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Artist stirs privacy debate with portraits from DNA

Monday, Jul 01, 2013 - 03:18

July 1 - DNA extracted from cigarette butts and bubble gum found on the streets of Brooklyn is being used by artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg to create realistic portraits of anonymous New Yorkers. The artist says her project is designed to spark debate about the use - or potential misuse - of DNA profiling in society. Ben Gruber reports.

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Heather Dewey-Hagborg is combing the streets of New York City for elements that will inspire her next piece of artwork. It doesn't take her long to find what she's looking for. (SOUNDBITE) (English) HEATHER DEWEY-HAGBORG, ARTIST, SAYING: "This one looks pretty good because first of all it's been smoked all the way which means that the person probably left the most possible saliva and also it doesn't look like it's been sitting out here too, too long. It looks like a relatively fresh sample." And the fresher the saliva, the better. Dewey-Hagborg wants the DNA it use as the basis for portraits like this - a life-like picture of the person who smoked the cigarette. She says her portraits bring art and science together, to make a point about privacy. (SOUNDBITE) (English) HEATHER DEWEY-HAGBORG, ARTIST, SAYING: "I kept seeing these kind of little genetic artifacts all over place - cigarette butts and chewing gum , hairs left on the subway and saliva on glasses at the bar - and all of these things were just being left all over the place and no one was really noticing. So that led me to thinking how could I visualize somehow this kind of genetic privacy issue." She does it with a process that begins with a sample cut into tiny pieces. The pieces are then treated with chemicals and processed in a centrifuge to extract a sample of DNA. This sample is then sent off to a lab where its sequenced. It comes back as a genetic blueprint that Dewey Hagborg uses to construct her portraits. An ideal sample provides information about ethnic ancestry, gender, hair and eye color and more specific genetic traits like nose width and the distance between the eyes. Her findings are then entered into computer programs that generate a 3-dimensional model of the face which is then molded into a mask. She says the finished product will resemble the individual who initially smoked the cigarette…but will not be a perfect match. (SOUNDBITE) (English) HEATHER DEWEY-HAGBORG, ARTIST, SAYING: "So I think where we're at with this kind of technology right now is we can get kind of a family resemblance or a general likeness to a person. So you can generate a model that might look like someone's cousin or a distant relative but it's not going to look just like the person and there's no way you're going to recognize someone from one of these portraits." Bioethicist Arthur Caplan of the NYU School of Medicine says Dewey-Hagborg's project, in itself raises ethical questions. Caplan says the artist is walking a fine line between artistic expression and invasion of privacy. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ARTHUR CAPLAN, DIRECTOR OF THE DIVISION OF MEDICAL ETHICS, NYU SCHOOL OF MEDICINE, SAYING: "When artists get involved with DNA we usually cut them a little slack and say, you know they're trying to prod society or alert them to problems and so on. But there obviously is an ethics issue if she really could make identifiable visual images of people anonymously. Well they didn't give consent to that. The closer she gets to hitting a particular image that is of a particular person, the harder it is to justify what she's doing." Dewey-Hagborg welcomes the criticism. She says if her project inspires a public debate about genetic profiling she will have achieved her goal.

Artist stirs privacy debate with portraits from DNA

Monday, Jul 01, 2013 - 03:18

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