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March 11, 2013

Heather Dewey-Hagborg will create your likeness from trace DNA you left behind


You don't think so?

Think again.

Today's Wall Street Journal story by Josh Dawsey explains in detail just how the artist, a Ph.D. student in Electronic Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, makes "the faces of real people, portrait-like sculptures etched from an almost powdery substance. The eye colors are distinct, the facial contours sharp, even though the artist... has never met or seen her subjects."

"Instead of using photographs or an art model for her work, Ms. Dewey-Hagborg scoops detritus from New York City's streets — cigarette butts, hair follicles, gum wrappers — and analyzes the genetic material people leave behind. [She] makes the faces after studying clues found in DNA."

Up top, a sculpture of an individual created from information in DNA he unknowingly left behind.

Below, excerpts from the article.

"I don't think I'm creepy, but I could see how someone would think this project is creepy," said Ms. Dewey-Hagborg, 30 years old, who splits her time between Brooklyn and upstate, where she attends RPI. "Maybe I'm kind of weird."

Five of her portraits have been displayed at galleries across the city in an exhibit she calls "Stranger Visions," most recently with a run that ended February 28 at the Clocktower Gallery in Lower Manhattan. The piece has inspired a crew from Technology Entertainment and Design to shoot footage for a documentary.

Ms. Dewey-Hagborg currently is in talks with the New York Public Library for putting the exhibition on display there. It will also appear in a gallery at Rensselaer Polytechnic beginning May 12.

What has struck many isn't her use of science but her use of art to illustrate obscure research — known as "genetic surveillance," the technique isn't new but it remains unknown to many. Her scientific work has been checked by experts, including Eric Rutledge, a biology professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic.

The exhibits have attracted outside interest. She is working with Delaware's medical examiner's office to identify bodies. Hal Brown, an assistant medical examiner in Delaware, sent her a case recently after reading about her work. "If she's looking for samples, she doesn't have to pick up [stuff] on the street," Mr. Brown said.

The idea first struck Ms. Dewey-Hagborg while she was sitting on her therapist's couch, supposedly untangling her own life. She became fixated on a hair twisted in a painting's crack, trying to figure out how it got there. Therapy could wait.

"I could just envision the person's hair getting tangled in the painting," she said. "I still think about it."

After reading online about genetic research, Ms. Dewey-Hagborg joined Genspace, a New York genetics laboratory, and brought samples she found on Brooklyn streets into the lab for DNA extraction. Ms. Dewey-Hagborg amplifies small DNA strands using a technique called PCR — polymerase chain reaction. She then studies those that vary among people and sends the results to a lab for sequencing.

She receives back text files filled with DNA sequences and uses a computer program to take these values and correlate them with human traits such as eye color and gender. Using that information, her imagination, and powdery material she described as similar to sand and glue, she constructs a face and brings it into being with a three-dimensional printer.

"It really gets you when you realize someone can pick up a hair on the street and know more about you than a doctor can, conceivably," said Ellen Jorgensen, the director of Genspace.

There are limitations. DNA, Ms. Dewey-Hagborg concedes, can't tell her specifically how prominent someone's chin might be or how large the nose. And she may never know, as there is seemingly no way to track down people and match them to material they don't even know they left behind. She used the technique to create a self-portrait [below], which is quite similar to her face.

And she recognizes that some critics believe the project is an intrusion of privacy. One scientist and one gallery turned down her proposal, she said, fearing it would cause fright among people. At the Clocktower Gallery, Director David Weinstein said people "have this sort of double take. They start to ask a lot of questions, like, 'How much can she really know about me from my cigarette butt?' Then, they're questioning everything."

Ms. Dewey-Hagborg's boyfriend refuses to have his DNA analyzed, despite her persistent requests.

"The biggest problem people have is that it's such incredibly personal information," she said. "Now we're used to things like our faces surveyed by cameras. But this is so intimate, and this is a surveillance of things we might not know about our self."


March 11, 2013 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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