Working life | “Our experiences are massively different, but that combination is our strength” - Museums Association

Working life | “Our experiences are massively different, but that combination is our strength”

Yasmin Khan talks to multidisciplinary artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy
Yasmin Khan
Finding Fanon Part One, 2015. Photo By Claire Barrett
Finding Fanon Part One, 2015. Photo By Claire Barrett The Artists

Running until 11 February 2024 at the Wellcome Collection, 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, videogames and DNA ancestry. It is a joint commission by Wellcome Connecting Science, Wellcome Collection and Black Cultural Archives.

This interview with the artists took place before the exhibition opened on 8 June.

Why do you work together?

David Blandy: We met at the Whitechapel Gallery when he saw me rapping as part of a hip-hop talk and suggested adding beats to my rhymes. Together we developed new performance work that evolved into our Finding Fanon trilogy exploring the history of empire and colonialism and how that affects our friendship in the present. We've been working together for almost a decade now. Outside of our collaborative work, we still produce work individually.

Larry Achiampong: It's also a chemistry thing. I have tried to collaborate with others over the years and sometimes it just doesn't work. We have mutual interests in popular culture and social issues. Our backgrounds contrast each other; David being white middle-class, me being Black and coming from a political underclass. I was never taken to museums. I didn't go to a gallery until I was an adult.

How did your latest collaboration come about?

David Blandy: We were approached by the Wellcome team in 2020. They offered a generous and open brief to develop work based on our previous track record of tackling race and biological themes. They’ve been supportive and given us a proper commissioning budget, which is rare!


We’re using the opportunity to expand our Genetic Automata series exploring race and identity in an age of avatars, video games, and DNA ancestry testing.

Larry Achiampong: [Genetic Automata highlights] the roots and impacts of scientific racism through film installations featuring clinical objects from University College London's collection used by Francis Galton for his eugenic studies. For example, he made a creepy kind of counting machine to statistically measure the “beauty” or “ugliness” of women. The device looks weird… like something from a horror film.  

We’re connecting this history with issues from modern politics such as Brexit or Trump to spark non-didactic conversations. It's a continuous project so we’re producing an ongoing series of works.

What does success look like for you?

Larry Achiampong: People of my background tend to be gaslit and so it's increasingly important to me for the conversations I'm trying to build to be accessible in as many places as possible. Once you've created work, it belongs to the public. That's my end goal – it’s about legacy.

David Blandy: Ideally to affect structural change, such as the division of wealth and lack of empathy in our world. You've got to try and act as an agent to insert ideas into the Zeitgeist and push things in the direction you want them to go. My intended message may be peace, love, and general happiness but once the artwork is outside of you, how it’s viewed over time is a different thing.


Do you always agree with each other on your work approach?

Larry Achiampong: We do have creative tension at times. I think it's important to be able to talk openly and freely about that stuff. Whereas David wants peace and love, I want to agitate because I didn't grow up with that much peace. Our experiences are massively different, but that combination is our strength.

How have you influenced each other’s thinking?

David Blandy: Larry taught me to be more direct in my practice, which tends to be subtle, poetic, and open to interpretation. Working with Larry also gives me the space, freedom, and excitement to try out new ideas without self-constraint.

Larry Achiampong: David has shared practical thinking and techniques that have helped me be successful at getting public funding, which was previously a struggle. I’ve developed a ‘unique sauce’ to keep my hustle going and be able to thrive. I’ve become much more business-minded when securing new commissions and that's been massively conducive to maintaining a studio, which is important to me.

What keeps you going when you face challenges?

Larry Achiampong: In terms of my career, I'm in a period where a lot of the hard work is beginning to pay off but there’s still discomfort in the possibility that my work may be co-opted or instrumentalised. The reality doesn’t just melt away that I won't get stopped and searched by police or get looked at in a particular way when I go into an institution because of my hair or skin colour.


I still deal with facets of that trauma. My interactions with everyday people who live with honour and heroism beyond the ghosts of their colonial past are what wows me to push on.

How can the museum sector be better at working with artists?

David Blandy: There's often a fundamental lack of trust in artists to deliver. The autonomy that Wellcome has given us is unique and refreshing. In some ways, my practice is far more respected and valued as an artist coming into a museum space, whereas in a gallery they’re always meeting artists and taking their time and labour for granted.

Larry Achiampong: Don't second guess us. Have conversations with us. I'm tired of being patronised by institutions.

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