Have you ever thought about just how much genetic information you leave behind in public? That piece of gum you spit out in the gutter, that cigarette butt you heel-crushed on the sidewalk, that stray hair of yours that fell out on the train — all of it’s laced with your DNA.
Such detritus, you may think, simply vanishes into the lint trap of everyday life, swallowed up by street sweepers or recycled as bird nesting.
However, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, a Brooklyn-based information artist, has a different destination in mind: an art gallery. In her recent project, “Stranger Visions,” she created 3-D printed sculptures of anonymous people whose genetic information was found on chewing gum, cigarette butts and wads of hair she collected around New York City.
Her portraits were designed using three traits — gender, eye color and maternal ethnicity. Using software that she wrote herself, Dewey-Hagborg was able to plug in facial characteristics and compute various 3-D versions of a face. After settling on which one looked the most aesthetically pleasing, she brought them to life via a 3-D printer.
The sculptors are in no way an exact replica, since only three simple traits were used for reconstruction. Instead, Dewey-Hagborg told Co.Exist that they bear more of a “family resemblance” to the real person.
“Part of that is that I need to do more experiments,” to incorporate more traits, she said. “Part of that is that it’s just impossible.”
Still, the wall-mounted sculptures are quite life-like. But bringing them to life raised a few questions for the artist, specifically about generating a face from such a small template of traits. Filling in the gaps meant relying on human input and databases of ethnic prototypes linked to maternal ancestry, both of which carry the potential for cultural bias.
Dewey-Hagborg says the process is “problematic,” but hopes the project sparks a conversation about subjectivity in DNA analysis and computer-generated faces.
“It does involve, essentially, creating a stereotype, and generating faces based on those stereotyped ideas, so that’s something I’m hoping to question with this work,” she said.
Dewey-Hagborg plans to expand the project soon to include more traits, such as freckling and obesity. In the meantime, if you were walking around any of these Brooklyn locations early last month smoking a Parliament, Marlboro Light or chewing some green gum, have a look at some of her portraits and see if you recognize yourself.
Credit: Heather Dewey-Hagborg