Have you ever spit a piece of gum out on the sidewalk or thrown a cigarette butt in the gutter? If so, you probably didn't think that these intimate bits of garbage could ever be used to identify you. But one Brooklyn artist is using your debris to do just that.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg collects human cast-offs- things like hair, fingernail clippings, cigarette butts and chewed gum- and uses them to create portraits of the individuals who shed them.
To create these portraits, Dewey-Hagborg first brings her samples to do-it-yourself biology laboratory Genspace in Brooklyn.
Using standard DNA extraction kits that she orders online, she extracts the DNA from the samples with chemicals and a centrifuge. She then runs a polymerase chain reaction on the DNA to duplicate it before sending it off to a lab for sequencing.
Once she receives the DNA sequence from the lab, Dewey-Hagborg can start mining it for information about the sample's owner. An old wad of chewing gum can tell her about a person's ancestry, gender, eye color, propensity to be overweight and how much space they have between their eyes.
"Ancestry gives you most of the generic picture of what someone is going to tend to look like," Dewey-Hagborg said. "Then the other traits point toward modifications on that kind of generic portrait."
When she enters this information into a computer program, the computer creates a 3-D image of the person's face, which is later printed as a life-like mask of the anonymous donor.
Dewey-Hagborg exhibits her masks next to a box containing the original sample and a photograph of where the sample was found.
Of course, Dewey-Hagborg has no way of knowing if the sculptures she creates are accurate depictions of the people whose samples she collected. For one thing, there's no way to tell how old these litterbugs are. The artist said that the computer program creates 25-year-old versions of her subjects.
The 30-year-old artist and PhD student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, told Smithsonian Magazine that her project, "Stranger Visions," was partly inspired by the availability of DNA-testing technology.
"It came from this place of noticing that we are leaving genetic material everywhere," said Dewey-Hagborg. "That, combined with the increasing accessibility to molecular biology and these techniques means that this kind of science fiction future is here now. It is available to us today. The question really is what are we going to do with that?"
Dewey-Hagborg was recently asked to use her forensic methods for another project- identifying a woman whose remains have stymied the Delaware medical examiner's office for decades. [See also: 8 Creepiest 3D Printed Objects]
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