DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) is often imagined as the key to identity, as the progenitor of who we are. It is nature within us and the scaffolding onto which we are nurtured into who we are. However, through epigenetics, viral transfer, and genetic drift, we are becoming more aware of the superposition of DNA and its ability to change, inherit, mute, and express with degrees of certainty, not certitude.
At the same time, DNA extraction and sequencing has never been cheaper or easier. In light of this and the continued reliance on DNA as forensic proof, artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg approaches the cultural conception of DNA through a hacker mindset, exploiting vulnerabilities in our legal code to expose society’s unwarranted reliance on DNA as an object of truth.
Dewey-Hagborg is currently in residence at ThoughtWorks Art Residency (among others), a new residency program in Manhattan dedicated to the idea that, as co-director Ellen Pearlman said, “artists can often operate with fewer constraints than those in industry, in terms of research, direction and public engagement.” Dewey-Hagborg seems perfectly suited to this approach, engaging with technology to question the cultural assumptions at play in its application. Inhabiting the activist/artist role, her works have drawn scrutiny and attention to a fundamental aspect of identity-building in society. In a recent project, Radical Love, she received DNA from Chelsea Manning through cheek swaps and hair samples. Using the DNA to shape portraits of Manning, she reveals the limitations of “forensic DNA phenotyping” in the face of gender and identity. Her next project aims to go even farther, working with human cell cultures to sculpt a critique of the murky world of human biological experimentation.
Radical Love will be exhibited in Conjunctions, curated by Rachel Valinsky, Friday, November 4th, 2016, at Peninsula Art Space.
Joel Kuennen: In Stranger Visions, you went around collecting stranger’s DNA off the street and then 3D printed portraits of these individuals. Were you already familiar with DNA profiling when you began this project?
Heather Dewey-Hagborg: The project really just started as an idea. The background I had was in machine learning and thinking about electronic surveillance. I had been working in that area for about ten years. There was a project I worked on called Listening Post which was planted on the street in Buffalo, NY, and would overhear passersby and attempt to learn language by analyzing and fragmenting what it heard and then speak back onto the street with an amalgam of people’s voices. This was a speech recognition piece that was inspired by thinking about the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping and what it means for all of our conversations to be potentially overheard and analyzed by an automated system. It got me interested in thinking about the mistakes and biases in these systems, especially systems that had the authority to generate “actionable information” that would point fingers at people.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Listening Post, 2009. Courtesy of the Artist.
JK: What prompted your interest in DNA and privacy and how did you go about learning how to do this work?
HDH: I had this experience, sitting in therapy, looking at a framed print on the wall and I noticed the glass was cracked and there was a hair stuck in the crack of the glass and that just captivated me. I sat there and wondered whose hair this was, what I could find out about them. I kept thinking about it after I left and couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I started noticing all these things around me in New York that we were leaving—saliva, cigarette butts, chewing gum, and hairs—and then thought if I started collecting those things, what could I find out? I wrote it up in a proposal and just started applying to things and that led me to a residency at Eyebeam and then also just asking around which led me to GenSpace, a community biology lab in downtown Brooklyn where anyone can take a biotech crash course and learn the basics of how to extract DNA and how to analyze it. When I started the project I didn’t know what would be possible. I wasn’t sure where it would lead or how to visualize it. These were all open questions that became resolved working on the piece itself.
JK: What information can be read from an individual’s DNA off the street?
HDH: Any genetic or genomic information can be read from trace DNA. So as long as you can get a decent enough quality sample, a clump of hair for example—as long as you have a few hairs there, some follicles at the end of the hairs, you can find out everything you would from a standard DNA sample. The question really is: “what does DNA profiling tell us?” This is a more complicated question because it’s not a certainty. With DNA we’re never talking about deterministic things, we’re talking about probabilities. This aligns with this predictive turn we see everywhere: from our newsfeeds, the ads we see online, the traits that are read into our DNA. Things we can read into our DNA include eye color, hair color, complexion, ancestry—which is very contentious because the line between ancestry and ethnicity and race is so blurry—sex, a few hints about facial shape, tendency to be overweight. Lately, I have been looking into behavioral traits like depression, sexuality, and religious preferences. I read a study the other day about the genomic correlations of “age of first sexual experience”—crazy shit.
JK: How do you see the predictive turn being applied to genetics, criminologically, or even in a casual way?
