In Stranger Visions, artist, programmer and scientist Heather Dewey-Hagborg questions how much genetic information can be obtained from street trash. From the litter they leave behind, she is able to create 3D renderings of actual smokers and gum chewers.
Read the description of Sample 4 (above) and genetic information obtained to create "Face":
Myrtle ave. and Himrod St. Brooklyn, NY
MtDNA Haplogroup: T2b (Likely ancestry 25% European)
SRY Gene: absent
Likely Eye Color: Brown
Slightly larger nose size
Slightly lower odds for obesity
By Megan Guerber
Discarded coffee cups, dropped cigarette butts and spit out pieces of gum commonly litter our sidewalks. Nobody likes the trash and what it’s doing to our environment, but what is it doing to our privacy?
Artist Heather Dewey-Hamburg intersects art, science and technology in order to explore such valid questions. Her project Stranger Visions (2012-2013) investigates how much genetic information can be gathered from common street rubbish.
Dewey-Hagborg began her project by walking Brooklyn streets and picking up cigarette butts along the way. She then brought these samples back to her lab in order to extract DNA from those that tossed them onto the street. She was able to access a surprising amount of information, including hair and eye color, complexion, gender, and probable ancestry.
This data was then fed to a computer program to create a 3D rendering of the person’s face. The program works much like a sketch artist, combining fragments of information in order to sketch a general likeness of the person. Rather than just a sketch, however, Dewey-Hagborg used a 3-D printer to create life-size masks. The effect is eerie, to say the least. From a bit of trash arises the ghost of a stranger.
It is inconceivable how much information can be obtained from a mere trace of DNA. How many hairs, how many pieces of gum, have we left in a trail behind us? What facts about us are available in our wake? How does the ability to extract this much data from casually discarded debris affect our privacy?
Luckily there are still some limitations to Dewey-Hagborg’s program. Such traits as age and face shape cannot yet be discerned from mere street trash. The 3D faces she prints therefore only bear a family resemblance to their originators, yet the notions of this project are distressing nevertheless. Imagine walking into an art gallery and seeing a face uncannily like your own. Months ago you tossed a cigarette out on a sidewalk in Bed-Stuy. Is that really all it takes?
What are we to do when this much genetic information can be obtained from practically nothing? Is our culture vulnerable to a future of genetic surveillance? It is a question not easily answered, yet eloquently brought to life thanks to sciart.
Hear Heather Dewey-Hagborg speak about her work on the CNN website.