YOU (South Africa)
Artist who makes faces using DNA
This bio-hacking artist collects genetic material from chewing gum, cigarette butts and coffee cups then hacks into DNA to recreate models of the people who discarded them
YOU take the final sip of your takeaway coffee, toss the cardboard cup in a nearby bin and walk away without giving it another thought. But as soon as you’re gone, a stranger emerges from the shadows and fishes your cup from the bin.
A few months later you’re attending an art exhibition and there, on display for everyone in the gallery to see, is a 3D sculpture of your face. It may sound farfetched but this is exactly what American artist and bio-hacker Heather Dewey-Hagborg is doing. In an intersection of art and science, she uses DNA found on discarded chewing gum, cigarette butts and coffee cups to construct the faces of people she’s never met.
It’s a complicated business but basically she uses the genetic profile she’s secretly harvested to provide clues to what the people the DNA belongs to might have looked like.
She then uses this to make sculptures of her subjects’ faces, using a 3D printer. It’s not as if you’d be able to recognise the person whose DNA was used – there’s a great deal of interpretation involved in Heather’s work.
Her works go on display accompanied by an evidence kit, which includes a petri dish containing the cigarette butt, chewing gum or whatever the object from which the DNA was harvested; photos of the site where it was collected; and a printed analysis of the sample.
It’s ingenious – if a little creepy – and has really got people talking.
Heather’s first project, Stranger Visions, which consists of a line-up of forensic sculptures that she created using the DNA from discarded items found near her home in Brooklyn, has been touring the world since 2013 and is currently on display at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in the US.
“When I started this project I knew next to nothing about genomics or about molecular biology,” Heather (38) recalls.
“I also had almost no money to invest in fancy equipment or lab services.”
Luckily Genspace, the world’s first DIY biology lab where the public is invited to study genetic science and get handson experience, had recently opened in Brooklyn so Heather was able to learn by trial and error.
Using the lab’s equipment, she is able to extract the DNA from the samples she’s collected then isolate the specific parts of the genome she is targeting. This is then sent to another lab that returns multiple possible sequences.
Heather compares these sequences with those found in human genome databases, which helps her to gather clues about the subject’s ancestry, gender, eye colour, propensity to be overweight and other traits related to facial appearance, such as the space between their eyes.
She admits it isn’t an exact science. “I generate approximately five randomised variations of each sample and choose my favourite, which I then 3D print to produce a life-size, full-colour model.”
So if the sample was taken from someone you know, would you instantly
Trecognise them? “The truth is it’s very subjective and varies tremendously case by case,” Heather says.
HE idea for all of this was sparked by a painting in her therapist’s office that caught Heather’s eye. The glass in the frame was cracked, a strand of hair caught in the crack. Heather wondered who the mystery patient might be who left behind a trace of their DNA.
It was a simple strand of hair but it changed the way she saw the world.
“When I left I just couldn’t help noticing things all around me. Cigarette butts and chewing gum on the sidewalk, hairs on the subway bench, saliva left on the rim of a coffee cup. . . I started seeing evidence – everywhere.
“It occurred to me that the very things that make us human, the messiness of the human body, become a liability as we constantly face the possibility of shedding these traces in public, leaving artefacts which anyone could come along and mine for information.”
And so that is exactly what she did. To start off she experimented, using DNA she’d harvested from herself. “I signed up for a biotech course. I learnt to amplify and analyse DNA,” she recalls.
Underpinning everything she does is the hope that it will get people thinking about the role biological surveillance plays in the world today.
Her Stranger Visions project marked the first time people’s genetic make-up had been studied so openly.
“It was clear to me DNA phenotyping research was already happening behind closed laboratory doors,” Heather says.
SINCE Stranger Visions, Heather, who has a PhD in electronic arts, has got people thinking with other projects that investigate the issues of privacy, vulnerability and consent as more and more biotech corporations gather and sell our DNA.
To date Heather hasn’t received any complaints about her work invading anyone’s privacy and as far as she knows none of the strangers whose DNA she used has recognised themselves in the portraits she’s created.
In 2017 she launched Probably Chelsea, inspired by former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who was imprisoned for supplying classified security data to WikiLeaks.
Meanwhile Spirit Molecule, started in 2018, is an ongoing experiment that involves mourning the death of a loved one through biotechnology.
“We’re using the DNA of lost loved ones to create legal psychoactive substances that alter moods, perception or consciousness,” she explains. “The DNA is inserted into various plants growing in the gallery: tobacco, morning glory and passionflower.”
The speculative design project aims to examine how consuming these plants can help grieving people connect with their lost loved ones.
Some of her projects may be hard to wrap your head around but Heather wants people to understand one thing: the use of our genes by large corporations is becoming increasingly common.
These are the issues she wanted to get people thinking about when she started her work almost 10 years ago.
“So if Stranger Visions aims to expose the fact that we’re entering an era with the potential for mass biological surveillance, the obvious question is: what can we do about it?”
‘DNA PHENOTYPING RESEARCH WAS ALREADY HAPPENING BEHIND CLOSED LABORATORY DOORS’