Heather Dewey-Hagborg
December 17, 2014

Artist uses DNA from discarded items to make life-like busts of strangers

Shayne Jacopian for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

As part of a cultural experiment, Chicago-based artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg has created sculptures of strangers using DNA found in New York City for her project, “Stranger Visions.”

Combing the streets, alleys, and subways of the Big Apple in search of hairs, gum, and cigarette butts, onlookers probably saw Dewey-Hagborg as just another weirdo wandering about the city doing who-knows-what. However, these items were destined for more than being lovingly placed into a shoebox alongside a collection of rusty nails, unraveled cassette tapes, and action figures without limbs.

Extracting the genetic material from these casually discarded items--using a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR)--Dewey-Hagborg analyzed what are called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are regions on the genome that vary from person to person. The ability to do this she credits largely to the help of molecular biologists at Genspace, a DIY biology lab in downtown Brooklyn.

"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," she told The Approach. "I align these using a bioinformatics program and determine what allele is present for a particular SNP on each sample."

Finally, she loads this information into a software program she designed and creates 3D models of faces, which were made into physical busts using a 3D printer.

Calling into attention the “impulse toward genetic determinism and the potential for a culture of biological surveillance,” Dewey-Hagborg’s “Stranger Visions” sheds light on the massive amount of information left behind every time we spit out our gum or brush hairs off of our jackets, as well as the ease with which that information can be extracted and manipulated by whoever has the technology to do so.

Following “Stranger Visions,” Dewey-Hagborg continued this theme in her project, “A Day in the Life,” in which she chronicles the amount of genetic material she sheds in the form of hair, toenail clippings, and bodily fluids in a single day. She has also developed a solution that destroys DNA traces on contact.

As Heather Dewey-Hagborg has shown us, you can learn a lot about someone from the DNA he or she leaves behind. Think twice before you toss away that cigarette butt, piece of gum or whatever kind of DNA sample you deem socially acceptable to fling out of a window or to the edge of a sidewalk, because the next time you visit an art gallery or museum, you may just find yourself staring back at you.

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