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If You Spit Out Your Gum, This Woman Could Recreate Your Face From the DNA

By Andy Roesgen | March 31, 2015 5:30am
 When you toss out that discarded gum, you're giving away a treasure trove of private information. Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg uses it to create sculptures.
When you toss out that discarded gum, you're giving away a treasure trove of private information. Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg uses it to create sculptures.
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DNAinfo/Andy Roesgen

CHICAGO — You lose your wallet on a busy Michigan Avenue. Or you forget your phone in a crowded restaurant — and all your private information just sits there, waiting to be found.

As gut-wrenching as it may feel, a Chicago "bio-artist" wonders if some day you might feel the same dread from your discarded coffee cup, or chewed-up piece of gum, or a single strand of hair left in public.

To illustrate that potential reality, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, a professor at the School of the Art Institute, has put together an art exhibit featuring images of faces of people created from items found containing their DNA.

The idea goes back to a moment in 2012 when Dewey-Hagborg, then living in New York, noticed a strand of hair stuck in the picture frame of a therapist's office.

"I just sat there and stared at it, and I couldn't stop thinking about whose hair it might be," said Dewey-Hagborg, who nows lives in Logan Square. "It struck me that we were leaving DNA all over the place, all the time, and not giving it a second thought."

Heather Dewey-Hagborg with one of her creations. DNAinfo/Andy Roesgen

Dewey-Hagborg had studied computer science along with arts as an undergraduate in New York, focusing on machine learning and artificial intelligence. Her master's thesis included work on facial recognition algorithms and face-generating.

Her obsession with that single strand of hair sent her to New York's Genspace, a community bio-tech lab.

Her goal: Find a discarded piece of gum or cigarette butt or strand of hair and, using the DNA left behind, create a facial sculpture of the random stranger who left it.

After extracting the DNA from the discarded object, she needed to amplify it, analyze it, and combine it with the skills she already had in 3D facial recognition.

DNAinfo/Andy Roesgen

Then, using a 3D printer, Dewey-Hagborg took the final step from facial "recognition" to "re-creation."

"It started with a lot of failure," she says. "I spent six months in the lab and every time I tried, I failed. But I kept going and going and going."

She used a glowing blue gel, which would light up lines of DNA code, to determine certain basic traits, such as gender. From there, she plugged the results into face-generating software, eventually combining the right DNA protocol and chemicals to perfect the process in what she describes as her "Eureka!" moment.

DNAinfo/Andy Roesgen

"It was thrilling," she remembers. "It was the moment I thought, 'This piece can actually happen. I can make this work.' "

She called her work "Stranger Visions." Her first piece? A self-portrait. Using DNA from a strand of her own hair, she was able to create a face very similar to her own.

Then, she scoured public bathrooms and city streets for the random bits of DNA, and one-by-one, she started churning out faces.

And River North's Catherine Edelman Gallery took notice, just as Dewey-Hagborg was moving to Logan Square to take a job as an assistant professor of art and technology studies at the School of the Art Institute.

We "were fascinated instantly by these 3D prints and how they came to be," says Juli Lowe, director of the gallery, 300 W. Superior St., where Dewey-Hagborg's work is available for purchase. "From an art standpoint, I'm much more fascinated than frightened by it. I think what she is raising are very important questions."

With each slightly-creepy sculpture comes the discarded object that "birthed" that face, along with a description and photo of where the object was found.

DNAinfo/Andy Roesgen

Law enforcement agencies around the world are starting to dig deeper into the use of forensic DNA "phenotyping" as it's called; the U.S. Justice Department has given a $1.1 million grant to Indiana University to develop the science further. Susan Walsh, assistant professor of the university's forensic and investigative sciences program, said the science Dewey-Hagborg is using is "sound," but she feels the exact science of coming up with a perfect facial re-creation is still at least five years away.

But if none of the "strangers" have come forward to "confirm" their face, how does Dewey-Hagborg know she's gotten their face right?

She laughs at that. The truth is, she readily admits, "It's entirely possible that I could make a portrait of someone from their DNA, and they could look significantly different."

As Dewey-Hagborg puts it, just because the DNA says the strangers should look a certain way, it doesn't necessarily mean they do; each person's ancestral history and habits may alter their look, say, for example, if they are overeaters.

DNAinfo/Andy Roesgen

In fact, Dewey-Hagborg says the true motivation for "Stranger Visions" isn't art; it's to get people thinking about an approaching fact: genetic surveillance is moving from science fiction to reality.

"Law enforcement is pushing hard to develop phenotyping technology. What do we think of that? With everything in science, there's potential and there's risk. Phenotyping can be used for good or for bad. We need to decide how this will be used in our society. It's up to us to sort out where the potential separates from the risk. What are we OK with culturally, what are we not OK with?"

Dewey-Hagborg's next project is teaching a course on using evolving technologies for positive purposes, but for now, she says, "Anything that gets people talking and thinking about this is good."

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