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“It is Like a Story From a Database That We Are All Implicated In”: Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Toshiaki Ozawa on Their DNA-Themed Short Film, T3511

Art and biology coexist in the work of artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, who has created images — film, video, sculptural — as well as multimedia performance and process-oriented work that animate with emotional complexity increasingly urgent questions around identity and personal freedom. Much of her work uses DNA as both subject and artistic material, with the artist working herself with genome sequencing and DNA collection as well as exploring the implications of this same work being commodified at scale through consumer-facing companies like 23andMe. What’s particularly noteworthy are the emotional valences she brings to these questions. Neither a techno-thrillseeker or a reflexive scold, she is acutely aware of the deleterious political and civic impact of privatized DNA databanks and genetic surveillance more generally, evoking in her work the complicated, conflicted emotional spaces these scientific advances create.

In T3511, a collaboration with Toshiaki Ozawa, a tale of romantic obsession is enabled by a woman’s ability to conjure a perfect partner from an anonymous saliva sample. The work was previously exhibited as a multichannel video at New York’s Fridman Gallery and appears here at Filmmaker, online for the first time, in a single-channel version. (The piece was also supported by MU Art Space Eindhoven, Sundance Institute, Creative Capital.) Below I ask Dewey-Hagborg and Ozawa, whose cinematography credits include Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, as well as work with Vincent Gallo, Isaac Julien, Roman Coppola and others, about the dangers of genetic databases, being inspired by Vito Acconci and Sophie Calle, and more.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the origins of this piece and particularly about the ways you and your work connect science and research with narrative, character and theme? How did knowledge of genetic databases lead to a story of romantic obsession, of sorts?

Dewey-Hagborg: The roots of T3511 lay in my earlier project Stranger Visions, where I collected forensic artifacts like chewed-up gum and cigarette butts from the streets of New York, extracted DNA and analyzed it to predict what someone might look like based on DNA. That project got me hooked on biohacking and exploring the social implications of genomics, one of which is a loss of genetic privacy. So, in about 2017 I began an in-depth research project into the commodification of human cells, fluids and biological data, trying to understand where we stood today, almost 70 years after Henrietta Lacks passed away. And what I discovered is that there were vast networks of commodification and exchange of human biological materials that most of us were completely unaware of. Further, it is very likely we are part of these flows of cells and data without even knowing it due to the lack of strict regulation over how “abandoned” biological samples can be treated. In other words our cells or data might get traded or bought and sold without us knowing it. This was an inspiration for T3511, along with my observation that direct-to-consumer genetic testing like 23andme was very low security and an easy system to hack. This was all a sprawling research project, and T3511 is essentially one story, one thread of that work.  It is like a story from a database that we are all implicated in. And at the time I was starting a new romantic relationship, and the parallel between my artistic work and falling in love struck me — that every relationship is like a detective story where you’re discovering things about the other person and piecing together this image of who they are.

Ozawa: Did you know the original title of Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog was Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story? It’s a David Foster Wallace quote. Maybe love stories are detective stories where clues about our partners are scrutinized? 

When Heather and I were developing the project at the Sundance story lab, I spoke about “trace” in my introductory artist talk. Appropriately, Cameraperson was at the festival that year, and when we did our feedback session with Kirsten Johnson, she was very enthusiastic about T3511, and the idea of trace clearly resonated with her. It’s probably something all photographers can relate to. The photographic process has parallels with fingerprints and DNA right? That’s why they are all surveillance mediums that capture traces of past presence. And I guess there are elements of that in every story. In this sense, I think the project is particularly relevant as film. I find it interesting that both Heather and Laurie chose the medium for these stories.

In addition, both projects address surveillance on the societal level. And in Heather’s case, also DNA commodification and its greater implications. These macro themes are juxtaposed with the intimate and personal. There is this very personal angle, and this can really resonates with people. And get them to care. 

Finally trace is an idea that feels very fundamental to my self-identity, as a cameraperson and as someone whose family background spans three continents in three generations. That’s a lot of ghosts, a lot of palimpsests. Shadows, footprints… all that stuff where boundaries between presence and absence are blurred. It’s clearly an aspect that drew me to both projects. T3511 and Heather’s earlier work has inspired me to one day trace the buried history of my maternal grandfather who was a stowaway to Osaka from Pusan in the 1930’s. This will definitely by a detective story and a ghost story.

Filmmaker: This piece was presented in its first version, as a gallery installation, in 2018. It seems prophetic about the ways in which genomic testing is increasingly being used in both areas like law enforcement as well as in consumer applications like home genealogy research. How does the world of today with regard to these technologies look as compared to the way you thought it might develop when you made this piece?

