An artist named Heather Dewey-Hagborg has created DNA sculptures using genetic material from random items discarded by strangers.
How are DNA sculptures created?
Dewey-Hagborg first collects discarded DNA samples. These come from cigarette butts or hair. She then uses the DNA left on the items to generate 3D-printed portraits. In theory, these sculptures should reflect the physical attributes of the person from whom the DNA was taken.
The process starts with extracting the DNA from the sample. She then amplifies specific regions of the genome that are associated with physical characteristics, like hair color or facial structure. The amplified DNA is then sequenced to determine the individual’s genetic information. This information is used to create 3D models of the person’s face. Those models are then 3D printed for her art installations.
The artist bases the final sculptures of the sculpture on genetic information. But it also relies on assumptions about how genes influence physical appearance. So, in some sense, they are speculative. You likely wouldn’t be able to track down a person based on a sculpture.
In an interview in Interalia Magazine (cited below), Dewey-Hagborg explained her process. “I walked around picking up people genetic material and analysing it, making portraits, to show the coming risks of genetic surveillance. That as our DNA is increasingly legible (fast, easy, cheap to sequence) we are facing new cultural consequences.”
As for her goal:
“My goal, if I have one, is to inspire audiences to critically engage with science and technology in their lives. To be aware of structures around them, of things present or soon coming, and to think and talk about them with others; to discuss what should or shouldn’t be. I hope that my work invites viewers into a visceral encounter with the near future.”
Genetics and art
By using DNA as a medium, Dewey-Hagborg tries to raise questions about the role of genetics in shaping our identities. Her work also has implications for thinking about advances in biotechnology for privacy and individuality.
Dewey-Hagborg has displayed her work at the World Economic Forum. She has also sold work to the Centre Pompidou, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Wellcome Collection, the Exploratorium. She has a Ph.D. in Electronic Arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. — WTF fun facts