Stranger Visions: Introduction

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 Thomas Dexter for the 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…