Heather Dewey-Hagborg + Dorothy R. Santos
Back in 2015…how Heather and I met:
In 2015, I was granted the opportunity to write a chapter for an anthology about biology in art and architecture. In my research of artists using biomaterial as a part of their practice, I found Heather’s work. A few years prior to our meeting, she developed Stranger Visions during her artist residency at Eyebeam. She collected human detritus found on the Brooklyn streets and created computer generated portraits she turned into 3D printed masks based on DNA phenotyping. I was enthralled with her work and needed image permissions since her work was on the artworks I wrote about for the anthology. As someone I deeply admired, I was nervous. You never know what to expect when contacting an artist you admire. But we exchanged email messages, got the permissions, and subsequently met in Point Arena, CA the following summer and we instantly connected. Since then, we’ve been collaborators for REFRESH, which is a curatorial collective she founded in 2016. Despite our distance, Heather is one of the people I correspond and speak with frequently (actually, we correspond in some way/shape/form multiple times a week, if not every day). She has lovingly become my work wife. A true long-term relationship that spawned from overlapping intellectual, societal, and cultural interests and passions. I’ve learned a lot and it’s been wonderful getting to know her professionally and personally through a multitude of channels.—Dorothy
Today I would like to explore a different aspect of this technology, one that has not been widely discussed, which might begin with the question, is forensic DNA phenotyping a photographic process?
EXCERPTS OF DIALOGUE ON GENERATIVE REPRESENTATION
Heather: Is forensic DNA phenotyping a photographic process?
Dorothy: Are you drawing distinctions between photographic processes based on evolutions of the apparatuses? Basically, I’m wondering if you have thought about specifying further. For instance, “is forensic DNA phenotyping a digital photographic process?”
Heather: This is indeed a good question. I was considering photography broadly, as an expansive post-digital practice.
Heather: You can essentially drag an algorithmic slider to make a face lighter or darker, more male or female, etc. according to the parameters and limitations of the underlying model, and characterized by the data that determined the model in the first place.
Dorothy: You have discussed this previously, but the “algorithmic slider” seems to add a subjective and unreliable aspect to the overall process.
Heather: Yes. This is so clear when you imagine a slider concretely between any two things (i.e. how can you make a face more male or female, for example, when there is so much variation within these categories?) only by creating a reductionist stereotype. You could think about eye color this way also. What would a slider for eye color look like? Irises are so incredibly complex and often have multiple colors at once.
Thus you can essentially drag an algorithmic slider to make a face lighter or darker more male or female, etc. according to the parameters and limitations of the underlying model, and characterized by the data that determined the model in the first place.
Heather: With a more detailed technical understanding, now let’s return to the question of whether phenotyping is a form of photography?
Dorothy: I feel compelled to ask you what you think of Karen Barad’s notion of agential realism? Essentially, coming into being through what Barad considers “intra-actions” and something always becoming. Also, I am struck by the tense of the word “phenotyping,” which alludes to something always changing with “ing.”
Heather: I haven’t read about it! Send me a paper :) Interesting point on the “ing” making the phenotype active—it does indeed highlight that it is a human activity, not a given fact in the world. That it is a process of construction.
With a more detailed technical understanding now let’s return to the question of whether phenotyping is a form of photography?
Heather: In a time of science, capitalism, and democracy, representation was everywhere.
Dorothy: Before scientific advancements with genomic research, phenotypes, the visual were the things people had to go by and make assumptions on and think through. So, now, contemporaneously, genes and blood become the new medium for political agendas (we discussed Elizabeth Warren in my race and genomics class yesterday!)