Heather Dewey-Hagborg: Hacking Biopolitics
Articles,  Blog

Heather Dewey-Hagborg: Hacking Biopolitics


Welcome everyone to the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series. Steven Warner on the Barton organ. Thank you, Steven. Yeah, what a guy. I don’t know if you guys caught it today, but he was just in the height of a rendition of “Every Breath you Take.” Awesome. And before that, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Specially selected for our guest today, as we are pleased to present information artist and bio hacker, Heather Dewey Hagborg. She may make you think differently about those thoughts of someone to watch over me and every breath you take. Not to scare you or anything. If anyone is wondering why the weather is horrible outside, let me tell you, it is because the Detroit Tigers have their home opener tomorrow. And then on Saturday, the weather’ll be fabulous again. I wanna thank our partners for their support of today’s program: The A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, with their upcoming Art and Science Evening on April 20th. Do not miss it. And the Institute for the Humanities, the School of Information. I think we have one of the best schools of information at the University of Michigan, I do say. And the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, where Heather was hosted last night, and Michigan Radio 91.7 FM. Today is the last of our main stage events here at the Michigan Theater this season, though it is not the final Penny Stamps event of the season, as we will host two, yes, two more special events this season. Only one of them is on your printed calendar. The first one will be April 19th, when we host Doug Miro, native Detroiter, screenwriter, and the creative force behind the award winning series “Narcos.” That will be at MOCAD, downtown Detroit, on Wednesday, April 19th at 7:00 PM. And then look for more information to come. We have a date, and we have a venue, and we have a fantastic presenter. We will be hosting our last special event of the season in Ypsilanti, just down the road at Cultivate on June 22nd. Well, we’ll host an evening with Zimbabwean ethnomusicologist, Joyce Jenje Makwenda. That will actually be our final of the series. But as we are coming to the end of the season and we have spent the season with this theme of “seed,” I just wanted to say a couple words on that. I hope for students, and our regular fan base out there, who have stuck with us through it all, that it has provided some ample food for thought, and germination of some ideas that have been released here on the stage. Simply put, a seed holds potential, but alone, it is nothing more than just a seed. It has to be activated by just the right essential elements for that potential to be realized. And so we hope the Speaker Series here is a seedbed of ideas for you, and you, the Penny Stamps community, carry the potential for the activation to foster the growth of the ideas that are released here, and the forces of your fertile minds can fully activate these, and supercede. Because an idea… When a seed grows, it supercedes itself and creates more seeds, just as one idea begets another. So it’s all in your hands, is all I’m saying. Being the last main stage event too, I wanted to make sure and thank some folks, without whom this series would not be possible: Our patrons, of course, Penny and Rose Stamps, The Stamps School of Art and Design, our presenting organization, all the students and faculty hosts who help every week with our guests, the Michigan Theater, our venerable venue, and its staff, who are par excellence. Ya, extra specially to our organists. You’ve had a whole roster of organists this season. Our front of house team, and Walter up in the booth, and Rico backstage, who are our ever faithful crew. Carl Green, who is our graphic designer, who creates our graphics each season. Yeah, Carl’s amazing. And Andre Gru, our IT guru, because without him, things would not go so smoothly. And Ian Line’s crew with InterVision Webcasting, who capture and archive all of our talks for us, so while we’re on hiatus, you can catch up on talks you’ve missed. Review your favorites on YouTube, and Vimeo, and pass them to your friends. And I will look forward to seeing you, right back here, next September. We start on September 14th, and though the new season is not yet announced, it is forthcoming. If you check the Penny Stamps Lecture Series Facebook page, late July/early August, that is typically the first place that the new series will be posted. As for goings on about town, folks, there are so many incredible things to do in the coming weeks. It is a veritable cornucopia of cultural happenings, and so, in honor of time, I advise research, and awareness, and I’m going to limit my hot tips to home base. This week, Close Encounters, the 2017 Stamps Senior Show, kicks off. This weekend, nightly performances, tonight, Friday and Saturday at the Duderstadt Video Studio, will be presenting a live variety showcase, featuring premiers of original thesis work by Stamps School BFA candidates. Then the senior exhibitions continue throughout the month of April, featuring work in a range of media by all of our graduating Stamps students. These will be taking place in four exhibition sites throughout the city of Ann Arbor. Here at the Michigan theatre, I believe it’s next Thursday, you can see screening of work by students. More performances at the Duderstadt Video Studio the following weekend, and exhibitions at the Argus II building, and the new Stamps Gallery down the street, and around the corner. All events are free and you can find full details on the Stamps School website. And if anyone did not go, and see the Tracey Snelling… Tracey Snelling, who