This story is over 5 years old.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg Uses DNA To Reconstruct Your Identity for Art

When was the last time you may have left a strand of your hair lying around on a subway seat or on a coffeeshop chair? You probably don’t think about this too much. But this laissez-faire attitude towards leaving around traces of ourselves (or at least...

When was the last time you may have left a strand of your hair lying around on a subway seat or on a coffeeshop chair? You probably don’t think about this too much. But this laissez-faire attitude towards leaving around traces of ourselves (or at least our DNA) might be changing in the very near future. Thanks to a host of new technologies, a single strand of our hair (or a spot of blood, saliva, urine, etc) can tell people a whole lot more about us than we might think. Beyond matching criminals to crime scenes and running paternity tests, DNA can be used for all sorts of identification processes. The ever decreasing cost of genetic technologies, from DNA extraction to transgenic mouse creation, have enabled artists to start playing around with this technology — and the results are eye-opening.


Recently, two different artists made use of a single human hair to very different ends. Koby Barhard, a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art, bought a strand of Elvis’s hair on eBay a part of his project All That I Am, shipped it to a lab to have the DNA extracted and analyzed for personality traits, and sent away for a transgenic mouse clone to be created with parallel genetic traits to Elvis. As part of his project All That I Am, he then constructed a series of mouse model environments to replicate different stages of Elvis’ life – in hopes of creating a mouse version of Elvis, sharing the same identity both in terms of genes and personal experiences (disclaimer: Barhard stopped short of actually putting the mice through the experiment boxes, citing ethics). While definitely thought provoking, the whole experiment sounds pretty far-fetched — until you hear about Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s project Stranger Visions.

Image: Dan Phiffer

Heather Dewey-Hagborg, artist-in-residence at Eyebeam Art+Technology Center, has spent the last six months recreating identity from strands of human hair in an entirely different way. Collecting hairs she finds in random public places – bathrooms, libraries, and subway seats – she uses a battery of newly developing technologies to create physical, life-sized portraits of the owners of these hairs. You can see the portrait she’s made from her own hair in the photo below. While the actual likeness is a point of contention, these images bring about some creepy-yet-amazing comments; on genetic identity (how much of “you” really resides in your DNA?); on the possibilities of surveillance (what if your jealous partner started making portraits from hairs they found around your house?); and on the subjectivity inherent in working with “hard” data and computer systems (how much of a role do human assumptions play in this machine made portrait?).

Can you explain the process of how you went from a single strand of your hair to developing a physical life-size model of your face?


It started with my fascination staring at a single hair, wondering what I could know about the person who shed it. From there I began to research what I could discover about a person from their hair and I took a biotech crash course at Genspace. There I learned about PCR and mtDNA and began to realize I could form a basic sketch — like a police artist — of what someone looks like from a handful of DNA loci. I started collecting hairs around the city as I noticed them, noting when and where each one was found. And I started working on software experiments in morphable 3D face models. I had worked in the past with face recognition in 2D so I was familiar with the basic algorithms underpinning the work. I ended up extending the work of a team in Basel who created a morphable model parameterized by gender, weight and age to parameterize for ethnicity — a trait which can be read from your mitochondrial DNA even in very degraded forensic samples. From there I add binary traits like eye color, freckles etc. by hand.

Bushwick - laundromat, Himrod st, (right) DNA sample from haplogroup: H2a2a (eastern europe, near east) (sample 12) courtesy heather dewey-hagborg
Image: Thomas Dexter
The resulting face

Tell me about the other hairs you collected. Where did you find them? Who’s head did they come from? Are you looking for these people now, as you walk down the street? And what are your plans for these strangers in the future? Once I started working on this project I began noticing “forensic evidence” everywhere I turned. If I collected everything, I noticed I could fill my apartment. So I focused on hairs in part because they are aesthetically interesting and in part because there are well known protocols for extracting DNA from them. When I saw a hair I would pull out the gloves, tweezers and plastic baggies I took to carrying in my purse and I would snatch it, covertly of course. I have been working on extracting DNA and analyzing these samples with the help of the biologists at Genspace. I am still learning pretty much everything about working in a lab and doing these kinds of experiments so the pace is slow but it is fascinating work. Given my budget I am constrained to working on these experiments by hand right now but if I had more money I could simply mail the samples away and have results immediately. Part of the challenge however is to see how easy it is for “just anyone” to do this so it is a good test. When I finish analyzing my samples I plan to make 3D models and print 3D portraits of each one, to post them online along with sample collection details and to revisit each location posting a physical link back to the virtual exhibit.

