Let’s say you walked into an art gallery in Dublin and saw your face, 3D printed in full-colour paper, up on the wall and looking back at you blankly. The uncanny feeling you experience would certainly be accompanied by the question, “What the…?” In the case that this has happened to you, you may have, inadvertently, become a part of Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s exhibition titled Stranger Visions at the Science Gallery.
What’s happened here, how Dewey-Hagborg got ahold of your face, is that the artist, who often merges art and technology in ways that raise ontological questions, found a cigarette butt with your DNA on it laying in some gutter in Dublin somewhere. Using polymerase chain reaction (PCR), particular portions of the DNA were examined that contain single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP). SNPs are linked to traits that differ among individuals, with a growing library of SNPs correlated with specific genetic expressions. Rs333, for instance, is correlated with resistance to HIV. Dewey-Hagborg then rooted out alleles on those SNPs that correspond to physically expressed traits and used them to generate a face representing those characteristics, with her own software. Finally, an Mcor Iris printed the model in full-colour 3D. Oh, and some nails or what-have-you hung them up on a wall.
If you really did see your face in this gallery, there was probably also a lot of chance involved. Dewey-Hagborg’s 3D models can’t capture exact replicas of the DNA’s owners. ur DNA sequencing just hasn’t quite gotten to that level of detail, yet. Instead, the alleles that she was able to draw from were a bit more generic: “gender, ancestry, eye colour, hair colour, freckles, lighter or darker skin, and certain facial features like nose width and distance between eyes,” the artist says. These parameters allow her to generate a face that is usually similar to the owner of the DNA sample, but that isn’t quite exact, saying:
They will have similar traits and ancestry, but might look more like a possible cousin than a spitting image of the person themselves. The reason for this is multifold, but the primary reason is the research on facial morphology, the way human faces differ, is still in very early stages. A lot of this information comes from what are called genome-wide association studies, research that looks at hundreds or thousands of genomes and tries to find correlations. So it logically follows that the more genomes we sequence, the more correlations we will find. I think we will get close but you can’t discount the role environment plays in expression of genes.
So, in the case that the artist did recreate your face, you either look very vague and non-descript or Dewey-Hagborg got very lucky.
The exhibition is meant only as a thought experiment about the possibilities of DNA sequencing technology. Referencing a hair she noticed embedded in a piece of framed artwork at her psychiatrist’s office, Dewey-Hagborg says,
When I saw that hair and couldn’t stop thinking about it I realized that there was nothing that could stop me from analyzing it. Even if we passed regulations our human bodies were simply not designed to refrain from shedding evidence. (Although my next project might well attempt to tackle this!
So what I want to do is open a dialogue. I wouldn’t be so bold as to state that I have all the answers but this is real, it is happening now and it isn’t sci-fi anymore. So we need to think about it. We need to deal with it as a culture. Getting a public conversation going is the first step in the process.
Like all technology, DNA sequencing is clearly a double-edged sword. On the one hand, police sketch artists could render DNA samples to create accurate, full-colour, 3D models for investigative and legislative purposes. On the other hand, artists could hang your handsome face up on a wall somewhere and make money without paying you any royalties.