Sculpture, 2013

Heather Dewey-Hagborg (US)

In Stranger Visions, portrait sculptures are created from the analysis of genetic material collected in public spaces. Working with artefacts strangers unwittingly leave behind, this work demonstrates the possible future of forensic DNA phenotyping (a method of determining appearance from DNA), and points to the emerging privacy issues related to the increasing accessibility and decreasing costs of biotechnology.

Samples — traces of human DNA found on cigarette butts littering the streets of Dublin — were brought to a lab and a DNA extraction was performed. Certain regions of the DNA were amplified using a technique called PCR — polymerase chain reaction. This makes it possible to study certain regions of the genome that tend to vary person to person, known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP).

The allele present for a particular SNP on each sample is determined. Using a custom computer program, this information then determines the values that correlate with physical genetic traits and renders a 3D model of a face to represent them. The model is then exported and sent to a rapid prototyping machine which prints the model in full-colour 3D.

Intended as a provocation, Stranger Visions is art, not the development of a new product or company. The intention is to confront the viewer with the possibility that someone might be able to examine their DNA and inspect their identity from detritus they didn’t even notice that they had left behind. The point isn’t that the artist knows everything about a person from a cigarette butt, a hair, or a piece of chewing gum; rather that she, an amateur, knows as much as she does. And can potentially find out a whole lot more.

Artist's Statement

The question behind Stranger Visions came to me as I was sitting in a therapy session. Staring at a generic print on the wall, I noticed that the glass covering the print was cracked and in that crack was lodged a single hair. I became fascinated by this hair. Whose hair was it? What might they look like, act like, think about? How much could I know about a person from a single hair? Like a detective story unfolding before me, I became entranced by this question of what I could learn about a person from a carelessly shed hair. On my way home that afternoon, I began to notice all these genetic artefacts, all these clues, littered on the sidewalks, subway benches and streets. It occurred to me that if I could extract DNA from these kinds of items, I would have a pretty good indication as to who left them.