Making Portraits Out of DNA

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Kurt Andersen and his DNA mask by Heather Dewey-Hagborg
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Everywhere we go, we leave a trail of personal information — in the stray hairs that land on park benches, or saliva on the edges of coffee cups. And artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg may be collecting that information, whether you like it or not. Using equipment and procedures now easily available, she extracts the DNA from strangers’ hair or fingernail clippings, and uses it to makes life-like models of people’s faces — people she’s never met or seen. She calls the project Stranger Visions.

We wondered how close Dewey-Hagborg could get to the way people really look, so we gave her hairs from an anonymous source, Kurt Andersen. (She remarked that her source had “very dynamic hair.”)

Dewey-Hagborg begins her work at GenSpace, an open lab in Brooklyn where anyone can apply for membership. “I don’t have to be a trained molecular biologist to be able to extract DNA,” she says, “it’s more about precisely following a protocol, sticking to the recipe.” It’s a painstaking methodology involving test tubes and vortexers which she usually performs forty times in order to get a data profile. To speed up our experiment, she asked us to get a cheek swab from our anonymous source and send the sample to 23andMe, the genetic testing company, which yields a giant block of DNA letters and numbers. She put that data through the computer program she wrote, which turns the information into a digital human face. She sent that schematic to a 3D printer, which fabricates the mask out of sand and glue.

Robert Klitzman, the director the Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University, says we should understand the project as art, not research. Current science doesn’t allow anyone to accurately “construct someone’s face in 3D based on their genetics,” he says. “But over time, within ten, twenty years you’ll be able to determine quite a bit about them.”

Does the finished mask look like Kurt? Sort of. “It’s the Matt Damon version of me,” Kurt remarked. “I have two daughters and no sons,” says Kurt, “and now I’m thinking, wow this could be my son — my cloned son.”

Dewey-Hagborg knows anyone can turn the tables on her. “When I run my hand through my hair on the subway, I have the decision. Am I going to shake this hair off my fingertips and let it fall on to the ground? And so I decide, I’m going to donate this hair to who ever might come across and choose to grab it. You’ll know that I have a strong likelihood of living to be a 100 and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.”

Heather Dewey-Hagborg's exhibition Stranger Visions at New York's Clocktower Gallery is up through February.


→ How do you feel about an artist collecting discarded DNA — maybe your DNA? Tell us in a comment below.


Video: Kurt Andersen's DNA Mask Revealed