spoke as a special at the museum a few weeks back, in the Penny Stamps Series, she has an exhibition at the Institute for Humanities that is just top drawer, so if you have not taken it in yet, it’s up ’til April 28th. Go to the Institute for Humanities on the corner of Thayer and Washington, and check it out. I promise it’s worth it. We are going to have our regular Q&A today, following this, in the screening room, out the doors to the left. Come there and meet Heather, directly following her presentation. And now, for a bit of background on our guest. Heather Dewey Hagborg is a trans disciplinary artist, who is interested in art as research and critical practice. Her controversial bio political art practice… Bio political, oof… Includes… Alright… Her bio political art practice, I guess that was carried more than me, art practice includes the project, “Stranger Visions,” in which she created portrait sculptures from analyses of genetic material, which she foraged from cigarette butts and chewing gum collected in public places. Heather has shown work internationally at events and venues, including Davos, the World Economic Forum, Shenzhen Urbanism, and Architecture Biennale, the New Museum, and PS1 MoMA in New York. Her work has been widely discussed in the media, from the New York Times, and the BBC, to TED, and Wired. She is an Assistant Professor of Art and Technology Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and in 2016, Creative Capital awardee in the area of Emerging Fields. Please welcome Heather Dewey Hagborg. Thanks so much, Chrisstina, and Penny Stamps, University of Michigan, and MOCAD for having me. It’s really wonderful to be here on such a beautiful evening in Ann Arbor. So, in July of 2015, I received this email from PAPER Magazine, asking me if I would produce a DNA derived portrait of Chelsea Manning. As many of you probably know, Chelsea Manning is an American whistleblower, who became known for the information that she made public, exposing the scale and prevalence of torture and civilian deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Due to a very harsh policy on visitation in military prison, she can’t be visited or photographed, except by her family and her lawyers. And so what that means, is that since her sentencing, which was also the time of her gender transition, her image has been suppressed. So in effect, no one has actually seen Chelsea Manning. And so I realized that by interpreting her DNA, I could give her a kind of public face. I could give her back this image that had been taken away from her, that had been denied her for years. But how did I end up here? So this was me in college. I was a pretty grumpy teenager. Really did all of the things, drove my parents crazy, really struggled through high school, really barely made it, I think, through high school. And I have to say that college really saved me, in that regard, and it was in college that I began to really explore how art could move in directions, that I’d never imagined before. Learning about things like conceptual art, for example, and beginning to learn about art and technology. And that came out, in part, because I met another student who was at college with me, who showed up, and in the first week of school… And this is in, about the year 2000, by the way… And he just built a robot, and put it out on the lawn, and it would just track people as they walked by it. This is 2000. No one was doing that. And I found it really inspiring, and intriguing, and we became close friends, and then he mentored me in getting started, and thinking about programming, and electronics, and kind of delving deeply into what art could be, in an interactive sense, in a technologically mediated sense. And it was especially interesting, because I really hated technology, actually, until this point, and it was through thinking about concepts, thinking about ideas, thinking about philosophy, and in particular, being inspired by the work of John Cage, and this particular quote of his, where he says, “Art is imitation of nature in her manner of operation.” And just getting really hung up on this idea of the manner of operation. And realizing that in contemporary times, that manner of operation could well be an algorithm. And that the algorithms that we had increasingly available to us, could take the form of things like machine learning, for example. And so I started to get really excited about… I was working in both visual art, but I also started taking computer programming classes, and getting into artificial intelligence at that time, and really getting excited about genetic algorithms, and neural networks, and thinking about these kinds of ways of getting close to nature, in a sense, not by depicting it, or representing it, but by learning somehow from its structure, or trying to learn from its structure, to get closer to it through its structure. And so the first piece that I worked on, that was in this vein, really, the first real art and technology piece I ever made, was my senior thesis in college, it was called “Net Lingua” in 2003. And it started from this fascination about language. How does human language come about? How does this happen? We have these artificial programming languages that we design, but how does natural human language emerge? And so I was reading a bunch of theories about that at the time, and I had this question that got stuck in my head. If language is a complex adaptive system, which emerges through the interaction of multiple agents with each other and with their environment, could language emerge in an artificial community, created upon these same principals? Here’s another view of this piece. And so what you can see here, are basically six different sculptures/autonomous