A Becoming Resemblance by Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Chelsea Manning investigates emerging technologies of genomic identity construction and their role in our societal moment.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, Probably Chelsea, is a series of thirty 3D-printed portraits of possible Chelsea Mannings. These effigies form a diverse crowd and create the impression of a mass movement standing with Manning, the former U.S. intelligence analyst turned whistleblower who in 2013 was sentenced to 35 years of imprisonment, a sentence commuted by Barack Obama in early 2017. The installation illustrates a multitude of ways in which a person’s DNA can be interpreted—it is a refutation of outmoded notions of biologically inscribed identity and a testament to the commonality of all, a commonality that is clearly present even at the cellular level.
The project started in 2015, when Dewey-Hagborg first began to produce the portraits, using DNA from cheek swabs and hair clippings that Manning mailed out of prison. Manning had been incarcerated since her gender transition and subject to a strict policy on visitation; her image was suppressed until her release from prison in May 2017. The artistic collaboration gave her back a form of visibility—a human face she had been denied.
Dewey-Hagborg and Manning later teamed up with illustrator Shoili Kanungo to produce Suppressed Images (2016), a graphic short story narrating their collaboration and envisioning a future in which Obama commuted Manning’s sentence. This forecast came true just several hours after the comic had been published: Obama reduced Manning’s prison sentence and she has now been released.
The exhibition also features the project that set in motion the artist’s examination of how human faces could be created from the sequencing of genetic material and specific parameters. Dewey-Hagborg’s predictive early work Spurious Memories (2007) is based on an autonomous face categorizing and generating program. Through exposure to facial images over time, the AI software studied faces and attempted to extrapolate from this experience in order to create new facial images.
In the exhibition, the artist not only addresses concerns over the accuracy and invasiveness of current technologies, she also shows how they can be used to mask gender and racial stereotyping with the scientific authority of genetics. Moreover, A Becoming Resemblance raises questions about the politics of image production in an age of surveillance, militarized policing, biometric governance, and high-tech securitization.
A Becoming Resemblance is a collaboration between Fridman Gallery with Roddy Schrock and transmediale.