Human beings have always needed to face their time and raised questions about the future, on the edge between the fascination and the fear for rapid and complex scientific and technological progress. Heather Dewey-Hagborg is a transdisciplinary artist with a PhD in Electronic Arts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who moves on the border of narration and science. She uses art as a key tool for thinking about the nature and the entailments of a world of Artifical Intelligences and biological surveillance.

Through the dystopian visions of artworks such as Stranger Visions  and the future scenario of, for example, Spirit Molecule, her works show a universe in which art, science, theory, philosophy and technological (and biotechnological) research are interwoven until they disclose the possibilities and the snares of the contemporary.

Bianca Cavuti:
Your work is somewhere between art and science, and actually, yourself are an artist, a researcher and a scientist simultaneously. It is particularly interesting the experimental slant of your projects, that often start with a question leading to theoretical and artistic reflections. Where does this approach come from? What is today the value of the transdisciplinarity in contemporary art?

Heather Dewey-Hagborg: My approach hybridizes the conceptual with a technological and scientific form of inquiry. It draws on the lineage of conceptual art but asks why can’t the concepts be scientific, or technologically oriented? I use the conceptual as a jumping off point for the inquiry to make work that is thoroughly research-based but also very much grounded in the histories of conceptual art, and media art that have come before me.

The value of a transdisciplinary approach is responding to the world we inhabit. We exist in a technologically mediated world that is increasingly also a biotechnologically mediated world. Of course artists should utilize new media of all forms in asking questions and sharing their observations of life as they experience it.

Bianca Cavuti:
A Spurious Memories
, one of your first artworks, is, to put it in your words, “an experiment in artificial creativity”. Will you tell us something about it? What are the reflections and the ideas which are at stake?

Heather Dewey-Hagborg: In 2007 I developed Spurious Memories as an experiment in artificial creativity. Could a computer really be intelligent? And perhaps more interestingly, could a computer be creative? In a flurry of youthful enthusiasm, I set out to show that it could, and soon found myself mired in questions about what creativity actually meant. For the purposes of this project I defined it as “the generation o fan output that was not explicitly learned”. I designed a system that would connect a principal components analysis neural network with a self-organizing map, and I trained it on images of faces.

The system had two modes of operation. The first was recognition. You could present it with an image of a face from the training data and it would identify it. Or you could present some other kind of image: random noise, clouds, burnt toast, and it would recognize something, though more likely than not it wouldn’t be one of the faces it had been taught, it would be a kind of ghost face, a spurious memory composed of an assemblage of statistical components of other faces. At the time this felt a lot like creativity to me. The second mode of the system was associative. I wondered what the dreams of a facial recognition system would look like, and I implemented a recurrent mode that would start with random input and then drift along to neighboring states.

But over the last ten years, my sentiments towards AI have really changed in a way I can only describe as boredom. Maybe the more interesting question for me now is not so much the technical one of this Turing style test, can computers do human-like things without us, but more a question of implications. What does it mean for computers do kind-of-creative things? What does a world with kind-of-creative AI-generated art and music and writing look like, and feel like? And of course the political question: who gets to decide what creativity means? Whose data trains the system and who gets left out?

Bianca Cavuti:You showed a theoretical attitude over time, writing about subject matters of your artworks. I am thinking for example of “Generative Representation”, the essay you recently published on Unthinking Photography, the Photographer’s Gallery online platform. What are the relationships between your theoretical production and your artistic practice? Do you consider it important for an artist that handles contemporary issues to assume this double point of view?

Heather Dewey-Hagborg: Theory, philosophy, history – in particular in relation to technology and media, are personal interests of mine. For me it enriches my artistic practice and also my relationship with the work of others. I find it very important to think about the relationship between technology and mediation and society and I find it also a point of inspiration. How can I dream about the future ahead, if I am not informed by the past? I often like to think of my work as theory in practice, as philosophical investigations in material form. However I don’t say this as a prescription.

Bianca Cavuti:It is very interesting your reflection about biological surveillance and the dangers of a (new) potential drift in the field of genetic determinism. I was very impressed by “Sci-Fi Crime Drama with a Strong Black Lead”, published in 2015 on The New Inquiry. In this article you analyze in detail the practice of FDP, “Forensic DNA Phenotyping”. What constitutes this new technological means and what are the threats of its wrong application?

Heather Dewey-Hagborg: The practice of rendering appearance from forensic samples is called “Forensic DNA Phenotyping” (FDP) or “molecular photofitting”, and there are a handful of scientists and companies around the world trying to make this not only scientifically possible, but also a useful law enforcement tool. FDP begins with a dataset of 3D facial scans and DNA samples taken from research participants. These scans are processed to create what’s called “face space”, a probabilistic representation of all possible faces drawn from, and limited by, this set of 3D scans. Finally, the data is mined for correlations between DNA and facial shape by examining characteristics that are assumed to be opposite ends of a spectrum, like masculine and feminine or “European” and “African”.

Forensic DNA Phenotyping is premised on the calculation of what is called genomic ancestry, admixture, or Biogeographical Ancestry (BGA) – friendlier terms for what are commonly understood as racial percentages and referred as “the heritable component of race”. After assigning sex, the second step in creating a DNA phenotype is to assess an individual’s percentages on roughly four “ancestral” types: African, European, Native American, and East Asian; a division which recapitulates the centuries-old racial categories of Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negroid.