agents, each one of which had a sensor for sensing something about the environment. And then they were networked together, and they would also be able to vocalize. And so what they were doing, was sensing something in the environment, making up a name for it, making up a word to represent that sensation, and then sharing that with each other, through both vocalization, as well as this networked capacity. And the idea was that, over time, they would build up, not just names for these sensations, but start to develop also more complex relations between them. If you think about the experience of this, let’s say, temperature sensing agent, that might sense 65 degrees, and then 70 degrees, and then 75 degrees, being optimistic here, right? And then start to abstract a pattern from that, and then could that pattern be shared, also with a humidity sensing agent, for example? Long story short, I created this installation, and put it out, and then let it run for a week or so, and here’s a recording of what it sounded like, the kind of language that they began to develop. Moving on, in 2006, I started to become… I continued, really, my research and excitement around these kinds of algorithmic models. Neural networks, in particular, really fascinated me. And in 2006, I became particularly fascinated by a type of neural network that’s called a Hopfield network. And the idea behind the Hopfield network, is that it can memorize patterns, simple patterns, like the ones you see here, and to some extent, more complex patterns as well. And so the idea is, that you would train this network by presenting it with instances of these patterns, and then it would learn them, and then if you present it a lossy, or degraded, or noisy version of that same pattern to it, that it could recognize it. So if you gave it pattern number eight here, on the bottom, but you had that image file and it was a bit distorted, it could still recognize that’s pattern number eight. The fascinating thing about Hopfield networks, to me, is that in addition to memorizing these patterns that it’s taught, it would also memorize or recognize the intersections and inverses of these patterns. This was something that, for computer scientists, they found very frustrating. This was really a flaw in the system, that this network would have these kind of false memories, in a way. But for me, it felt an awful lot like the kind of thing that we do when we’re being creative, drawing on our experiences, taking things that we’ve seen, things that we’ve encountered, and then intersecting them, flipping them around, playing with them a bit. And so, in reading about this, and in thinking about this, I started thinking about the idea of computational creativity, and wondering if I could architect, as an artwork, a system that would be creative, in its very architecture, really, in its structure. And this took me deep into neural networks, even deeper than I’d gone before. And I began working with a data set that was easily available to me, and that was my fellow students at the Interactive Telecommunications program at NYU, which is a grad program. And I trained my network with a subset of student faces. Basically, I had access to pictures that were taken of all of the students in the program. And then I would do these creation of random sets of those students, and train the networks. And then what I was able to do, is to take this system, that was really designed for recognizing faces, so it was drawing on facial recognition algorithms, and to turn that around, and turn it into a face generating system. The faces that it would generate looked a little something like this. And, to me, it felt like I was tapping into the dreams of a facial recognition system. Imagine that you have this kind of system, that’s been trained on all these people’s faces, and it can recognize those people, but then, in between the faces that it recognize, and in between the images of people that it’s actually experienced, are these sort of fantasy faces. And my interest in this project was called “Spurious Memories.” And my interest in this really came from this philosophical place. Like I described, since undergrad, I was really interested in philosophical aspects of machine intelligence, and learning, and creativity. But as soon as I started applying these algorithms to faces, suddenly it became political. And it was really through applying the algorithms in this way, simultaneously, New York City began blanketing the streets with cameras. And there was this very direct connection that began to emerge for me, between what I was doing with these algorithms, and what was very likely happening right outside, which was the interpretation the video feeds, in an automated way, through algorithms. And the more that I learned about these algorithms, and the more I played with them, and I would spend weeks just reading the computer science literature about state of the art facial recognition, and then try implementing these systems myself, and the more I read about this, and the more I played around with the material, I realized that they were flawed, that they were biased towards and against certain kinds of faces, certain characteristics, and more than that, that really, they just didn’t work that well at all. And so I finished that project, with both this deep knowledge of the algorithms of machine learning, neural networks, facial recognition techniques, and also this growing concern about how these tools were, or would likely soon be used as instruments of surveillance. And that was really the beginning of my interest in trying to expose that, and explore that through art. And there’s several projects that happened after that, that were explorations of that, that I’m