Sunday, September 1, 2013

Genetic Surveillance Art


Heather Dewey-Hagborg: artist's self-portrait, demonstrating the surveillance capacity of DNA trace information. "6/28/12. Self-portrait. Based on mtDNA, Ancestry Information Markers and 50 trait specific SNPs describing gender, eye color and detail, hair color/baldness, hair curliness, complexion, skin lightness/darkness, tendency to be overweight." Image Source: Stranger Visions Project.

BBC reported this summer on an artist who creates portraits from DNA traces found on found objects. Beyond a Millennial artistic statement that is a weird interface of the scientific and transcendent, Heather Dewey-Hagborg aims to make the public aware of how much information really is there:
Heather Dewey-Hagborg is an artist who creates portraits of strangers based on DNA extracted from random rubbish. The project is meant to raise awareness of genetic surveillance, Dewey-Hagborg says. "We should be concerned because we don't know, yet, how our DNA might be used against us in the future," she says. Genetic artefacts such as cigarette butts and chewing gum yield enough DNA to determine one's ancestry, eye colour, and whether or not the person has a tendency to be overweight.
Some participants in this project have waived all copyright to their DNA information, which raises the prospect of understanding how copyright law applies to one's DNA.

While Dewey-Hagborg argues that she is not invading people's privacy and there is 'no way you could recognize someone' from her DNA reconstructions, two possible outcomes from her work immediately spring to mind.

One is the potential for criminal police investigations. The other is that we can trace the actual impact of external life upon our genetic heritage by observing the gap between the DNA reconstruction and the appearance of the real person. The DNA reconstruction provides an image of each person's basic 'blueprint.' The real person presents the 'blueprint' plus the impact of real life. That gap, between 'nature and nurture,' is something that has been the core of (often disturbing) debates in Darwinism versus Social Darwinism, left-right politics, political philosophy, and anthropological analyses since the 19th century.

Dewey-Haborg also identifies a very important aspect of the current mentality that drives technological change; she examines how inductive reasoning, or 'bottom-up' logic, runs rampant through the turn of the Millennium:
the concept of inductive bias, an inextricable component in the framework of intelligent computer systems. ... [T]his bias represents an abstract danger which could have very real social and political consequences. ... [M]y recent art projects [also] experiment with taking the apparatus of surveillance technology and re-purposing its mechanisms for the intention of play rather than the reinforcement of power.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg: Her DNA-Reconstructed-Self-Portrait and the artist In Real Life. Image Source: Design Boom.

DNA hair sample collection at site. Image Source: Thomas Dexter via Design Boom.

Petri dish of DNA samples. Image Source: Heather Dewey-Hagborg via Design Boom.

Sample 10: (Left) Bushwick - Adonis Grocery, 209 Wilson Avenue; (Right) DNA sample from haplogroup: H1+16189 (Spanish, Berber, Lebanese). Image Source: Heather Dewey-Hagborg via Design Boom.

Left: Sample 10 and Right: Sample 12. Image Source: Heather Dewey-Hagborg via Design Boom.

Sample 12: (Left) Bushwick - laundromat, Himrod Street; (Right) DNA sample from haplogroup: H2a2a (Eastern Europe, Near East). Image Source: Heather Dewey-Hagborg via Design Boom.
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