katie thinks and creates; a cubic, entirely white room. Whilst often filled with materials and objects of inspiration (offering clues to Katie’s cerebral interests), today the contents of this room were minimal – perfect for our interview.

Despite the studio being right beside a main road, we were a few storeys up – far enough away from the traffic to stop noise being too much of an issue. And, thanks to large windows all across this street facing wall, I was able to place Katie looking directly into a flood of natural light, making the most of a sunny day and her unusually bright, blue eyes.

 Katie P

The interview itself was an opportunity to gather material for the film but also to gain a deeper insight into how Katie sees the world. As it turns out, she is interested in nothingness, the absence of things: space and time. Within the context of her apartment, beyond the studio, this manifests itself in meteorite fragments and rocks of varying texture, a physical map of the moon, books about space. At the Sanger Institute, her discussions with scientists led her down a path of inquiry into the genetic heritage of humanity; where did the first humans emerge, how did they spread across the planet?

In Katie’s own words, “I believe work being undertaken in genome sequencing at the Sanger Institute can allow us to penetrate questions of existence: contemplate who we are, where we have come from and how we relate to one another, and enable us to be part of a complex decision-making process about the possible direction of our species.”

After the interview, with a deeper respect for Katie and her work, there followed a filming challenge – how do you show the internal creative processes of a person who, when not busy creating their works, spends her increasingly rare moments of tranquility deep in thought, formulating ideas? Shots of Katie simply staring into space seemed a little hackneyed so, fortunately, Katie shared that she keeps written notes, notes she was prepared to add to. Bingo.

There are so many nuances of human behavior, even within the simplest of actions, that I now knew we’d have enough coverage of Katie ‘thinking’. Wide and mid shots, macro shots, the pencil moving across the page, the eyes as they pause and consider. Finally, Katie introduced me to their two new kittens, fragile lumps of fluff with legs. These had nothing to do with DNA and human heritage but everything to do with fun and the promise of moments of levity between those deeper thoughts.

The next morning came all too quickly. Leaving for the airport at 4am, time suddenly felt very present. I was about to travel across countries and time zones, flying beneath stars that still filled the dark sky, bathing the planet in light from millions of years in the past. This sudden, profound awareness of space and time, I have called, the Paterson Effect.

Barry J Gibb

Barry J Gibb is a Science Multimedia Producer at the Wellcome Trust.