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Making Visible the Invisible: Artist Uses DNA Phenotyping to Create 3D Printed Portraits of Incarcerated Chelsea Manning

by • January 20, 2016 • No Comments


Bradley Manning in 2013. [Image: Mark Wilson/Getty Images]

As of this year, Chelsea Manning has been in prison for six years. The US soldier has been incarcerated since 2010, when she was arrested for leaking confidential information, that include diplomatic cables and war logs of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, to WikiLeaks. There are a few who consider the whistleblower to be a hero, while others label her as a traitor, but many have commented on the severity of her 35-year prison sentence. The 28-year-old is eligible for parole after 10 years, but, in no way additional than halfway to that point, Manning has written publicly of her feelings of invisibility and “non-existence” in prison.

“I have no new snapshots of myself and no current selfies, only old Facebook photos, grainy trial photos and mugshots to show for the last six years of my life,” Manning states. “When equiteone is obsessed with Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat and WhatsApp, it begins to feel like I don’t exist in a few quite real, significant way. Living in a society that says ‘Pics or it didn’t happen’, I wonder if I happened.”

Chicago artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg was struck by Manning’s story, and embarked on a project that has made the soldier visible in a strange and amazing way. Dewey-Hagborg has made two 3D printed, life-sized models of Manning’s face, but that’s not the strange part: the artist utilized Manning’s actual DNA to generate her image. Because of Manning’s incarceration at Fort Leavenworth military prison, Dewey-Hagborg may not in fact see her, but she may request a sample of her DNA, that was sent by mail in the form of a cheek swab and hair cutting.

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Heather Dewey-Hagborg. [Image: Thomas Dexter, Paper Magazine]

The process Dewey-Hagborg utilized is in fact a forensic technique known as forensic DNA phenotyping (FDP). Employing DNA samples taken of a crime scene, investigators “predict” the appearance of their unknown suspects. It is a controversial technique, and Dewey-Hagborg has utilized previous projects to comment on the worrying implications of FDP. A sizeable component of the technique, she says, relies on racial and gender stereotyping.


[Image: Thomas Dexter, Paper Magazine]

“While there are a few traits like eye and hair color that can be predicted of DNA with a high degree of certainty, the bulk of FDP relies on algorithmically derived statistical composites,” she says. “We tend to appear at technical processs as neutral black boxes, but if you open them up and appear at the component parts, you find that they reflect the assumptions and motivations of their designers.”FDP begins with a dataset of 3D facial scans and DNA samples taken of research members. These scans are processed to turn it into what’s called ‘face space,’ a probabilistic representation of all possible faces drawn of, and limited by, this set of 3D scans. Finally, the data is mined for correlations between DNA and facial shape by examining characteristics that are assumed to be opposite ends of a spectrum, like masculine and feminine or ‘European’ and ‘African.’ The act of creating computational averages and appearing for correlated showcases in sizeable datasets has an air of auand soticity and scientific validity, but what this in fact does is turn it into a process of types — you can call them stereotypes.”

In a 2012-2013 project called Stranger Visions, Dewey-Hagborg collected DNA samples of trash she discovered on the street: cigarette butts, gum, hairs, etc., and utilized them to render 3D printed portraits of the folks who had discarded them. Her goal, she said, was “to turn it into a public dialogue concerning the emergent possibility of genetic surveillance.”


[Image: Monika Flueckiger/swiss-image.ch]

In her many new project on Chelsea Manning, Radical Love, Dewey-Hagborg wanted to explore gender stereotyping and identity. At the time of her 2013 sentencing, Manning was Bradley Manning, who revealed an impending gender transition shortly after the conviction. Bradley’s transition to Chelsea took place entirely in prison, so no one outside of Fort Leavenworth has in fact seen Chelsea. This pretty adds to her feelings of invisibility and non-existence, that Dewey-Hagborg in addition wanted to address.

“As long as she’s been identifying as Chelsea Manning we’ve been unable to see her, so there was poetry to manufacturing visible the invisible,” she says.

The process Dewey-Hagborg utilized to turn it into Manning’s portrait was a complex one, involving many steps. Once she obtained the DNA samples of Fort Leavenworth, she did a series of experiments in that she isolated tiny sections of DNA and analyzed the traits synonymous with every section, such as hair and eye color. The “amplified” DNA sections were sent to a lab, that made a sequence file that Dewey-Hagborg utilized to generate several facial variations, via bioinformatics programs and information of databases such as the Human Genome Project.

Dewey-Hagborg and so had to select of the multiple options that were produced by the programs. The amount of control she had over that image she chose to depict is a sizeable part of her concern of FDP; much of the process involves guesswork and assumption. In Manning’s case, she decided to turn it into two images. The initially was made of a DNA sequence in that the gender genome was left out, resulting in an androgynous portrait. For the 2nd, Dewey-Hagborg input the gender as female, that produced a face with additional feminine showcases.


Left: Gender neutral portrait; Right: female portrait

“I ponder it’s informative to see them side-by-side,” the artist told Paper Magazine. “That may be a absorbing exhibit — to see any person’s face parameterized along that spectrum, for the reason it quite does call attention to this stereotyping of gender and this continuous variable of it, and how subjective these kinds of judgments are. It in addition raises the question: What is a female face? Do we require to alter a fewone’s face to manufacture them appear additional stereotypically female to consider them female? I may say no. I ponder that the additional neutral face manufactures a stronger statement.”

Dewey-Hagborg hasn’t in fact seen the final 3D prints. The project was funded by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and once the artist decided on the 3D models she wanted to use, they were printed in London and shipped to Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, where they are on display at the World Economic Forum. Tell yours thoughts on this quite one-of-a-kind art project in the 3D Portraits of Chelsea Manning forum over on 3DPB.com.