HDH: This is the turn from genetics to genomics which some people call the “post-genomic era.” After the sequencing of the human genome, we have all this data. How do we handle it? How do we make sense of it? What new kinds of methods have emerged? Almost all of biology has become computational. The same kind of algorithms being used to make sense of the big data sets out there are also being applied to biological data. For example, a lot of studies begin by looking at a large set of data, an entire genome panel for example, then looking at a phenotype, a characteristic that a population has, and then looking for correlations. Those correlations might point to locations on the genome that directly code for something genetic or they might not code for anything at all. There might be no clear role for causation: this is the predictive turn.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Stranger Visions, 2012-2013. Courtesy of the Artist.
JK: What DNA databases currently exist that necessitate this type of activist work?
HDH: There are two major forms of DNA databases today. The biggest one in the U.S. is CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) which contains mostly the records of so-called criminals, or people who have entered into the criminal justice system. These people may have been arrested, may not have been convicted, may be related to a missing person, as well as people who have been convicted of crimes.
JK: Are people aware they are in CODIS or are there instances when you could not be aware that you are in the CODIS system?
HDH: Increasingly we are seeing a radical expansion of that database. It started as a database for sexual assault cases and violent crimes and then over the years it has expanded to consume every type of felony, and then misdemeanors, and now arrests. Most recently in a really shocking story that ProPublica broke a couple weeks ago, they profiled a program called “Stop and Spit” which is essentially the Stop and Frisk, that we are familiar with in New York, but instead of just frisking people they are asking people to donate DNA. That DNA most likely could end up in CODIS and could be there forever.
JK: What systemic biases are created through DNA profiling and databasing?
HDH: Already, CODIS is so racially biased. It’s totally closed in so we don’t know who is in it or what the demographics of it are, but we can only assume it reflects the racial inequalities of our prisons and criminal justice systems at large. Then if we push this even further to sampling DNA from people police deem “suspicious” it really is disturbing. It pushes the racial profiling elements of DNA databasing to a whole new level.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Invisible, 2014. Image by Thomas Dexter.
JK: Stranger Visions led to your project, Invisible, which ostensibly is a company that offers two solutions: one that cleans DNA, and another that obfuscates remaining DNA. Can you tell us about Invisible and the conceptual leap from interrogation and provocation to presenting a possible solution?
HDH: After Stranger Visions, the obvious question was: “what can we do about this emerging era of biological surveillance?” On one level, Invisible presents itself as a kind of solution to the problem of genetic surveillance but it becomes immediately clear that this product is not going to solve our problems. Further, Invisible is a kind of exploit in the hacker sense of the term in that it points to a security vulnerability. It makes clear that DNA is not as authoritative as we would like to believe it is. It sneaks the critique in in the form of this product and suggests that the DNA gold standard demands reevaluation. That’s really where it came from for me. After Stranger Visions, I was starting to research into the history of DNA evidence and the construction of the truth of DNA. I was trying to understand how genomic knowledge is constructed and that lead me to questioning the faith we put into DNA.
JK: This provocateur role of your work reminds me of the role of viruses in defining stable systems. Is this Invisible’s goal—to force a reevaluation of DNA testing in general, both in forensic applications as well as others?
HDH: That’s really the goal for me. Invisible takes the form of this counter-surveillance product, but for me the interesting part is where that fails: the futility of attempting to mask one’s genetic traces. I would point out here that a DNA sample taken when someone is arrested—cheek swab, for example—is a highly reliable source of DNA, but the bulk majority of DNA forensic evidence is coming from some sort of mixture. In the wild we never have perfect DNA samples; we’re always all shedding our DNA on top of each other all over the place.
JK: Which is the anonymity we want back…
HDH: Exactly. The point here is that DNA mixtures are an area of great concern. It is something that’s beginning to be addressed in a legal context primarily because companies have begun selling black-box software packages that claim to interpret DNA mixtures better than humans. The police want to introduce this software into court as an expert. So now we have these questions about the validity of this software making conclusions about DNA mixtures which are notoriously hard to interpret. It’s beginning to bring the difficulty of DNA mixture analysis into public discourse.
JK: Do you see DNA losing its position as one of the main identifiers within these forensic contexts?
HDH: While, yes, DNA is seen as less and less deterministic because we have epigenetics, the microbiome, etc., DNA sequencing has never been faster or cheaper. More people have had their DNA sequenced than ever before through direct-to-consumer companies, research projects, and the emergence of new health and wellness companies that are sequencing everyone’s DNA that participates. We have simultaneously a loss in the authority of DNA while at the same time we are gathering more of that information than ever. And come to draw conclusions from it about people.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg, illustrated by Jarad Solomon, The Biononymous Guide, 2016. Image by Jarad Solomon.
