DNA Artist Turns Found Trash Into Peculiar Portraiture

by BUST Magazine
Dewey-Hagborg collected DNA from this gum to create this face

Chicago-based artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, 33, has loved science since she was a child. And her ongoing project, Stranger Visions, is an eerie and surprising intersection of these two passions. Using advanced methods of DNA extraction and analysis, she examines random samples of genetic material she finds on the street—carelessly discarded gum, fingernail clippings, cigarette butts—and uses the information she’s able to glean from these items to create impressive 3D-printed portraits of what she thinks the person who generated the source material might look like. How closely these facsimiles resemble the strangers who unknowingly contributed their genetic spark is anyone’s guess. In fact, even reactions to her own “Stranger Visions” self-portrait are split. “Some people say it looks just like me,” she says. “Others say it looks nothing like me.”

Currently, sex, hair, and eye color can be accurately determined from Dewey-Hagborg’s unidentified samples, whereas factors of ancestry, race, and ethnicity are more of an educated guess. And unlike businesses offering forensic products that promise to reveal bio-geographic ancestry, she makes no claims in that department. “As history and social science have shown,” she says, “the attempt to read race from the body, to quantify how African or European a person is, for example, is extremely problematic.”

Straight-up science geeks may have little patience for the artistic license inherent in her project, but Dewey-Hagborg appreciates the chance to incorporate creative speculation into her work. When asked if she ever thought she recognized a stranger from one of her portraits, she says she hasn’t. Though that sort of sci-fi scenario does speak to one of her aims. “My hope is that viewers will looks at these portraits,” she says, “and think, ‘That could be me, that could be my DNA. My most intimate information is vulnerable.’”

Article By Ayun Halliday, Photos By Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Video from biogenfutures on Vimeo

This article originally appeared in the Aug/Sept 2015 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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