Are answers what we’re looking for when we think about our identities? Ria Jade Hartley’s ‘Spit Kit’ presents and invites questions, but any answers are brought by the visitors to her laboratory in Birmingham Open Media’s space. Hartley presents herself in the role of your personal consultant, allowing a distance between performer and visitor that is filled by the visitor’s own personal journey. Hartley is gentle with her consultees. Her lab is dark and welcoming in contrast to the white bright clinic of a scientific DNA laboratory. By taking part you reveal and pull up what anchors you. Take a look at it. Perhaps it isn’t what you expected. Is that all right?
From birth there are categories for identifying yourself. Hartley presents visitors with the standard ethnic monitoring form. Where do you fit in? These categories are inadequate to describe you. Hartley shows a chart, with numbers on it. The numbers represent people who survived long enough to have a baby, who also lived long enough to have a baby, who also ... and so on until you, number one on the chart. This brings you into the pole position, the ultimate point on the chart and perhaps also a starting point. Number one, so what will you begin? Hartley invites the visitor to think about their legacy. It’s an open-ended question. In such a way Hartley inverts the formality of science, making the charts, the facts and the categories intimate and personal. This is all about you. Who you are, who you want to be, and helping you keep your choice.
Hartley uses the body as a cipher through which to think about what we’re made of. Specifically she uses the saliva in our bodies as a way to catch and hold our DNA codes. What could be more of an essential summary of you than your actual genetic code – the traces and pieces of those numbered antecedents on the family tree chart? But in a reading of your genetic recipe those numbered ancestors would be represented by ethnic categories instead of numbers, an expansion of the governmental monitoring form. Perhaps ‘Mixed heritage: white and black African’ is already not specific enough to describe your parental given ethnicity, but how could a form ever be long enough to list your true ‘mixed heritage’?
Other artists have explored personal identify through family history – the Kings of England’s ‘Where We Live and What We Live For’ explored father and son relationships with place and each other. Nic Green has explored her personal identity through ‘Fatherland’ and ‘Motherland’. Hartley follows the impulse to find identity through family to its farthest conclusion – DNA as a ladder back through time to link you to all of your ancestors. The potential deluge of data is overwhelming to think of so she brings it back to the personal, wondering how would it change you, the individual, to know exactly where you come from, at least on your maternal side?
It’s an emotional experience, both daunting and comforting. When asked about your own legacy you are confronted with the possibility of not being remembered, of being the last and only of your kind. Ultimately answers have to be provided by you, yourself. As for legacy you are invited to leave part of yourself with Hartley, your DNA, labelled by yourself to be cared for by her and to be included in her work for as long as that might last.