gonna skip over today. I’m just gonna jump ahead to my most recent body of work, which deals, really, with the bio politics of surveillance and visibility. I’ve been experimenting with surveillance systems, thinking about speech recognition, and face recognition, and thinking about, in the wake of the Patriot Act, wontless wire tapping. So this was an earlier way of pre Snowden surveillance concerns. And then in 2012, I was sitting in a therapy session, and I was sitting there, staring across the room at this print on the wall. And then, I noticed that the glass that was covering the print was cracked, and I saw this hair that was just stuck in the crack. And I sat there for the hour, of course, I’m supposed to be sitting there thinking, introspecting, thinking about myself, but instead, I’m thinking about this hair, and I’m imagining the person who might have left it, sitting there with their long, dark hair, leaning back, and getting it caught. And I began imagining who they might be, and what they might be like, and really, what I could learn about them, from this trace bit of themselves that they left behind. And when I left that day, I couldn’t help noticing things, suddenly, everywhere I went. It was like the city, New York City, where I was living at the time, it was like it just suddenly was filled with evidence, and everywhere I looked, I just saw cigarette butts, and chewed up gum, and fingernails, and hair. And I started thinking about this in a kind of forensic way. And so it occurred to me, in that moment, that this messiness of the human body, that we would be always shedding these things, all the time, without giving it a second thought, and that that very messiness was becoming a liability, because anyone could come along, and pick up the cigarette butt, and mine that for information about the person who left it behind. And so that’s exactly what I did. In “Stranger Visions,” I began obsessively collecting these things everywhere I went. Hairs and cigarette butts, chewing gum from the streets, and public bathrooms, and waiting rooms, and subways of New York City. And I extracted DNA from these items, and then I analyzed it to generate 3D portraits representing what those individuals might look like, based on genomic research. To do this, I looked at a wide spectrum of different kinds of genetic traits, did a lot of research around this. I looked at things that are fairly well established like eye color. I also looked at things that are very contentious like ancestry. I looked at genes that are not often considered controversial, but which I think we should really be thinking more deeply about like sex. And I looked at speculative science, so I looked at places where the science was just starting to come out, just starting to be published, things like freckling, and facial shape, and tendency to be overweight, and put all of these things together, to create these portraits that would represent these people. When I started working on “Stranger Visions,” I really knew next to nothing about molecular biology or genomics. I’ve had very little experience with that, up to that point. But what I did know, was that two years earlier, the world’s first community biology lab had just opened in downtown Brooklyn, just down the street from me, and that lab was called Genspace. It’s still there now. And what a community biology lab is, is it’s a place where anyone can come, and learn the basics of molecular biology, in a weekend, really. You sign up for a class, Bio hacker Bootcamp, like I did, and then you’ll learn how to extract DNA, how to amplify it, how to analyze it, how to do basic genetic engineering, all of these things, using do it yourself techniques in this community setting. And then, if you’re still excited, and you wanna go further, like I did, you can sign up to become a member, and then you can work on projects there yourself, under the mentorship of the scientists who run Genspace. And really, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with this project, if it wasn’t for Genspace making that technology accessible to me, because I had no budget, I had no experience, and I had no money to throw at this project. I just had this question stuck in my head and this curiosity about how far I could get in answering it. I would bring my samples to Genspace, I’d walk around, collect my cigarette butts, go down to Genspace, cut out a little piece of them, walk through a DNA extraction protocol, using a kit that’s available from a company called Qiagen. It’s called the DNA Investigator Kit. If anyone is inspired, you can go online and buy that very easily. And then I would extract the DNA, amplify regions of it, using a technique called Polymerase Chain Reaction, send those for sequencing, analyze the sequences, map those against a database I’d been putting together of traits of interest, and then relate these back to a 3D model of a face. Creating this genetic profile, and then computationally lining that up with what’s called a morphable model, a 3D model of a face that can be parameterized, pushed in different directions, with different kinds of traits associated with them. It’s a mathematical model. And I appropriated this model from the University of Basel. It’s called Morphace. And I took their model, and then I kind of reworked it, and retrained it. And I should mention that, much like in “Spurious Memories,” which I mentioned at the beginning, this is also used for 3D facial recognition. Part of the reason why I understood how this model worked, was because I’d spent so much time reading about facial recognition already, in the past, and kept up with that literature. I understood the basics. And so when I found this mathematical model, I understood that I could