Image: Heather Dewey-Hagborg

You write in your blog that your inspiration for this project came from seeing a hair stuck in a picture frame in your shrink’s office. What happened next?

I couldn’t stop thinking about it! I just became captivated by my imagining of who this person was. This fantasy (derived in part no doubt from the glut of forensics shows on TV) became a proposal for an art project ultimately accepted and funded by Eyebeam.


I find it curious that you became captivated by this hair at your therapist’s office — this contrast of the emotional, subconscious identity seeking that might go on in a therapist’s office versus the data-driven concept of genetic identity that you are exploring with your project. Was this just a coincidence or …? I doubt it. I spend a good deal of time in those sessions reflecting on what makes me, me. I have worked on a number of AI type projects in the past that question other aspects of human identity like creativity. This stuff is all floating around in my head, and therapy (as well as subway rides) are times when ideas tend to form from the chaos.

Image: Heather Dewey-Hagborg

There’s a lot of talk about the implications of this technology for surveillance. You mention this creepy idea that we are leaving behind our DNA in all sorts of public spaces — bathrooms, subway cars, restaurants. Stranger Visions shows us the trove of information that is now possible to extract from a single hair found on a subway seat. The regulations and ethics of using DNA in this way is still very new and undefined. Can you tell me about how the project treats questions around the ethics of genetic surveillance? This is really the big question the piece is driving at. When I saw that hair and couldn’t stop thinking about it I realized that there was nothing that could stop me from analyzing it. Even if we passed regulations our human bodies were simply not designed to refrain from shedding evidence. (Although my next project might well attempt to tackle this!) So what I want to do is open a dialogue. I wouldn’t be so bold as to state that I have all the answers but this is real, it is happening now and it isn’t sci-fi anymore. So we need to think about it. We need to deal with it as a culture. Getting a public conversation going is the first step in the process.

There’s also this comment on technology in Stranger Visions — when I look at that picture of you and your hairless DNA doppelganger, I don’t really see it as surveillance, but more as this eerie portrait, carefully shaped and massaged by feeding data through various human-made systems — DNA extraction protocols, DNA phenotype databases, 3D modeling software, and so on. You’ve talked in the past about the human imprint in algorithms — that the way our computers work depends on the assumptions and biases of the people who write their software. Can you tell me more about this, and how it relates to Stranger Visions? Absolutely. I consider myself an information artist and this is the thread that ties my work together, a fascination and criticality of how algorithms shape and are shaped by human beings. What imprints do we leave on the world around us when we program systems that are deployed online and in the physical world? Almost every step of my process was subjective on some level. Anyone who has ever designed a machine learning system will tell you that the biggest “obstacle” in designing these systems is inductive bias — the assumptions a programmer makes that define a certain attitude towards or impression of the world. When an engineering lab decided to parameterize a 3D model based on weight how do they do it? They have a set of images and the five dudes working in the office tag each one based on whet they think the person looks most like. In Stranger Visions I, one chick working at Eyebeam, made all these decisions. It is entirely subjective. And these systems then get rolled into larger and larger ones until those biases are lost in the background and forgotten.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg talks about her work, inductive reasoning, and appropriating surveillance technology for play.

You write in your artist statement that your work “acquires meaning from its interaction with the human community.” As Stranger Visions begins to circulate in the world, what meaning do you see taking shape? Hopefully this project invites conversation. One of the things that has been fascinating so far, for example at Eyebeam open studios, is that half of the people who saw my DNA portrait looked at me and remarked on the uncanny resemblance. The other half remarked on how it didn’t look like me! So it is a good reminder that meaning is created by your audience. We have spoken here about what the piece means to me but what it will come to mean for my audience I can only guess.

What’s next? Well, I am starting the Electronic Arts PhD program up at [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute] in the fall so I plan to continue my lab work up there and to exhibit the next iteration of this project (with a full set of printed portraits) at Clocktower Gallery in January!


Photo: Andy McWilliams