Thursday Salute to Originals: Artist Hijacks DNA

We leave traces of ourselves everywhere. Whether it’s a stray hair, a chewed piece of gum, or lip prints on a wine glass, little bits of our genetic makeup act as a genomic trail of breadcrumbs revealing where we’ve been. Normally, we don’t think twice about these little unaccounted pieces DNA; most of the time we don’t even know we’ve left something behind. (Seriously, who’s keeping track of their lost hairs?)  But that’s exactly what artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg is trying to highlight: no matter how inconsequential our genetic footprint seems or how secure our identity feels, these tiny lost pieces of DNA can leave us more vulnerable than you might think.


For Dewey-Hagborg’s exhibit Stranger Visions, she collected discarded pieces of DNA – cigarette butts, fingernails, stray hairs, chewed gum, etc. all left around New York –  and used genetic phenotyping to map the features of the person whose DNA was found on each object. Using the characteristics indicated from the DNA analysis, Dewey-Hagborg then recreated the faces of the people who left behind these insignificant, but telling, pieces of genetic code.

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If you’re thinking to yourself “there’s no way you could POSSIBLY get enough DNA from that cigarette butt to tell any sort of significant information,” think again.  Just a few microscopic cells of DNA can tell gender, skin color, eye color, ethnic descent (right down to the region and the percentage of composition), nose size, hair color, hair texture, height, weight, and more.  All of this genetic information discarded or lost in public for anyone to steal. When put in that perspective, the reality of this does become alarming. Maybe we’re not as anonymous as we think?

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If you find the thought of seeing your face reconstructed and hanging on an art gallery wall all because you threw your gum in the public trash super creepy, you’re not alone. This made us feel weirdly violated and insecure, too. But that’s the whole point of Dewey-Hagborg’s exhibit. If little bits of DNA can be used to create art, something rather innocent, imagine what other ways – potentially more nefarious ways – these insignificant bits of ourselves could possibly be manipulated if put in the wrong hands.

For using art to exemplify the complex impact of modern science on our personal privacy, we salute Heather Dewey-Hagborg and her Stranger Visions exhibit. Be careful what you leave behind. Who knows, that stray hair might just make you the unknowing star of another art exhibit… or worse.

Image Credits: Heather Dewey-Hagborg; My Modern Met