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?


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All images copyright and courtesy of Heather Dewey-Hagborg

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