FDP is the practice of genetic portraiture applied to a forensic context. It is the attempt to fashion a physical likeness of a person from nothing more than their DNA. This is becoming an increasingly commonplace practice in policing and it brings a host of issues. There is a conflation that occurs between DNA sciences that are authoritative, like we are familiar with DNA fingerprinting from all the forensic shows, and this new technique that is totally unrelated. It borrows the authority of DNA as the “gold standard” of evidence, but utilizes entirely different – and very questionable – methods. So the problem is the lack of accuracy, in that the portrait will never be really accurate, because DNA will only ever be able to provide hints about what you might look like. Phenotyping is always a probability and never a certainty. And the further issue as I describe it in the article, is that it becomes a new form of racial and ethnic profiling, in the guise of science. It becomes an excuse to further harass and even arrest marginalized groups that are already so much subject to discriminatory policing.

Bianca Cavuti:The closing words of that article are very intense: talking about this new technological condition, you write that “ to fully understand, to appropriately educate others, to devise suitable policies, and to form strategies of resistance, we need to know how it breaks”. A positive and dynamic approach that seems to come out in your artworks, for instance, “Invisible“, a genuine artistic provocation that undermines the DNA’s value as a proof through the invention of two sprays to erase and obfuscate the DNA traces. Also very interesting is “DNA Spoofing“, in which the biological translation of a computer practice of falsification of data becomes a counter-surveillance technique.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg: What I am getting at by discussing “how it breaks” is the importance of being materially informed to create strategies of resistance. To know what a thing really means, what a tool really promotes or forecloses you have to deeply understand its construction. Without this we too easily form snap judgments and unnuanced opinions that won’t lead to credible or workable policy.

It is not enough to say something is bad. Too often we see an antagonism between technologists and theorists and a failure to find a middle ground which is a tremendous failure of imagination on both sides. I think (tech/science/media) theory needs to be informed by hands-on experience, and conversely, the makers should be much more informed about the theoretical read social and ethical implications of their medium. I can’t stress enough how much I find this missing – how much I wish we could cross this divide between critical studies and science/technology practice in a way that is meaningful and informative.

Bianca Cavuti:In 2015 you began collaborating with Chelsea E. Manning, the famous American whistleblower imprisoned until 2017 for having smuggled out and delivered to WikiLeaks classified documents about USA military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan while she worked as an intelligence analyst. Two beautiful projects came out from this encounter: “Radical Love” and “Probably Chelsea”. There is also a short graphic novel, “Suppressed Images”, that tells how did you hook up with her. Do you want to talk a bit about these artworks?

Heather Dewey-Hagborg: Probably Chelsea consists of thirty different possible portraits of Chelsea Manning algorithmically generated by an analysis of her DNA. Probably Chelsea shows just how many ways your DNA can be interpreted as data, and how subjective the act of reading DNA really is.

I first got to know Chelsea Manning by reading her DNA. Three years earlier I had created a system for algorithmically-generating 3d faces based on DNA data. In my artwork Stranger Visions I profiled DNA from forensic artifacts I found in public, like cigarette butts and chewed up gum, and then computationally generated 3d models representing what these strangers might look like based on genomic research. I 3d printed the models at life size in full color.

For the first portrait I made of Chelsea in 2015 I used the same system, input her genomic data, and generated two versions of her face: one androgynous and one “female.” Placing these two portraits side by side I made apparent the reductionism of pinning someone’s gender to simplistic readings of genetic sex—a routine practice in DNA forensics. Probably Chelsea pushes this even further by presenting thirty different variations on Chelsea’s portrait, suspended as a crowd at an assortment of human heights in the center of the gallery. The form of the installation was inspired by conversations Chelsea and I had about the limits of DNA profiling, along with the incredible mass movement that advocated for her release from prison. We have so much more in common genetically than difference. Probably Chelsea evokes a kind of DNA solidarity; on a molecular level, we are all Chelsea Manning.

Unfortunately, genomic reductionism has become increasingly common. Police departments can now purchase “DNA mugshots” based on little more than a few microliters of DNA. The scientific reality, however, is complex, multiple, contingent, and probabilistic. There is no certainty in reading sex and ancestry from DNA, and often the guesses that are made are little better than a coin flip. There are 6 billion base pairs in the human genome, most of which are shared among all of us.

Most variations between people are in non-coding regions, i.e. the spaces in between our genes that have no known function. Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly clear that the influence of the environment alters gene expression, turning genes on and off in various levels and combinations. So what can a genome tell us? It can give us clues, or probabilities of phenotypes. DNA can tell many stories, and as with all data, it lends itself to multiple interpretations. Probably Chelsea portrays these alternate narratives and represents a sampling of the many stories Chelsea’s DNA can tell.

Bianca Cavuti:
In your last work “Spirit Molecule” you talk about a hypothetical future in which would be possible to engineer a departed dear’s one DNA into a psychoactive plant that can be consumed to get to a complete state of intimacy with the other. Thinking about the more important issues of your research, how do you picture the future?

Heather Dewey-Hagborg: That is quite a large question. I often say that we already inhabit the dystopia, so there is no need to fantasize about that, rather just to show what is already all around us, even if it lurks in a less than visible way. Lately, I try to dream of a future that might be less oppressive.

It is not an easy task. Things are genuinely quoted bad and there are few hints of progress. However, I can imagine a few things. My new project – in progress “Lovesick” is about exactly this, {see attachment} as is Spirit Molecule. Thinking of new rituals for the biotechnologically mediated future coming around the corner.

In my dream of dreams I imagine a future in which we utilize biology to extract ourselves from the digital malaise, to bring ourselves close together, physically in ways that surpass how we can imagine intimacy today. That we overcome the alienation and hate of the present and move to a profoundly open future where we see also traditional concepts of family exploded, where the family is instead something radically inclusive, and where blood, race, and sex lose their oppressive significance.