Photo by Adam Reich.

An Artistic Exploration of Love, DNA, and Biohacking

At the Temperature of My Body, her latest exhibition at NYC’s Fridman Gallery, makes art out of custom virus creation.

by Cassidy Dawn Graves
Jul 8 2019, 5:31pm

Photo by Adam Reich.

When artist and biohacker Heather Dewey-Hagborg collaborated with Chelsea Manning in 2015, she made 3D-printed portraits of Manning created from DNA samples, specifically cheek swabs and hair clippings Manning sent while incarcerated. “I realized later that that was this incredibly intimate process. I had this whole relationship to her that she didn’t even know about,” Dewey-Hagborg explains.

When she finally met Manning upon her release, she realized something was missing from her art practice: relationships, and specifically how she relates to other people. At the Temperature of My Body, her latest exhibition at NYC’s Fridman Gallery, is the result of the writing, research, and even custom virus creation that followed.

Walking into the gallery, you’re greeted by a smattering of green plants. This foliage is part of a collaboration between Dewey-Hagborg and botanist Phillip Andrew Lewis. Part science experiment, part artistic creation, it seeks to combine the DNA of the deceased with legal psychoactive plants to create a consumable memorial of sorts. Amidst the greenery, a film plays, detailing someone’s loss and attempts at remembrance, accompanied by nature imagery.

Photo by Adam Reich.

The psychoactive plants utilized here—morning glory and passionflower—are more obscure than their more well-known (and less legal) counterparts. The former’s seeds can produce an LSD-like effect, while the latter is said to have sedative and anti-anxiety properties.

There’s also a grow closet where small tobacco sprouts, known as “the workhorse plant of microbiology,” rest under a purple glow. Dewey-Hagborg explains future iterations will include fully-grown, safely consumable plants that have successfully been merged with mitochondrial DNA of the deceased—in this case, Lewis’s late grandmothers’s. Then, there’s Lovesick, which centers around a virus that “reprogram[s] human cells to produce more oxytocin,” a hormone associated with feelings of pleasure and love. “It’s imagined as this kind of activist intervention fighting against hate, digital disconnection, [and] alienation,” she explains.

The virus was created with a “vaccine discovery company” (using in vitro testing; animal and human testing raised ethical concerns), and prints of its cells under a microscope decorate the walls, recalling stained glass windows or outer space scenes. A meditative chanting fills the room; it’s a recording of the artist and her partner articulating oxytocin’s amino acid sequence. And finally, in glass cases lie glowing sculptural renderings of an oxytocin molecule, filled with the virus itself.

“The virus irreversibly alters human DNA forever, making it kind of a big deal. So I started thinking about what kind of rituals might come from a biotechnological future,” she says. “I'd imagine a person might take [the sculpture] and break it open, consume it, and then chant together with their friends this sequence of amino acids.”

Photo by Adam Reich.

Unlike much conceptual art, which privileges ideas over objects, Dewey-Hagborg’s art uses science to create tangible results. Her work expands the definition of art and illuminates the possibilities of creation in a high-tech world.

“I hope that my work can reach scientists, an art audience, and a more general public that hasn't thought much about biology [or] art,” Dewey-Hagborg says. “I think art can help us think through social questions, and also feel through them.”

The exhibit’s final component is a film, created with Toshiaki Ozawa, about a researcher that purchases an anonymous donor’s saliva. As she learns more about him, she becomes increasingly obsessed: she learns his identity, contacts him, and even attempts to grow his cells on her body. “[It’s about] vulnerability of data, biotechnology as a mediating technology, and thinking about what kinds of intimacy might develop in the future,” she explains.

In the video, the researcher uses 23andme, revealing the specifics such services can provide. Rather than just heritage or health, analyzing our DNA can also indicate food preferences, physical appearance, fears, even the time we’re prone to waking up. “Every kind of data profile is a love story in a way,” Dewey-Hagborg says, noting its eerie similarities to dating. “You meet someone and they're a stranger, and then little bits and pieces start to come together. Sometimes you're even worried to know too much; you don't want to ruin it.”

“There's a lot of pathways where bio-technological data and materials are being already exploited, similar to our digital data. It's just not talked about,” she notes. “Things like, everytime you go to the doctor's office and give a blood sample, whatever is left after they run the tests, that can just be sold.”

In addition to exploring how intimacy can be expressed through conceptual art and biotechnology, “the whole piece is kind of living in this grey area, ethically, legally,” Dewey-Hagborg says.

Photo by Adam Reich.

While there isn’t anything insidious afoot, the exhibition shows what biotechnology can achieve—mind-altering plants can be laced with human DNA, custom viruses can be commissioned, and gene analyses can be either a helpful venture or a stalker-esque invasion.

I didn’t know you could just get a virus made; Dewey-Hagborg tells me almost no one does. Science and technology have become so vast, it can be difficult to comprehend. This is being discussed more in digital technology, with dialogue growing around topics like deepfakes, the human cost of content moderation, and data-based surveillance, but the potential for abuse in biotechnology largely remains shrouded in mystery or relegated to sci-fi.

“I'm always trying to find any hint of optimism and latch onto it. The present reality is pretty grim. And unless we really actively fight, things will be much, much worse. If you think about what's happened with digital data, and then apply that to thinking about biodata, things can get really dark really fast,” Dewey-Hagborg says. “I think if we don't work hard on it, we will by default fall into a near-eugenic society. So here's a lot of urgency around thinking through these issues culturally.”

“But there are interesting hints of beautiful things,” she continues. “I’m also trying to bring out aspects of that future.”

Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s At the Temperature of My Body is on view through August 9 at Fridman Gallery.

heather dewey-hagborg
chelsea manning