Imagine you are walking down a city street. You spit out the gum you were chewing onto the sidewalk, or maybe you finish a cigarette and drop the butt on the ground, or maybe you simply manage to get a few hairs caught on a passing sign or bush. Now imagine that a few months later you are at an art gallery to see a collection called “Stranger Visions,” created by New York Ph.D. student Heather Dewey-Hagborg. To your shock, you see a 3D print of your own face hanging on the wall, created from the DNA you left on the gum, cigarette, or hair on a city street a couple of months back.
Dewey-Hagborg, who studies electronic art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, worked with a biology lab in Brooklyn called Genspace to create the slightly disconcerting models. She started by collecting hairs from a public bathroom at Penn Station, and now collects all sorts of discarded DNA samples from across Brooklyn.
To create the portraits, Dewey-Hagborg extracts the DNA from the collected samples at the Genspace lab. She then looks at certain regions using a technique called Polymerase Chain Reaction. These regions of the genome are called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms, and they are different from person to person. When she has the information she needs, she feeds it into a computer program she wrote herself which builds the different genetic traits present in the DNA into a 3D model of a face. She can find a person’s gender, ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, nose width, distance between eyes, even freckles using the DNA.
The finished products are only approximations of those who unwittingly left their genetic material behind. Since the subjects are anonymous, there is no way to make a comparison between the person’s actual face and the face which Dewey-Hagborg comes up with. The artist believes that they bear a family resemblance to their subjects. Some things are still impossible to determine using DNA alone. For instance, Dewey-Hagborg has no way of figuring out a person’s age, so she builds each face as if the person were about 25 years old.
Once she has the facial models, the actual sculptures are made using a 3D printer. When the series is shown, she hangs the portraits on the gallery walls, along with a petri dish containing the original sample and a photograph of where it was found.
“Stranger Visions” is a project that would have seemed like science fiction as little as five years ago. It stands as a reminder of advances in genetics and computer technology. The artist told Smithsonian: “It came from this place of noticing that we are leaving genetic material everywhere. That, combined with the increasing accessibility to molecular biology and these techniques means that this kind of science fiction future is here now. It is available to us today. The question really is what are we going to do with that?”
One possible use for the process is to fight crime. Dewey-Hagborg recently constructed a face from the remains of an unidentified woman for Delaware’s medical examiner’s office. The portrait is a clue which could lead investigators to an answer as to the woman’s identity.
To see photos of the sculptures and for more information, check out Dewey-Hagborg’s blog: http://deweyhagborg.com/strangervisions/portraits.html