A visceral encounter with the near future

Heather Dewey-Hagborg is an artist and biohacker who is interested in art as research and technological critique. Her controversial biopolitical art practice includes the project ‘Stranger Visions’ in which she created portrait sculptures from analyses of genetic material (hair, cigarette butts, chewed up gum) collected in public places.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Heather Dewey-Hagborg: My background is in art and technology, I’ve been making work in that field since college and have long been fascinated by the possibilities technology and science bring in opening our ideas of what art is. I grew up in New York state, I went to college at Bennington College in Vermont, got a masters at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, and then a PHD in Electronic Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I have moved over the past several years between teaching when interesting opportunities arise, and being a full-time artist.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

HD-H: A big influence early on was John Cage. I was totally inspired by this idea that “art is imitation of nature in her manner of operation.” This extension of the mimetic impulse to the algorithmic. This idea of coming closer to nature through technology. Early on I also read Stephen Wilson’s amazing compendium “Information Arts” and was drawn to his articulation of conceptual information arts – art-technological practice with a strong conceptual drive. The artists and project he documented in the book, in areas ranging from AI to Biology to Physics and art opened so many possibilities for me. These ideas have definitely shaped my approach to art practice.

RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?

HD-H: 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.

Stranger Visions – Installation at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Sept 6, 2014

RB: The phenomena of biological surveillance features strongly in a number of your works, particularly Stranger Visions and Invisible. Can you say something about these works and the relationship between privacy and visibility?

HD-H: Visibility is dual-pronged, and this complex dance is represented in the dialectic between my works Stranger Visions and Radical Love. On the one hand, 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.

Portrait and portraits from New York: Sample 7
Collected 1/6/13 1pm, 33 Flatbush ave. Brooklyn, NY

Stranger Visions sample 7-closeup

Portrait and samples from New York: Sample 4
1/6/13 12:20pm, Myrtle ave. and Himrod St. Brooklyn, NY

Stranger Visions sample 4 – close up

On the other hand, Radical Love gave US whistleblower Chelsea Manning back the public face she had been denied due to government censorship, using the exact same DNA portraiture techniques. So, on the one hand visibility is a risk, and on the other hand, when it is forcibly taken from you, it is a powerful tool of liberation.

Radical Love (photo credit: Thomas Dexter)

RB: In your more recent work, How do you see me?, you utilize algorithms that are designed to deceive facial recognition systems. Can you say more about this work and how do you envisage a culture of surveillance, biological, machine or otherwise, in a post-pandemic world?

How do you see me?

HD-H: In How do you see me?, I wrote evolutionary algorithms to generate  images from scratch that grow over time to score increasingly high as human faces to a computer vision (CV) system. I did this as a way of understanding how CV sees – to reverse engineer in a way by generating a fleet of tiny machines that in turn generate “faces” that are totally alien to the human eye. It shows some of the assumptions and biases built in to machine learning (i.e. that a “face” is a white oval.) And on the other hand shows how bizarre and foreign these algorithmic entities really are (that my face is algorithmically similar to these unrecognizable vector gradients.)

How do you see me?

Post-pandemic I see the biopolitics of our pre-pandemic world vastly amplified. We see that in terms of health disparities – that the individuals most harmed are those facing other forms of marginalization based on race, poverty, age, etc. And we see it in the hardening of borders and citizenship. The reduction of mobility. The creation of checkpoints to disallow access to basic needs (like groceries) to individuals based on temperature scans. My fear is that the enormous growth of biological testing currently taking place (that people are screened weekly or even daily for COVID) creeps into a more generalized testing policy. If you can test for COVID, why not other things? The nightmare scenario is that all this biological data is put together with our online/social data, with mass surveillance and churned by AI that then automates where we are allowed to go, who we are allowed to see, what  we can do, and essentially who we can become.

This is unfortunately not so much a hypothetical as a description of what has already been reported as happening in China on a mass scale to oppress the ethnic Muslim minority. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/09/china-ai-surveillance/614197/

Spirit Molecule II

RB: You talk of your works Spirit Molecule I and Spirit Molecule II as “a series of experiments that imagine a future of biotechnologized mourning as we engineer a lost loved one’s DNA into a psychoactive plant that is then consumed in a final journey of intimacy with the other.” Can you say something about these works and the use of psychoactive plants?

HD-H: Spirit Molecule, an ongoing collaboration with Phillip Andrew Lewis, came from an interest in imagining where biotechnology will arrive in our most intimate lives. I have been thinking about love, first about infatuation (see t3511) via donor DNA, then about kinship, cohabitation, long trusting love (Lovesick), and then about grief, about mourning. In spirit Molecule we wanted to see if we could engineer a psychoactive plant (Phillip’s area of expertise) with the DNA of a loved one to create a “genetic memorial.” Something one could consume after they died as an act of remembrance and closeness. The use of psychoactive plants I this piece heightens the symbolic idea of a “last journey” with your love and builds on the current surge of medical and popular interest in psychedelics.

Spirit Molecule II

Spirit Molecule II


RB: How does your work Lovesick relate to the Spirit Molecule works?

HD-H: Lovesick is at the center of this trilogy looking at the future of intimacy and biotechnology. In Lovesick I worked with a company specialized in vaccine and antibody research to develop a custom virus that would infect human cells and insert an extra copy of the oxytocin gene  – the famous love hormone. My fantasy with this work was to make a virus that could bring the world closer together – to combat the hate and alienation I saw propagated through digital culture. To bring people, physically, back in touch. Now, post-Corona, it seems we need this more than ever.

Lovesick HEK293 producer cells expressing RFP 400x magnification



RB: Collaboration between the arts and sciences has the potential to create new knowledge, ideas and processes beneficial to both fields. Do you agree with this statement?

HD-H: Absolutely. Speaking from my personal experience my perspective on what art can be has completely opened up through collaborating with scientists. And conversely I know that when I left residencies in various labs, the scientists also thought about their work in a new way.  So I think it definitely can be mutually beneficial and inspiring to both parties.



All images copyright and courtesy of Heather Dewey-Hagborg

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