Chelsea Manning interview: DNA, big data, official secrecy, and citizenship

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Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s project is a publicity stunt. What distinguishes her creepy death masks of a living person is the veneer of science, involving DNA samples voluntarily submitted by Chelsea Manning. There is, however, nothing scientific about the result.

Last September, the artist told Paper magazine that her process was selective. “I’ll generate lots of different faces—different versions of this identity—and I’ll go through and decide which one I think is the most compelling. Obviously, since I already know what she looks like, that does very much influence my choice. … I definitely was leaning more toward ones that I thought looked the most similar to Chelsea…. It’s my interpretation, or my guesswork, of how she would want to be represented.”

Guesswork? Sorry, that may be art, but it’s not science. Certainly there is no evidence that hormone replacement therapy, which Manning had been receiving for six months at the time her DNA was sampled, has ever by itself produced the dramatically sculpted nose and smoothly reshaped chin depicted in Dewey-Hagborg’s “female” digital rendering. Plastic surgery? Yes, of course. HRT? No way.

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I imagine that this is why it’s called art. It’s informed by the science of its time, as all art is. But it’s not science. I can’t begin to enumerate how many people produce more idealized depictions of themselves - whether via photo apps, drawings or just finding the right lighting or clothing. Just about every trans woman I’ve met has done this earlier in their transition. And I’ve met thousands. maybe tens of thousands.


The word “science” does not appear anywhere in this article or the linked Paper Magazine interview.

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Boing Boing’s article begins, “Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg creates portraits from DNA samples….” Author Cory Doctorow further quotes (without crediting) the nonprofit advocacy group Fight for the Future’s explanation: “The work is generated using the technique of ‘forensic DNA phenotyping’….”

In reporting on DNA phenotyping last February, The New York Times observed, “the science is still evolving” and described those exploring this technique as “scientists.”

DNA phenotyping is also the subject of articles in scientific journals, including “Modeling 3D Facial Shape from DNA” (2014) in PLOS Genetics and “Forensic DNA Phenotyping: Predicting human appearance from crime scene material for investigative purposes” (2015) in Forensic Science International, published by the International Society for Forensic Genetics.

All of which gives Dewey-Hagborg’s gimmicky project, as I stated in my previous comment, “the veneer of science”—at least for those of us who have been following this topic.

Where does this “veneer of science” come from, when there is no mention of any scientific methodology behind it? Might this not be an artefact of your own expectations, rather than anything to do with the work itself?

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Perhaps you missed this article’s prominent trappings of science—such as its photo of the “artist” attired in CSI-style white lab smock and surgical gloves, holding a ziplocked evidence bag containing DNA swabs; or the close-up of a circular slide containing Manning’s hair samples mounted for high-resolution microscopy; or the close-up of a multiwell microtiter plate containing Manning’s DNA prepared for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification. Or perhaps you’re just being deliberately obtuse.

I think of science as being simply a methodology, no more, no less. As such, it doesn’t seem to have “trappings”.

Any art can be reduced to technology. I have been accused of engaging in art-as-computer-engineering. Is a painter pretending to be a chemist, simply due to the composition of their paints? Is a cinematographer an ersatz-physicist because they are sculpting with light? Are most people who wear cleanroom garb scientists, or technicians? I don’t have any statistics handy, but I have always assumed the latter. Likewise, using a technology which was developed from applied science has never made the user a scientist or engineer themselves. Science and technology aren’t the same, even though many laypeople use the terms interchangeably.

People use whatever tools they need for the job. But doing so in no way implies that they are employing scientific methodology, nor faking same.


The science in question is forensic DNA phenotyping. It is more than mere lab work performed by technicians. (Please see the scientific literature I cited above.) For the record, I never accused Heather Dewey-Hagborg of being a scientist or technician. But she is definitely faking it to attract attention.

Faking being an artist or a scientist?

Seems like she’s being an artist, using a scientific technique to do that art without claiming to be a scientist. The veneer of science would be the methodology used to make the art, no?

You seem to be criticising the fakery inherent in the project she has undertaken. She nowhere claims, as far as I can tell upon cursory examination, to be a scientist. So, no fakery there. Applying scientific methodology, even in an imperfect manner, for the purpose of art would seem to be a strange attractor for the criticism of fakery. Or do you mean to imply that all art is fake? In which case I guess I would have to agree with that.


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