Making Portraits Out of DNA


Friday, February 08, 2013

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

Comments [12]

McKenzie from Bay Area, California

The mask looks nothing like Kurt Andersen, but this is a wonderful example of the malleability of human opinion. As a molecular geneticist I can tell you that it is absolutely not currently possible to extract a physical likeness from someone's DNA. It is also unlikely to ever be possible since human development is the result of an extremely complex mix of genetic and environmental interactions that are unlikely to be understood with sufficient clarity to be able to create a physical likeness. I have no problem with art being generated from any source because it is up to the individual to decide if they appreciate it or not, but any suggestion there is any "truth to the science behind this is just another artistic "gimmick".

May. 08 2013 09:14 PM
Ingrid from Venice from Venice

Please, oh please disregard my last and first comment. I had read about this artist on another page and did not read one in depth until after I made my comment, subsequently I sounded quite dumb when I posted. Sorry.

Never-the-less I am enthralled by the artist and her work. Amazing!!!

May. 04 2013 07:54 PM
Ingrid from Venice from Venice, CA

I am sure it probably has already been thought of, but it would great to do a DNA "mask" of someone who the artist does not personally know and see how accurate it is, or if there is any similarity between what she comes up with and the DNA provider. She amazing and this is one of the most interesting topics I have read in a long time.

Thank you!!!

May. 04 2013 07:46 PM
Laura from NH

Better to focus on DNA mutation because of the thousands of carcinogenic pollutants man is infusing into it from the chemical industrial food system. Just THINK, if you still can, about the amounts of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, that are being poured, sparyed, doused, combined with genetically modified seeds that already are infused with chemical components.
It is simply not true that the DNA we have is what it is and we have no ability to affect it. WE DO. If we had lived on a "LIVE FOOD" nutritional regime, meaning NO processed crap, no chemcial additives, no fake food marketed to us for three generations, and NO animal flesh, our DNA would not be seriously weakened, infiltrated, diseased, being passed on from parents to children. READ Pottenger's Cat Study or anything by Doctor Gabriel Cousens. The symptoms we are experiencing as a culture, both physical, mental, and moral, are the direct consequence of what is going in INSIDE!
It's just a myth that we have no ability to assist our genes in repairing from the failure of politics and religion to educate about staying healthy and PREVENTING disease. It's just too bad the media refuses to interview the many nutritionists, researchers, and medical doctors who use FOOD as medicine. Perhaps the producers of this program should investigate why a Monsanto lawyer, Michael Taylor, is now head of the FDA, and just got applications from two huge dairy conglomerates, to use Aspartame, that caused tumors in animals, in milk? Instead of trying to sell us that biotechnology and neuroscience offer the way forward, perhaps unbiased journalists can investigate why our nation has an NIH, CDC, Surgeon General, while our disease rates are causing a health care crisis. Perhaps your journailsts can investigate why NIH will spend $300,000,000.00 of tax dollars on giving animals diseased pancreas, to find other drugs to "cure" diabetes, a totally DIET related disease.
Our genes are sick because of the poisons they are absorbing, all having a point source. Interivew Dr. Neal Barnard or Dr. John McDougall, they are saving lives with what the medical oath is,DO NO HARM!

Mar. 02 2013 08:31 AM


Not only your DNA...

There is the concept of 'Meme"; that we do not only reproduce through genetic acts, but through the relation of concepts and how we act towards others:

This is a relatively new interpretation of an old idea, but I think it may be of interest to you.

My Best Wishes.

Feb. 21 2013 12:36 AM
Dave from Michigan

Does not really matter to me. I would be interested to see what she comes up with and say : Really ?

Feb. 14 2013 09:48 AM
Biology Class AB from Waterloo, Illinois

We feel it's a little creepy but interesting at the same time. We have just started studying DNA and are discovering the magnitude that DNA has in the world. Most feel it's almost like 'stealing' an identity.

Feb. 14 2013 09:33 AM
Stefan from NJ

Ms Dewey-Hagborg i a genius! check this out please:

Feb. 11 2013 08:50 PM
Andrea Crocco-Varela from New Jersey

I had colon cancer, diagnosed four months after I got married. This was why I had to try assisted reproductive therapy, which did not work. I cannot have children and I am nearing 42, which means I am hesitant to start a family. The idea that my DNA could be used to create art, something with meaning and permanence, is a wonderful, magical thought to me. I hope my hairs have gone into this woman's work.

Feb. 10 2013 12:17 PM
Nathan from Hoboken, NJ

The comment that is might be Kurt's son is interesting, it made me come and look at the image. I have to say, yeah it looks like it could be his son!

Feb. 10 2013 11:47 AM
Oliver from Brooklyn

More of the typical BS gimmickry that passes for art these days.

Feb. 09 2013 06:42 PM
stacey from DC

Putting aside the inevitable "fear of the unknown", I think this is an amazing and brilliant way to use DNA because in my world view, every human being is related to every other human being. There is really no "them", only "us".
DNA is simply a "newly discovered" divine gift; part of the divine light that glows through every living thing if you take the time to meditate on it, with it; you can feel it.
If I could believe that the more we learn about DNA, the more we will understand how similar we are, it would be good. In reality, since greed and power rule, there will be more negative done until either we disappear or we use knowledge for the mutual benefit of all.

Feb. 09 2013 02:57 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.