A New York Artist Is Doing Something Amazing With Your DNA


The average adult sheds up to one million skin cells, loses 50-100 pieces of hair, and generates roughly one liter of saliva each day. Most of the time, you wouldn’t think about how much of yourself you leave behind—the few strands of hair you left in the public bathroom, the trace amount of saliva left on your Starbucks cup, or the skin cells that microscopically cake your keyboard at work. But what if you could create a piece of art from all the information, the DNA, hidden within each sample of hair or skin cell you shed?

This is where New York artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg comes in with her new project called Stranger Visions. The first step to creating her art is to roam the streets of New York City looking for samples to create 3D portraits of stranger’s faces. Using commonly practiced DNA extraction methods in the lab, she can determine gender, hair color, eye color, and even your ancestral history all from a cigarette butt.

Where most artists would normally use a pencil and paper to initially sketch their painting, her tabula rasa is a computer program in which she enters the DNA information and the result, her “rough sketch,” is a 3D generated model of a face. She uses a 3D printer at NYU’s advanced media studio to create casts of these faces.

Heather’s creative artistic license comes into play when trying to fill in the gaps of what the DNA cannot tell her—such as the length of someone’s nose or the shape of their face.

The samples she collects also can’t determine anyone’s age, and so again she uses artistic freedom to create faces that range between the ages of twenty and forty.

Heather’s project has created a unique new junction at which art, science, and technology intersect. With an increased accessibility to and the accuracy of 3D printers, this type of technology has the power to create a new artistic frontier.

Where one might spend hours working with a material difficult to sculpt, a 3D printer can create the artwork for them. Although the word “art” has expanded broadly throughout the decades and no longer is expected to look like an oil on canvas piece, there are questions about how far science should stretch.

Stranger Visions is a project that Heather hopes will bring awareness to genetic privacy—something we’ve been accustomed to hearing about in a courtroom or a crime scene—and how far science is allowed, or should be allowed, to go while still protecting an individual’s right to privacy.

As the science for genetic depictions becomes increasingly accurate, society may no longer have a sense of anonymity. On the other end of the spectrum, this technology of 3D printing an accurate depiction of someone may aid in solving crime cases. Now there’s no need to pull an Ethan Hawke from “GATTACA” just yet, but if Heather can create innocently beautiful and creative artwork from a stranger’s DNA, chances are we should start thinking twice about dropping a cigarette butt in public.

Audrey Strasenburgh

Audrey Strasenburgh

Associate Editor at The Chiefly
Born and raised in Rochester, NY, a graduate of St. Lawrence University with a passion for the sport of rowing. A current rowing coach, avid hiker and skier with the lifetime goal of sampling every beer ever made.
Audrey Strasenburgh
Audrey Strasenburgh
Audrey Strasenburgh
Audrey Strasenburgh

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