Stranger Visions

by Mary Martialay on April 11, 2013

A self portrait by artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg

This self portait of artist Heather Dewey Hagborg was created from genetic material. Photo credit: Dan Phiffer.

The emerging genre of bio-art explores new frontiers of life made possible through biotechnology—transgenic species, cells grown on artificial scaffolds, or formed into organs using 3-D printing—and our increasing ability to start, stop, and form life at will. Bio-artists often use techniques developed in the lab in their work, and there are several artists in the Department of Arts at Rensselaer, notably artist and Professor Kathy High, who have relied on the university’s well-established biotechnology research labs as a springboard for their work.

A recent example of that work, from artist and Rensselaer Ph.D. candidate Heather Dewey-Hagborg, has been getting a lot of attention. Most recently exhibited as “Stranger Visions,” the work uses DNA analysis and a 3-D printer to create sculpture “portraits” based on traces of DNA from shed hair, used cigarettes, and spent chewing gum that Dewey-Hagborg collects in public places. An established Brooklyn-based information artist, Dewey-Hagborg’s work draws on science, from algorithms to DNA, to “examine culture through the lens of information.” Her work raises issues of privacy, surveillance, and genetic determinism, and “Stranger Visions” was noted in media including the Wall Street Journal, Dan Rather Reports, Studio 360, CBS New Radio, The Boston Globe, a write-up in Science Magazine, and the Daily Beast.

Oddly, her work also reminded me of this line from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” — “I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name.”

“Stranger Visions” appeared in the Clocktower Gallery in lower Manhattan from January through February of this year. The exhibit is the latest iteration of work Dewey-Hagborg began as a resident at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in 2012. She continued working on the piece upon her arrival at Rensselaer in the fall of 2012, and says the well-developed link between arts and technology are part of what drew her to the university.

Of all the Ph.D. programs I looked at, I thought Rensselaer had the best program. The faculty is phenomenal, really first class, and it’s possible to work in a truly interdisciplinary way. I put a lot of the credit on Kathy High, because she really worked hard to introduce me to people and get me talking to professors, and hanging out in CBIS. I was happy to find a professor in molecular biology who was interested in working with me.

Dewey-Hagborg published a fascinating Q&A about her work on her website, and, with her permission, I’ve included some of it here. Enjoy!

Q. What inspired Stranger Visions?

The idea actually came to me in a therapy session! I was sitting staring at this very mundane print on the wall and I noticed that in the glass covering the print there was a crack, and in that crack was lodged a single hair. I kept staring at this hair and wondering whose it could be and what I could know about them from it. Walking home later that day I became cognizant of all the genetic material surrounding me, and the idea for Stranger Visions materialized.

Q. What is the process involved in going from a DNA sample to a finished portrait?

The project began with me, going about my daily life in the city, and coming across samples of human DNA everywhere I looked. Hairs, nails, cigarette butts, chewing gum, we are shedding our DNA all over the place all the time, and we don’t even notice.

So I began collecting “samples” – traces of human DNA I found in my travels.

The next step is bringing the samples into a lab for DNA extraction. I do this at Genspace, a DIY Biology lab in downtown Brooklyn, or when I am upstate at school I do it in the student molecular biology lab there. Working with the biologists in these labs taught me pretty much everything I know about molecular biology and DNA.

Ellen Jorgenson, Oliver Medvedik, and Eric Rutledge at RPI have been amazing tutors!

So I extract the DNA in the lab and then 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. You can learn more about SNPs on snpedia (like Wikipedia for SNPs!)

I send the results of my PCR reactions 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.

Then I feed this information into a custom computer program I wrote which takes all these values which code for physical genetic traits and parameterizes a 3-D model of a face to represent them. For example gender, ancestry, eye color, hair color, 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. I use a Zcorp printer which prints in full color using a powder type material, kind of like sand and glue.

And it is 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.

Q. How accurate are the portraits?

I usually say they have a “family resemblance” to the person. They will have similar traits and ancestry, but might look more like a possible cousin than a spitting image of the person themselves. The reason for this is multifold, but the primary reason is the research on facial morphology, the way human faces differ, is still in very early stages. A lot of this information comes from what are called Genome-wide Association Studies, research that looks at hundreds or thousands of genomes and tries to find correlations. So it logically follows that the more genomes we sequence, the more correlations we will find.

So this points toward more precise information in the future and most scientists believe the face is mostly genetically determined pointing toward identical twins.

As an artist I would say that we will probably get closer in the future but will never be 100% of the way there. I think we will get close but you can’t discount the role environment plays in expression of genes.

Q. Has anyone recognized themselves?

Not yet!

Q. What is genetic surveillance and why should we be worried?

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 analyzing these artifacts to extract incredibly personal, intimate information—things you may not even know about yourself. Additionally, the potential for genetic surveillance comes form the collection of genetic material in law enforcement, through services like 23andme as well as medical science and the increasing number of databases storing this information.

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’s a sci-fi scenario but it is a reality now.

Q. How was the software developed?

I am building off of the research of a group in Basel Switzerland who produced a morphable face model which is freely available for experimentation:

Q. Other future projects?

Yes, I just finished a collaborative piece with Aurelia Moser, Allison Burtch, and Adam Harvey on DNA Spoofing which you can find here:

I am also discussing a potential collaboration with a professor of mine, Kathy High, which looks at human cloning from found genetic material. But this project is still in just in discussion for the moment!