Title of the artwork: Stranger Visions

Author: Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Date: 2013




“In Stranger Visions I collected hair, chewing gum and cigarette butts from the streets, public restrooms and waiting rooms of New York City. I extracted DNA from them and analyzed it to computationally generate full-color, life-size 3D-printed portraits that represent what those individuals would look like, according to genomics research. Working with the traces that strangers inadvertently left behind, the project was intended to draw attention to the development of forensic DNA phenotyping technology, the potential for a culture of biological surveillance, and the push toward genetic determinism.”


Imagine entering an exhibition in a contemporary art museum where you discover to your astonishment that, among the multitude of hyperrealistic busts on display, there is one that bears a strong resemblance to an old friend of yours: yourself.

Suppose that, captivated by this moment of great perplexity, you decide to find out how this could have happened, how someone could have placed your three-dimensional image in that space without your permission. You experience mixed feelings: of admiration and anger, of curiosity and awe.

Then, moved by the need to know more about the work, you find out that it is entitled “Stranger Visions”, by the artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg (USA). You notice how she has taken the utmost care in detail, endowing the image with a texture and chromaticism that infuse it with an extraordinary and captivating potential for presentiality.

Imagine now that this work of contemporary art SciArt had a small review in which it is explained that those faces correspond to real human beings, with unknown names and surnames, but who have left their most reliable trace through the physiological remains that their body has been releasing in a natural way. Specifically, through withered hair, chewing gum and cigarette butts that have fallen to the ground in a place frequented by the public.

Reading a little more about the work, you are astonished to discover how the artist has had the brilliant idea and the audacity to immerse herself in the knowledge of “phenotyping”, a scientific technology by which it is possible to determine the appearance of a human being from his DNA. Scientists have been developing it for years to help, among other things, in forensic studies and to be able to simulate how the face evolves with age in order to find missing persons.

And there you are, and this work has such an emotional impact on you that you decide to immerse yourself in the knowledge of the genetic code, a concept you have heard about in the media, but know only superficially.

Imagine that we move this work to a science museum and that some professionals take advantage of the possible readings to unfold a map of knowledge and sensations.

A biologist explains what DNA is and what part of it makes it possible to accurately reconstruct a face.

A forensic doctor explains the instruments and the technology of phenotyping, examining in a language close to the public the principles on which it is based.

A mathematician and an engineer talk about the three-dimensional reconstruction of faces, how a computer is capable of generating this virtual bust, and how it can be materialized using a 3D printer.

An anthropologist and a philosopher unfold a conceptual map of polysemic, polemic and at the same time necessary readings on ethics in scientific research, on identity and privacy.

“Stranger Visions” is an example of how a work of art can be inspired by scientific knowledge and advanced technologies. It is also an example of how a SciArt work can awaken viewers’ curiosity about science and its advances.



What materials / media are used in the work and why? 

This work could be considered a sculptural-installationist work. It is composed of a series of objects that reproduce three-dimensional human faces digitally fabricated using a 3D color printer. The materials chosen to position the work are carefully chosen to resemble as closely as possible the texture and color of the skin and eyes of the reproduced human beings.

What is the significance of the elements of the work?
This work is composed of a collection of faces as anonymous as they are real, as present as they are enigmatic. They seem to be taken from a dream or even a nightmare. They are homogenized faces in that they lack hair, and focus our attention on their most sensorial characteristics: the skin and the eyes. They are faces that are partly reminiscent of death masks or the first “Memento Mori” photographs that were intended to keep an image of a recently deceased person. But, above all, they are faces that make us wonder to what extent our identity belongs to us, and how our genetics determines our physiological features. At the same time, it makes us question whether this genetic determinism will also have a corresponding projection in our psychological traits. Does DNA determine our appearance, or also our character? Are we masters or slaves of ourselves and our genetics? What conditions us more as people, our DNA or our culture?
This work, too, is an excellent example of how an artist can get to investigate scientific procedures and technologies, in this case forensic ones. Unlike other SciArt works, it is not based on scientific images but on data as sensitive as our DNA. In a historical moment in which we continuously question our digital footprint in the context of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, this work projects our thoughts to a different dimension, to reflect on our primordial biological footprint: our DNA.

Fragmentation / Appropriationism: Interestingly, in this case there is no fragmentation and appropriationism of pre-existing cultural resources. The artist has not appropriated the image of a person rescued from the immeasurable photographic archive of social networks, but has appropriated without her permission her DNA and has learned to decode and interpret it in a forensic visualization application. Therefore, the fragmentation intrinsic in the samples collected and analyzed by the artist (hairs, chewing gum and cigarette butts), as well as the appropriationism of the underlying genetic information lead us to a moment of aesthetic awe and admiration for the underlying science at the same time. From a philosophical point of view, we are disturbed to know that our DNA is there, available to anyone who wants to take it to a laboratory and extract not only information about our appearance, but also about our physical and mental health, our intellect, etc. In short, we feel naked and exposed to the free will of those around us.

Simulacrum: In the case of this work, the simulacrum becomes reality, as genetic determinism means that the probability of these anonymous faces reliably reflecting real faces is very high and this, in the words of the author “draws our attention to the potential for a culture of biological surveillance and the drive towards genetic determinism”.

About the artist

Heather Dewey-Hagborg is an artist and biohacker interested in art as research and technological critique. She holds a PhD in Electronic Arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is a visiting assistant professor of interactive media at NYU Abu Dhabi, a member of the Sundance Institute’s interdisciplinary Art of Practice program, an artist in residence at the Exploratorium, and an affiliate of Data & Society . She is a founding board member of Digital DNA , a European Research Council funded project investigating the evolving relationships between digital technologies, DNA and evidence. She is also co-founder and co-curator of REFRESH , an inclusive and politically engaged collaborative platform at the intersection of art, science and technology, and co-leads the Decolonizing Interactive Media research group at NYU Abu Dhabi.



Author of the analysis: Rocío García Robles