While the rest of the country panics about the NSA harvesting our metadata, artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg is quietly combing Brooklyn for for more tangible sources of information: A strand of hair, a discarded cigarette butt, or a recently downed beer glass can all lead her to develop a very specific, very creepy portrait, of what you look like, down to the texture of your hair and the curves of your nostrils.
"The project began when I was sitting in a therapy session..." she begins, tellingly, at the start of DNA Portrait, a 12-minute documentary created by TED. Dewey-Hagborg goes on to describe how she noticed a hair wedged into a crack in the glass of a framed picture (gross!), which then led her to wonder about the head to which it belonged.
"I kept thinking about that hair, about whose hair it might be, about what they might look like and what they might do," she said. "I just kept seeing hairs everywhere."
A less committed person might forget the whole thing and go eat a cheeseburger, but fortunately for our culture, Dewey-Hagborg was not to be distracted. The picture-hair became the basis for Stranger Visions, a half art, half science minotaur of a project that explores, in Dewey-Hagborg's words, "what we can learn about a person from a hair," and, more broadly, the "possibility for genetic surveillance."
When she stumbles upon a hair—or piece of gum, etcetera—she brings it to Genspace Biotech Lab on Flatbush Avenue, where she uses DNA sequencing to determine the owner of the hair/gum's identifying characteristics—things like eye and skin color, ethnicity, gender and weight.
So dedicated is Dewey-Hagborg to the cause that she wrote two computer programs, one that identifies basic physical characteristics, and another that generates a face using facial recognition research out of Switzerland.
"The idea that hair from your head can fall on the street and a perfect stranger can pick it up and know something about you," said Ellen Jorgensen, a co-founder of Genspace. "With DNA sequencing becoming faster and cheaper, this is the world we're all going to be living in."
Dewey-Hagborg doesn't sound especially alarmed by this potential new method of surveillance, but she admits she is more conscious of her surroundings. "The biggest influence this project has had on me, is that now, I'm very aware of everything that I leave behind," she said. "If I go to a bar and have a beer and leave a little saliva there in the bottom of the cup, I think about it now."
And great, now we will, too.