do the same thing, in a way that I’d done before. I could take this model that’s used for facial recognition and turn it into this face generating system. And what I would do, is take that genetic profile, feed that into the morphable model, and then generate around five different versions of each face. And then I would choose the one that I thought was the most compelling, and I would output that as a 3D model, and then send that to a 3D printer, and print that life size in full color. And then exhibit, of course, the portraits, along with the samples that they were derived from, and this metadata information about that sample. What I was doing, was drawing on both established and speculative research, to forecast where I thought this technology might be going. Two things here, one being that I was thinking about genetic surveillance, and the potential of genetic surveillance, but also that I was thinking about DNA phenotyping, which is this act of trying to create a likeness of a person, or to predict something about a person’s outward appearance from their DNA. I was trying to show that these are things that I think are very likely to be becoming more prevalent soon. And then also to highlight our impulse to genetic determinism, the wish that we have to know ourselves through our DNA, to wish that DNA will be the code of life that tells all about who we are, although we realize that it’s inherently limited also, and that environment plays such a huge role in shaping us. And so the first sculpture that I produced was a self portrait. You can see the portrait here. Of course, the first question everyone always asks, is about the accuracy of this technique, totally reasonable question. On the one hand, you can look at the self portrait, and look at me, and make up your own mind. Of course, it’s much larger than my face up here, but it also misses the point a little bit, which is that the accuracy is very subjective and varies tremendously case to case, because these portraits are created based on profiles, based on genetic profiles. So the question then becomes, how much do I look like a Northern European woman with blue eyes, and pale skin, and some freckles, and less tendency to be overweight? And of course, it’s one thing to see two faces side by side, and compare them, and say, “Oh, this is similar, this is different.” But it’s a totally other thing to pick this person out of a crowd. I mean, how many other people could easily be exactly a match for this face? So the project was intentionally very controversial. Hopefully, that’s clear. And I would say that it was intentionally controversial, but at the same time, I didn’t know what I was getting into, because I’ve been making this work for, I don’t know, a year, since undergrad, that really, no one cared about. And I wasn’t entirely prepared for the response that was to come. The idea behind “Stranger Visions” was to enact a kind of problematic practice. And this was inspired by the white hat hacking ethos, so the idea that you show a security vulnerability, by making that vulnerability visible. Because we’re ignoring it. We’re not paying attention to it. We’re not talking about genetic privacy. We’re not talking about DNA phenotyping. That was not on the radar at all. And so the idea was to make these things public, and get public debate going about it, get conversation going. I had no idea how much debate would be coming, actually, but I would say that the project was very effective at generating controversy and debate. And it brought me onto media outlets around the world. And really, that’s the most interesting part for me, of that project, was all of the places that it took me afterwards, that it broke out of the gallery. Of course, yes, I exhibited those pieces and still do in a gallery setting, but that it brought me onto mass media, that it brought me into science festivals, and that it brought me to policy conversations around the world as well. That’s really something I never expected as an artist before then. And so that’s been really exciting, and really, the greatest reward, I think, of that piece so far. And after I worked on this project, the rest of the work that I’ve been working on since there, sort of follows in line with this. Everything is inspired by these initial revelations, in a sense. If “Stranger Visions” aims to expose that we might be entering this future with the potential for mass biological surveillance, of course, it leads to the question of, “What can we do about it?” And so in 2014, I went to an art hack day, like a hackathon for art and technology in Brooklyn, and I ended up meeting up with some really interesting collaborators there, Aurelia Moser, Allison Birch, and Adam Harvey. And the four of us worked together on this collaborative work. I’m gonna show you a clip of it called “DNA Spoofing.” And so the idea here, was to create a playful way of thinking about how friends could help each other out, so how we could help each other enable some form of DNA anonymity in the age of genetic surveillance, DIY techniques. Okay, so you can watch the rest of the video if you like. There’s a couple more techniques in there. That’s me and Aurelia in the video. And so it’s meant to be playful, and a little bit silly, but at the same time, these things will actually help you… They will help degrade the DNA fingerprint that you leave behind. And also, I would say that working on “DNA Spoofing” got me doing some serious research as well. This is Kary Mullis, a very eccentric character, also Nobel Prize Winner in 1993, for the invention of Polymerase Chain Reaction. That’s that tool I mentioned, that I’ve been using in the lab, and it’s basically a technique, it’s usually called PCR, and it’s a technique that