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Stranger Visions: Introduction

June 15, 2012

As many of you probably already know I have been working hard over the past 6 months on a new project Stranger Visions. I am working on the piece as a resident at Eyebeam and in collaboration with the DIY bio lab, Genspace in downtown Brooklyn. I recently gave a LISA talk describing this piece and I thought I would elaborate on some of the details from my presentation through a series of blog posts. In this post I will describe where the idea behind Stranger Visions  came from and how I am producing it in general terms. Future posts will delve into more details about lab work, 3d programming, 3d printing and ethics.


Much of my work begins with a question – In past works I have asked questions about language, AI, creativity and machines. The theme that really connects all these varied questions spanning so many different physical media is an interest in how algorithms both reflect and influence the way we see the world around us. Algorithms are designed by people and like all human-designed things they embody the generalizations and biases of their creators. I find this fascinating!

Meadowbrook State Parkway Overpass

One of Robert Moses’ infamous highway overpasses on Long Island, designed too short for buses. A physical example of an artifact embodying a bias.
Photo by Dougtone

The question behind Stranger Visions actually came to me as I was sitting in my shrink’s office. I was staring at this generic print of a painting above the couch I and I noticed that the glass covering the print had a crack in it. As I looked closer I observed that in that crack was lodged a single hair. Now, as I am sitting there, ostensibly with the purpose of introspecting and talking about my feelings, my mind wanders to imagining who this person might be… Where are they from? What do they look like? How crazy are they?

And all the forensics shows I‘ve watched on tv since I was a kid flash through mind…

Thanks to Thomas Dexter for creative composite

And suddenly I imagine that I’m a forensic biologist, and I’ve captured this hair as evidence and extracted its DNA, and I’ve analyzed it to create a literal, figurative portrait of what this person looks like.

And the funny thing is that once you start thinking about it, you start seeing evidence  – everywhere: public bathrooms, the sidewalk, a bar- people are leaving their DNA all over the place all the time!

public restroom

This began to touch on a topic I have worked pretty extensively with in previous projects, which is surveillance. I’ve worked with face recognition and speech recognition algorithms in the past but I had never considered the emerging possibility of genetic surveillance; that the very things that make us human: hair, skin, saliva, become a liability as we constantly face the possibility of shedding these traces in public space, leaving artifacts which anyone could come along and mine for information.

So I decided that I should make this piece – that I should collect “forensic samples” I find in public spaces, I should extract DNA from those samples and use it to make sketches like a police artist would showing what that person might look like. And the more I thought about the physical form of the project the more I wanted to get away from the kind of corny “DNA portraits” companies are trying to sell online.

Corny DNA portraits

I didn’t want this to be a “visualization” of the DNA. I wanted it to be a literal, figurative bust of the persons head in 3 dimensions.

Of course, while the technology to do this was emerging it wasn’t quite available (to artists) yet.What was openly available were protocols for extracting DNA from hair, a database of what regions of DNA we know code for certain traits, and a morphable model of a 3d face. So these are the components I have been expanding on, experimenting with and attempting to glue together!

More in depth about each of these components as well as some reflections on the ethical dimension of the project in future posts…

13 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2012 1:40 pm

    That composite is truly amazing…and the project too, of course 😉 Thanks for sharing.

  2. June 30, 2012 1:52 am

    Amazing project! Thanks for sharing the details

  3. July 9, 2012 9:45 am

    Very interesting project. I was particularly taken by your assertion that your driving artistic interest is
    “Algorithms are designed by people and like all human-designed things they embody the generalizations and biases of their creators.”
    With that in mind, I was really curious, what software was used in your project?

    • July 9, 2012 9:55 am

      Great question! I am planning a detailed tech post soon but I started with a morphable model in matlab and extended it there and then hooked this up to code I wrote in Python utilizing the BioPython library.

      • July 10, 2012 4:39 am

        Excellent! I hope you make the code open, as it seems this project should embrace transparent code documentation. If you don’t already know Patrick Tresset ( you should chat with him, I discern a connection between your work. Also, if you haven’t already I’m sure you’d love watching the movie Code 46!

  4. Elia Stupka permalink
    February 11, 2013 12:39 pm

    Very interesting! So are you sticking to eye color, etc. or are you tapping into some facial morphology data? From your post it seems you are using SNPedia, but there is not much there on facial morphology?

    Are you also using the five genes which emerged as important in the facial morphology for Europeans, as reported here?

    In any case, it’s lovely to see real art and real science working together, we need more of this to make it all more accessible, understandable, and to bring discussion to topics. It’s not the accuracy of the portraits that matters right now, it’s the fact that one of your 3D masks sparks a discussion which theoretically we all knew we should have, but was not happening before!


    • February 11, 2013 2:51 pm

      Hi Elia,
      I am looking at the facial morphology study in addition to the other basic traits as well as ancestry information.
      Thanks for you comment!

  5. Blake B permalink
    June 27, 2014 3:20 pm

    Dr. Dewey-Hagborg –

    What an amazing project. I just learned about your work on SCIENCE FRIDAY this afternoon. I kept wanting Ira to open up the phones so I could ask this question:

    It appears that your subjects appear to be of about the same age (I’m guessing between 25-35). Is that an artistic decision or one based on the DNA you collect? Related: If you collected the DNA from a newborn baby – could you then sculpt an image of what that baby is most likely to look like when s/he is an adult?

    Thanks for your work! Truly amazing!

    • June 28, 2014 9:18 am

      The choice of age is an artistic decision as I could not read age from the DNA without getting into epigenetics. Regarding the baby question, DNA could certainly give you some clues!


  1. Artist Reconstructs Faces Using DNA Left Behind in NYC and a 3D Printer — Considers Implications of ‘Genetic Surveillance’ — Chris Jones Media
  2. Artist Reconstructs Faces Using DNA Left Behind in NYC and a 3D Printer — Considers Implications of ‘Genetic Surveillance’ |
  3. Artist Uses DNA Samples to Construct Faces of Owners | Community Arts NYC
  4. 3D Printing: Making your inkjet look like a baby’s toy – Caitlin Cowie

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