Surprisingly, she has never met any of the subjects whose portraits she has created. Instead, her only link to them is the genetic material which they have inadvertently left behind, such as strands of hair, chewing gum and cigarette butts. Gathering up these ‘genetic artifacts’ from New York City’s streets, she uses them as the starting point to recreate each person’s likeness.

Stranger Visions Sample 7 East Hampton 2012-2013
Sample 7, East Hampton, 2012-2013
“If I have your genome sequence, theoretically I can do more than just know very personal things about you. I can clone you. I can impersonate you. It seems like a sci-fi scenario but it is a reality now”
Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Exploring the intersection between art and science, Dewey-Hagborg often employs scientific technologies in the creation of her work. Having studied a broad range of subjects including visual art, computer science and philosophy, she later learnt computer programming, before  experimenting with 3-D printing.

Stranger Visions Sample 4, NYC 2012-2013
Sample 4, NYC, 2012-2013
Stranger Visions Sample 3 NYC 2012-2013
Sample 3, NYC, 2012-2013

While the concept of the project, and resulting portraits, are rather eerie, Dewey-Hagborg explains that the true intention of the work is to raise questions surrounding genetic surveillance and ownership. Who could potentially access your DNA, and to what end? She explains, “if I have your genome sequence, theoretically I can do more than just know very personal things about you. I can clone you. I can impersonate you. It seems like a sci-fi scenario but it is a reality now”.

By using DNA belonging to strangers, taken without their knowledge, she admits she is not entirely surprised that the project has garnered some controversy, stating “this work is meant as a provocation – to make you think about privacy, genetics and about our biotechnological future”. However, one criticism she strongly objects is the idea “that I shouldn’t be telling people these things are becoming possible. I feel strongly that it is always better to know than not know, even if it makes us extremely uncomfortable, like questioning the authority of DNA evidence does. I never think ignorance is a better policy”. 

Stranger Visions Sample 6 NYC 2012-2013 copy
Sample 6, NYC, 2012-2013

What inspired you to create ‘Stranger Visions’?
The idea came through an obsession with a single hair. I was sitting in a therapy session staring at a print on the wall when I noticed the glass covering the print was cracked, and in the crack was lodged this long brown hair. I sat there, wondering about it; whose hair might it be? And what could I learn about them from this little bit of themselves they inadvertently left behind? I’m a long-time fan of detective fiction so I love a good mystery, and I had been working with themes of electronic surveillance in my work, so it just kind of clicked.

As I was walking home I started noticing all of these little ‘genetic artefacts’, cigarette butts littering the sidewalks, chewing gum, hair, and I began to wonder what an amateur like myself could learn from these things. I started thinking about visualising this information as a portrait because I didn’t want the representation to be abstract like a DNA fingerprint, I wanted it to be literal and visceral to draw people into the genetic surveillance issues in this very physical way.

Stranger Visions Self Portrait 2012
Self Portrait, 2012
"This work is meant as a provocation - to make you think about privacy, genetics and about our biotechnological future”
Heather Dewey-Hagborg

What is genetic surveillance and why should we be worried?
Put simply, genetic surveillance is the viewing of a person’s genetic information without their knowledge or consent. As embodied creatures we leave genetic material around all the time – it’s part of what makes us human. We are constantly leaving traces, clues as to who we are. The possibility of genetic surveillance is the possibility of analysing these artifacts to extract incredibly personal, intimate information – things you may not even know about yourself. If I have your genome sequence, theoretically I can do more than just know very personal things about you. I can clone you. I can impersonate you. It seems like a sci-fi scenario but it is a reality now.

Stranger Visions Sample 2 NYC 2012-2013 copy
Sample 2, NYC, 2012-2013
Stranger Visions- Sample 7 NYC, 2012-2013
Sample 7, NYC, 2012-2013

What is the process from a DNA sample, such as a single strand of hair, to the completed 3-D portrait of its owner?
I begin by collecting the “samples” – traces of human DNA I find on my travels. The next step is bringing the samples into a lab for DNA extraction. I amplify certain regions of it using a technique called PCR – Polymerase Chain Reaction. This allows me to study certain regions of the genome that tend to vary person to person, what are called SNPs or Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms.

I send the results off to a lab for sequencing and what I get back are basically text files filled with sequences of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, the nucleotides that compose DNA. I align these using a bioinformatics program and determine what allele is present for a particular SNP on each sample.

I then feed this information into a custom computer program I wrote, which takes all these values which code for physical genetic traits, and parameterises a 3-D model of a face to represent them. For example, gender, ancestry, eye colour, hair colour, freckles, lighter or darker skin, and certain facial features like nose width and distance between eyes are some of the features I am in the process of studying.

I add some finishing touches to the model in 3-D software and then export it for printing on a 3-D printer. It’s important to note that this is a work in progress! I’m really only starting to explore all the traits I am interested in examining with this technique.

Stranger Visions Sample 1, East Hampton, 2012-2013
Sample 1, East Hampton, 2012-2013

How accurate are the portraits?
Accuracy is always everyone’s first question. The quick answer is – it may come close to a general likeness (at best). Exact reconstruction of a face from DNA alone is still the stuff of science fiction, and may always be, but the point of this piece isn’t the accuracy of the model, this work is meant as a provocation – to make you think about privacy, about genetics and about our biotechnological future.

Has anyone recognized themselves?
Not yet!

 

hair_collection
Hair Collection
dna extraction
DNA Extraction
Credits

Text Emma de Clercq
Images Heather Dewey-Hagborg
and Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago
Special Thanks Heather Dewey-Hagborg

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