In 2013, artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg made an unusual portrait of Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen. We gave her a few hairs plucked from Kurt's head, and she used the DNA to synthesize what his face would look like. She couldn't account for age, so all her portraits look like young adults. Or as Kurt put it, he looked rather Matt Damon-ish of "Good Will Hunting" vintage. But her series "Stranger Visions" was not a stunt. She wanted to show how much personal information we leave everywhere in this age of DIY bio-hackers and heightened government surveillance.
So it's appropriate that her latest project focuses on Chelsea Manning — formerly Bradley Manning — the soldier who was jailed for giving roughly 700,000 classified and unclassified military documents to WikiLeaks. Once her 35-year prison term began, Manning made headlines again by announcing her gender transition.
Since undergoing hormone therapy, Manning hasn't been photographed, and has only been seen by a small number of people. So last summer, Paper Magazine contacted Dewey-Hagborg about creating a DNA portrait of what Manning could look like now. The artist got Manning to send a DNA sample through the mail. If Dewey-Hagborg were producing this portrait in the same manner as "Stranger Visions," she would 3-D print a male face, since that's what Manning's DNA would tell her. And she did. But she also created a second mask, as if she had gotten genetic information that Manning was female.
The two masks comprise "Radical Love: Chelsea Manning," which premieres this month at the World Economic Forum in Davos as part of the exhibit "This Time Tomorrow." For Dewey-Hagborg, the Manning project adds another layer to her work's commentary on surveillance. If her previous work indicated the wealth of private information we carelessly leave behind, "Radical Love" points to the disconnect between our genetic information and our true identity. Dewey-Hagborg says the juxtaposition of both faces "draws attention to the problem of utilizing chromosomes or birth assigned sex to assign gender as well as a larger issue of what it means to rely on stereotyped ideas of what a gendered face is 'supposed' to look like."