JK: How have sales been for Invisible?
HDH: I made 25 and sold them all. I’ve open-sourced the protocol now. I’m not an entrepreneur; I want to move on to other projects. The DIY guides are on the biononymous.me site. I just posted an even more-DIY-than-ever version of it (above) that you can make in your kitchen with your friends at your next party. Bleach is good for wiping away DNA traces. Alcohol over 70 percent works. If you want to cover them up, just get all your friends together and have them spit in a cup and spray that over the surface.
JK: What are the legal challenges you’ve come up against with your own projects? Is the existing legal structure around DNA privacy too meager to present a challenge?
HDH: It’s too meager. Most of what I do falls into a gray zone. There haven’t really been any cases that have gone to court about one person violating another person’s genetic privacy. The only real DNA law we have is the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) that does protect citizens against discrimination on the basis of their genetics in employment and health insurance contexts. Beyond that, there isn’t really any federal regulation on this. There are a patchwork of state laws, and every state is different in terms of what is and isn’t allowed, what penalties there are...but it’s incredibly hard to enforce. How can you stop me from picking up your coffee cup and profiling it in my kitchen? It’s just impossible to enforce.
We need to think about regulation but we also really need to think about education and social norms. On the one hand, we have this question of what DNA really means and how much authority we should give it and how much DNA actually “says.” On the other hand we have this real question of norms. Do we as a culture decide it’s ok to throw genetic privacy out the window? Or do we shape our norms differently and work to protect people’s privacy and allow people to not know these things about themselves? I think the only way we can make these decisions is to have more cultural production around these topics. Fiction, art, music, and film will allow us to think through these scenarios.
JK: So there is a cultural role to be played here. Are there legislative proposals you are aware of that could address the expanding role of DNA databases in criminology and society in general to protect the individual from unauthorized sequencing?
HDH: Sort of. There’s nothing I’ve heard of proposed to deal with the Stranger Visions problem, or sequencing other’s DNA without their permission. There has been talk around increasing regulation in a medical context. So when you give blood at the doctor, is it OK for the extra blood that wasn’t used for testing to be sold to someone else without your consent, for research, pharmaceutical development, etc.? That’s the area I’ve been researching in my most recent project. There have been hints that there might be increased regulation in that area but it feels far off.
HDH: In my new project Sell Bio, funded by a Creative Capital grant, I’m attempting to push what I did in Stranger Visions a step further by giving a face and a name to the supposedly anonymous subjects of biological exploitation. I’m working with investigative journalist Scott Christianson and writer/researcher Dorothy Santos and thinking about it as investigative art, so the production of art as evidence.
The starting place is excavating histories, infrastructures, protocols, and business models that position the most personal of information, a person’s DNA, as a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. This started for me by mapping out how cells, DNA, and profits circulate through this system. The project involves traditional forms of investigation as well as lab research. Working from cells that I purchased online from dubious biological suppliers, I’ll analyze their DNA, profile the individuals, and attempt to reidentify them. Additionally, I’ll spend time imaging, writing to, and performing a kind of intimacy with these anonymous DNA donors. I’ll culture their cells into biological sculptures and chronicle the investigatory, laboratory, and fictional processes as a form of hybrid documentary. In its most recent incarnation, that hybrid documentary will involve me going to sites and becoming a donor.
JK: What are these “dubious sources” for human cells?
HDH: There are many. It’s not even a darknet because it’s not hidden. There are many websites where you can go and buy single source human DNA, saliva, blood, tissue samples, and immortalized cell lines. Cell lines are actually the most regulated, not because of privacy issues but because of intellectual property issues. The story of Henrietta Lacks was a big inspiration for this new research. How are we all Henrietta Lacks? That’s how I’ve been thinking about it.
JK: Regarding the biological sculpture: are you thinking about growing cells on a scaffold?
HDH: I would like to grow these people’s cells in a way that they become visible to the naked eye. Scientists do this all the time; I would just be buying them, culturing them, and using them to create some visual form that relates back to the research I’ve done. Probably not a direct portrait but I’m not sure yet. I haven’t started that part of the project yet. I’ll be focusing on that at SUNY Buffalo.
Image at top: Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Radical Love: Chelsea Manning, 2015. Image by @Luthy.
Tags: surveillance DNA genetic privacy biological art art and technology, conceptual