can be used for amplifying very small amounts of DNA many, many times. It was hugely useful in forensics. In 1995, Kary Mullis joked about creating a company that he called DNA Anonymous, which he said would sell amplified solutions using PCR, amplified solutions of DNA, that people could use for covering up their genetic tracks. And so while Carrie was joking about actually creating this company himself, he predicted that, in the next 10 years, someone would, in fact, do this. So, in 2014, a bit more than 10 years after that, drawing on more published research, I found a bunch of papers, where people were talking about this kind of thing, and of course, being inspired by Kary Mullis, I worked in the lab to develop a set of sprays that could be used for wiping away and covering up DNA traces. It’s an artwork. It’s called “Invisible.” But it’s also a working genetic privacy product and an open source set of protocols, that anyone can follow in their kitchen for creating their own DNA privacy sprays at home. And it’s offered by the somewhat imaginary biotechnology company that I started, BioGenFutures. And so I’ve been doing this kind of research in the lab, and online, and then that May, I was invited to give a keynote at an industry conference called the Bio IT World Expo, and there were going to be thousands of people there in the industry watching this, and I thought that this would really be the perfect place to launch my new company, and our premier product. And so, after describing “Stranger Visions,” much like I did too, today, but in a bit more technical detail, I said, “You wouldn’t leave your medical records on the subway for just anyone to read. It should be a choice. You should be in control of how you share your information and with whom, be it your email, your phone calls, your text messages, and certainly, your genes. And that’s why I created the first ever toolkit to protect your genetic privacy, and it’s called Invisible.” We’re going to be living in a surveillance state. Science holds the key to our security and prosperity as a nation. This is me. My DNA. People are being arrested, simply to get their samples onto the National DNA Database. Police can take DNA samples without a warrant. From anyone they arrest. Certain segments of the population will be subject to ____ surveillance. Me. Me. Me. You don’t have to have done anything wrong. We’re all screwed. Invisible. Invisible. Invisible. Invisible. Invisible… Sometimes I wish I was invisible. Have you ever wanted to be invisible? Invisible. Invisible. Invisible. Invisible. Now, you’re invisible. So this is basically the commercial for Invisible. And so technically speaking, Invisible is a suite of these two complementary products: Erase and Replace. The Erase spray is… I’m just gonna fill you in on the secret here… Bleach and water. Very effective at removing traces of DNA. But you don’t want to put bleach on everything, so the Replace spray is actually a bit of an innovation. The Replace spray brings together 50 different human sources of DNA, along with a preservative that keeps that DNA stable at room temperature, and so it brings the electronic privacy method of obfuscation, which is basically covering a signal with lots of noise, so that you can’t get the signal back out. It’s bringing that electronic privacy method to the biological. And so I like to say that, “Erase is good for hard surfaces, while Replace is best for soft and sensitive ones.” And so, on the one hand, we have an actual functional counter surveillance product, and it follows in a tradition of these kinds of artistic gestures of counter surveillance, meant to call attention to the risks of biological surveillance, of course, and we have this kind of exploit at the same time, so it’s pointing out a security vulnerability, which I think the Daily Mail calls attention here very nicely, which is interrogating the infallibility of the DNA gold standard. It asks, “Could a spray, which is really easy enough to make in your kitchen at home, really help criminals get away with it?” Or put another way, “If DNA evidence is fragile, in a way, if it can be so easily hacked, and forged, and spoofed, does it really deserve its elevated status?” The work came out of research I was doing into both these areas. At the same time, I’ve been doing a lot of research into the history of DNA profiling, and the contentiousness of DNA profiling, which really got totally forgotten over the years, and I wanted to ask simultaneously, “Really, how good is DNA?” And, “Should we be thinking about some of these questions around its authority and fallibility as well?” I was working away on these counter surveillance things, and then this happened, and I had nothing to do with it. This is the Hong Kong Cleanup campaign. It’s a environmental campaign. They hired an advertising agency called Ogilvy to work on this campaign, to allegedly publicly shame litterbugs in Hong Kong, the idea being, they would collect trash on the streets, extract DNA from it, and then supposedly print these big posters, pointing to the people who’d left that behind. I don’t think they actually did it. From everything I’ve read, it sounds like they really just worked with the DNA of volunteers, but what they did really do, is really analyze people’s DNA, and generate pictures of them, and it turned out that the way that they did this, was by purchasing, in a sense, working with a company that had just launched a new service doing exactly this. This is a company called Parabon NanoLabs, that around this time, launched a service they called DNA Snapshot to police around the US and around the world. And so when I worked on “Stranger Visions,” of course, I expected something like this was coming in five years, 10 