On a bleak January day in 2013, Chicago-based artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg picked up a cigarette butt from a sidewalk under an underpass in Brooklyn.
She hadn’t seen it being dropped, but over time, as she worked methodically to extract the genetic clues clinging to it, she started to find out about the woman (it was a woman, it turned out) who had dropped it.
Dewey-Hagborg, who describes herself as a “amateur biohacker,” extracted DNA from the butt in a lab and analyzed it. The resulting strings of text gave a series of clues about its owner: sex, ancestry, eye colour, physical features. She used the information to create a 3D image, and finally ran it off on a 3D printer.
The anonymous woman’s genetics pointed to family origins in Italy, or maybe southern Portugal. She had brown eyes, a slightly smaller nose size and somewhat lower odds for obesity than the average.
The result looked like this:
“The project started as a question for me: how much I could learn about a stranger from a hair?” Dewey-Hagborg explains.
“I started collecting cigarette butts and chewing gum and hair from the public bathrooms and streets and subways of New York.”
The point of the project, called Stranger Visions, was to look at ‘genetic surveillance’ and its intersection with the politics of race.
“Ancestry profiling from DNA becomes a kind of stand-in for race, and begins to provide some kind of biological legitimacy to a concept that otherwise would be considered to be cultural,” she explains.
How close were the portraits to the people they were meant to represent? Dewey-Hagborg had no way of knowing, so she tested the system on herself. She calls the result “a general likeness.”
“If you have a representation of a northern European female with blue eyes, freckles, less likely to be overweight, how much do I look like that kind of stereotype? That’s how accurate it is.”
“It’s not that it doesn’t look like me. But I don’t think you could pick me out of a crowd of people of the same ancestry and gender.”
Decide for yourself:
Dewey-Hagborg is concerned about the increasing use of DNA-based facial reconstruction by law enforcement, given that the practice is so far fairly primitive: “It’s an unknown, right now, how much we’re going to find out about the biological determinism behind appearance.”
Virginia-based Parabon Nanolabs is offering a service similar to Dewey-Hagborg’s, which it calls Snapshot, to police.
“It makes it seem as if it’s very authoritative, and what I worry about is that because it has this DNA basis people are going to think it’s as accurate as a DNA fingerprint. But it’s really not at all.”