What can we learn about a person through biological materials such as their hair or skin? What are the limitations of prescribing an identity through genomic sequencing? These are the questions posed by artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg in her collaborative projects with Chelsea Manning, currently on view at Fridman Gallery. The exhibition, titled A Becoming Resemblance and curated by Roddy Schrock, ultimately suggests that identities are multiple and fluid, while championing the possibilities presented by developing bio-technologies.
Walking in, the viewer is confronted by a sea of realistically rendered 3D portraits. Suspended in mid-air, 30 mask-like faces meet the viewer at eye level, constituting a wave of varying skin colors, facial features, and expressions. The installation, entitled “Probably Chelsea” (2017) is a continuation of the concepts and processes that informed Dewey-Hagborg’s previous work: using a sophisticated, powder-based 3D-printing technology, she produced portraits of strangers from bodily scraps she picked up in public spaces. Whereas those were renderings of people she didn’t know, here the work has sprung from an intimate relationship based on trust and mutual understanding that she and Manning have forged since 2015. From prison, Manning mailed cheek swabs and hair clippings to Dewey-Hagborg, who extracted DNA information from them and used it to algorithmically generate possible portraits of her friend.
The duo also collaborated on Suppressed Images (2017), a comic book illustrated by Sholi Kanungo and on display at the gallery. One panel shows Manning bursting out of a prison complex with a loud speaker, saying, “When they chill your speech, then they’ve won. SO NEVER SHUT UP.” If prison strips incarcerated people of their humanity by denying them their image and the representation of language (among other things), Dewey-Hagborg’s work — especially the faces in “Probably Chelsea” — has helped rekindle Manning’s visibility, particularly when she was still behind bars. It also represents a clear act of solidarity with the famed whistleblower and proud trans woman.
In opposite corners of the space sit two monitors displaying “Spurious Memories,” a project that Dewey-Hagborg conducted in 2007. For it, she designed a program that tested whether machine learning and AI could be creative and generate unexpected patterns. As the ghostly contours of machine-made faces morph into one another, the work seems to linger on the stretches of abstraction that lie between individual, recognizable features. Even if the topic addressed by this piece seems generic in comparison to the Chelsea project, it does provide a conceptual tool for addressing a specific biopolitical problem.
At the press preview, Dewey-Hagborg commented on the dangers of the reductive frameworks for identity that police, forensic scientists, and the media often employ. At the behest of criminal investigation units, portraits are algorithmically produced by third-party DNA phenotyping services, based on probabilities generated by a type of machine learning that “predicts” physical appearances from collected facial scans. The widely accepted notion that these portraits could objectively represent a specific identity ignores the fact that interpretation and systemic prejudices inform the outcome. After all, interpretation is precisely why Dewey-Hagborg’s installation can have so many possible faces of Chelsea distributed across different genders and races.
It was then that I realized: the centerpiece of the show is placed precisely so that when someone walks by, his or her face conveniently blends into the sea of Chelseas. “Probably Chelsea” is also probably one of us.
In his book Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility, theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi writes: “The horizon of possibility is perceived as an infinite sprawl of connecting, flashing points. This perception generates anxiety and panic: the paranoid obsession with order tries to reduce the horizon to repetition, belonging and identity.” Existing on that ambiguous horizon, emergent forms of technology always face the possibility of being reduced to serving a homogenous end; in this case, DNA phenotyping risks becoming a biopolitical mechanism tasked with profiling and targeting. But as only a small sampling of the possible configurations of Chelsea’s biological data, the 30 faces selected for the show serve as a metaphor for unity rather than division. Can the chaotic madness that Berardi deems so crucial to the creation of meaning and change be found in them?
I thought of the news about genetically modified human embryos that popped up in my Facebook feed yesterday. The story is ripe for controversy and concern over bio-ethics and government regulation. A Becoming Resemblance, however, is not obsessed with a dystopian future the way so many of us are, as seen in films like Gattaca, where eugenic practices drive individuals born outside of a special genetics program to struggle to find a sense of belonging. Rather, Dewey-Hagborg emphasizes the present, maintaining that technological tools can help push the boundaries of restrictive thinking, instead of just reinforcing it. When Chelsea Manning dots the “i” in her last name with a heart, she allows us a glimpse of the real person behind the news coverage; in a similar way, A Becoming Resemblance demonstrates that it’s possible to peel away the layers of mystique to find pieces of ourselves in the data.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg & Chelsea E. Manning: A Becoming Resemblance continues at Fridman Gallery through September 5.