years, but this was really too soon. I had just been deeply immersed in that research, and as I told you, generating multiple versions of people’s faces from this DNA, and then subjectively choosing ones I thought were artistically compelling, but what would the police’s criteria for this be? So I began to get very concerned, and I dug in a little bit deeper to this company, and I found some of their example profiles. You can see one here on the website. Here’s another one and keep in mind, that these images, these profiles are being published in newspapers, as essentially wanted posters, with no disclaimer at all, that this is not exactly what this person might look like. I think if you look at the actual profile here, what you see is pretty concerning. So we see that this is a male with dark skin, brown eyes, brown hair, no freckles, 92% West African, 8% Northwest European ancestry. What is this really telling us? This isn’t some detailed list of facial traits. This is, I think, a embodiment of a stereotype. This is what this company is presenting as a generic black male and that’s very concerning. My primary concern with this, with what this company is doing right now, not in the speculative future, but already today, that they’re creating almost a new form of racial profiling, at great expense to police departments around the world, and that that form of profiling seems to be propped up by the science of DNA, that it seems to carry that authority with it. Exactly the authority there, is trying to question in “Invisible,” that authority that we give to forensics and DNA gets embedded in this act of profiling, which has nothing to do with any of the certainty around DNA fingerprinting, totally different techniques involved, that are much more probabilistic, and that sort of gets lost. And so I’m concerned that, if we don’t stop this, that it’s just going to expand, that we’ll see more and more of this, and that these kind of phenotypic predictions will expand, to include even more dubious traits, things like guesses around intelligence, sexual orientation, religious, and political preferences. These are all things that you can read genetic studies about, genetic studies, and even last name. If you’re interested in these issues, I’d point you to an essay that I wrote, that gets really deeply into the history behind this, and more of the details of how it works, the technical details, and so forth, in The New Inquiry. That’s called “Sci fi Crime Drama with a Strong Black Lead.” Okay, but back to Chelsea Manning. So, when I received that email from PAPER Magazine, I was excited for several reasons. On the one hand, I was excited, because I’d been struggling with the launch of this new company, and realizing that, beyond calling attention to the risk around surveillance, I really needed to start somehow making visible, how limited this technique was, showing some of this reductionism, and limitations in the technique itself, and the stereotyped ideas of what faces are supposed to look like. And then I was also excited, because I realized that due to that harsh policy on visitation, due to having Chelsea’s image really being hidden from the public, that this technique, that was so problematic, could also be turned around, and used for a good purpose, also used to bring visibility to this person, who’d been made forcibly invisible. So the next time that Chelsea was getting a haircut, she snatched up some of those little clippings of hair, and then she took two Q tips, and swabbed the insides of her cheek, put it in a little Ziploc bag, and mailed it to me out of the prison. Then I extracted the DNA from those samples and walked through, basically the same steps I did with “Stranger Visions,” so amplifying, analyzing, sequencing the DNA, etcetera, etcetera. But with one particular difference, which is that I chose not to look at Chelsea’s genetic sex. She was worried about appearing too masculine, and I was excited about calling attention to this particular form of reductionism around sex and gender. I generated two variations of a portrait to represent her. On the one hand, you can see on the left hand side, this is a so called neutral portrait. This is, if you take that mathematical model and were to leave the gender parameter at its default, in the middle. So this is a androgynous portrait. And then, on your right hand side, is the gendered female portrait. This is pushing that mathematical model to its female parameter. And so these virtual portraits were generated, and then printed alongside her interview in PAPER Magazine. And then fabricated as 3D prints, and premiered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in January of 2016, amazingly, and ironically, giving Chelsea this form of visibility at one of the most elite, and really, inaccessible events of the year. And so these portraits of Chelsea continue to travel the world, to be exhibited, but of course, Chelsea still hasn’t seen them in person. And so, after generating these, I wanted to send her two dimensional prints of the portraits, so that at least, she could get some idea of what they looked like, of the work that I’d done with her DNA. But I was worried about just sending them to her in the mail. I didn’t wanna get her in more trouble. I knew that she’d been harassed about toothpaste and magazines in the past, and I really didn’t want to add to her concerns in any way. And so I wrote to her first, and asked if it was okay, if I would send her these pictures. And here’s the letter that she wrote back to me. Almost immediately, also, I have to say. I was just totally stunned by the bravery and resilience behind this letter, when she wrote to me and said, “Send me anything. Don’t let them chill your speech. If they chill your speech, then they’ve won. Let the lawyers work on the free speech angle.” “The ACLU rocks.” And so, of course, I sent her the pictures, and then she wrote back, and said that she especially likes the androgynous one. But the story doesn’t quite end there. So we worked on that, like I said, the portraits premiered in January of 2016, and then, of course, we all know what happened in November of 2016. It became increasingly clear, as 2016 was drawing to a close, that whatever was to happen politically in the White House, that the incoming president would be less likely to be inclined to grant Chelsea clemency, than Obama. And so I became interested in doing something to contribute to the clemency campaign for Chelsea Manning, before Obama left office. And so, at that time… Starting in the fall of this year, I started doing a residency at an interesting software development company called ThoughtWorks, that does a lot of social justice work, but also had just started this new art residency program. So I was doing this residency there, and I gave an artist talk, and then I was contacted by one of their… They’re a global company. They have offices all over the world, and one of their employees saw my talk, who was located in India, and she also happened to be an illustrator. And her name is Shoili Kanungo. And so she wrote to me, and just asked if she could do something, asked if she could help, if we could collaborate somehow, if we could use her illustration abilities in some way. And so I started thinking about it, and she started sending me drafts of images, working with… Imagining DNA processes and so forth. And then I put these two things together, and thought, “What if we create, basically, a graphic short story, that Chelsea and I could write together, that would illustrate the process of our collaboration?” And so the comic book is called “Suppressed Images,” and we basically got this together in less than two months, which was really, really difficult to do, I have to say, ’cause Shoili was in India, I was in New York, and Chelsea, of course, is in prison. And so we worked across all of these odds, to get this together really quickly. And I just have to point out also, that everyone really said it was pointless, and that we were wasting our time, and it was never gonna happen, Obama was never going to grant her clemency, but we thought we’d do it anyway. And so that comic narrates the whole story that I’ve been telling you here today, in a abbreviated form, and it’s been as a dialogue between Chelsea and I, drawing on our actual letters, and communications, and narrates this process of working together. You can see, I love this illustration, probably the most of any of them, on your far right. This illustration, from exactly the letter that I was showing you earlier, “Never shut up,” beautifully depicted, I think. And so it goes over this whole narration about our collaboration, but then it ends with a speculative twist. On the last page of the comic, it imagines that Obama commutes Chelsea’s sentence, and that she’s released, and she’s able to come see an exhibition of her portraits in person. And so the really amazing thing that happened, was that we published this early on the morning of Tuesday, January 17th, and then that afternoon, Obama commuted Chelsea’s sentence. Needless to say, I was completely overjoyed and overwhelmed, after working with her for a year and a half. And I have to say, that the takeaway from this for me, was to, first of all, listen to your gut, because people always tell you that things are impossible, but you really never know until you try. And also, that we should really never stop envisioning, but also really incanting the future that we want to see, because just saying those things out loud, I think has real power behind it. Now, of course, we have to make this exhibit happen. That’s clear. Chelsea’s supposed to be released on May 17th. And luckily, things have fallen into place since then, and so there will be an opening on August 2nd at Fridman Gallery in New York City, and Soho, that will be focused on this work that we’ve done together. And so, what I’m thinking about, just to take you up to the present moment, in my thinking about this work, and specifically, about this show, what I really want to do, is to take people inside this active phenotyping, so like I’ve been explaining to you about my concerns around showing it to be reductionist, trying to bring out some of the subjectivity in that process. The work with Chelsea already does that to an extent, but I wanna push that even further. And since I have this whole room to do it, what I’m thinking about doing, is also showing all of the alternate versions of Chelsea that I generated, but hadn’t used. So to give you an idea, some idea of what this might look like, imagine that you walk into a gallery filled with Chelsea, 10s of them, maybe 50 of them. I don’t know how many, but just this… Walls and walls of Chelsea Manning’s potential faces. And so the goal here, or the idea that I wanna try to leave you with, is that genetics are not destiny. They say a lot about you, and there are very serious, and very real risks here. There’s a lot at stake, but no amount of DNA, and really, I would say, no amount of any data, is enough to really tell us who you are, and to convey the complexity, and multiplicity, and the contradictions, and surprises of how identity actually works. Thank you. Oh, and come to the screening room. We’ll have Q&A in the screening room.

One Comment

  • Viince Vanden Bogaard

    Great installation of Uncany Stranger visions: https://www.instagram.com/p/BvL2PZRFADj/?utm_source=ig_share_sheet&igshid=14z5pgebj5fbr

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