Dewey-Hagborg: I would say that in a lot of ways things have just continued along, so what I could see was coming in 2018 is what we have seen unfold with forensic genealogy work in policing like what happened with the Golden State Killer, who was caught 40 years after the fact based on forensic evidence and unregulated genealogical database trawling. And now we’ve seen that type of dubious genealogical work unfold as a service to police. Now companies like Parabon Nanolabs offer police a service: send us a forensic sample from the crime scene, and we’ll essentially hack our way into these consumer databases and try to track people down. So I could see that that was becoming possible, because I could see how easy it was to just send any kind of sample to a company like 23 and me. Obviously you can send your own saliva, but it’s pretty easy to fake something like that. And it’s also really easy to buy these kinds of materials on the internet and then send those, which is the story from T3511. So basically, I was seeing that these things were present, as latent possibilities. And the thing that’s happened, of course, in the meantime is COVID. And so now, even more than ever, we’re all in these databases. What is the afterlife of these saliva samples? I would say that the way that things have evolved is that sampling and testing has scaled up in a really radical sense. But regulation has not caught up with that, and there’s very little transparency around how bio-data and samples are being managed.

Ozawa: COVID is definitely a Bonanza for the surveillance industry. Reconnecting all sorts of “traces” to individuals has become big, big business. And the best ways are ones like DNA where the public can be sold the idea that it can ID but also be anonymous. Of course there’s all the contactless RFID stuff, but there’s also pool testing of saliva or sewer monitoring. DNA testing has expanded to enforcing pooper scooper regulations. In so much as we are all constantly exchanging material with our environment, the frontier of bio ID tech seems limitless doesn’t it? I’m actually researching the Golden State Killer case right now for a screenplay, and there were definitely some shady moves by the investigators. I mean, this guy Joe Deangelo is evil. He’s one of the most brutal and prolific serial rapist-murderers that’s ever been. But now there are already multiple cases where zealous cops pretend a violent crime was committed so they can use the genetic evidence track suspects of lesser crimes. It can quickly become a slippery slope. Also, when you read Barbara Rae-Venter’s memoirs — she’s the one actually extracting Deangelo’s DNA and uploading it for matches on these genealogy sites — you get the sense this notorious case was chosen precisely because it made it easy to sweep the bioethics under the rug. Who wants to be on an ethics panel that obstructs the identification of a monster called the East Area Rapist, Original Night Stalker, and the Golden State Killer?

Filmmaker: What led you to a sort of epistolary form — the messages you’re composing to your mystery donor comprising the voiceover narration for the piece? 

Dewey-Hagborg: It is essentially a true story. It is the story of me actually doing this, buying saliva, sending it to 23andme, getting back the data, and contemplating the ethics of what I had done. And so it is very much an interior monologue of my own doubts and questions and obsessions in doing that work. 

The piece originally started as that first letter, and it just came to me all at once. Sometimes things are like that, like an idea comes to you kind of fully formed, and you just write it down. I was working at the time with Scott Christianson, an investigative journalist, and Dororthy Santos, who had a lot of inside experience working on consent in biotech companies. And then I began to expand it into a fuller narrative entwining the research I was doing this love story. I think about it as writing through–like writing the tech through my romantic feelings.I like to write that way, mixing emotions into surprising places and using them to explore politics as well.

And lastly I was also thinking about Chantelle Akerman’s News from Home. That was a piece that I saw when I was an undergrad and it really made an impact on me as this deceptively simple meditation on being in a certain place in a certain time, at a certain age, and writing that through her relationship to her mother. That was definitely in my mind thinking about the epistolary form.

Ozawa: I just finished a collaboration with the Coppola siblings, Roman and Sofia, where I delve into the motivating principles of Japanese traditional art. This made me realize so much of culture, in the West too, comes from defining ourselves against nature… Who are we and where do we come from? I think these are pervasive questions underlying much of culture in general. When I mentioned Heart of a Dog and Laurie Anderson earlier, I think I was also touching on this. Trace, ghost stories, genealogy… these can all be called detective stories. And I think it’s core to what you are getting at, Heather. Monologues and letters in addition, maybe they strip stories down to speaker and listener. The forms have an intimate feel. It is a person telling their own tale. The simplicity helps connect audiences to the stories by making them more personal.

Filmmaker: I thought of other art work dealing with stalking over the years, from Vito Acconci’s Following piece to Sophie Calle’s Suite Venitienne, when watching T3511. Your work shares sometimes with those pieces while the technology angle, which allows for a complete physical remove of the stalker from the stalkee, is a fundamental difference. How have you thought about the emotional valence of stalking in such previous works in comparison to what you’re doing here?

Dewey-Hagborg: Those are works that I was very inspired by, as well as Calle’s The Hotel: Room 47. They do a similar thing, in that they also are this kind of “exploit,” in the hacker sense of the term, where they show that there’s a kind of security vulnerability that we don’t normally think about. Where we have a kind of trust that is violated. Whether it’s walking down the street, or checking into a hotel, sending our DNA for sequencing, or participating in social media. There is a kind of trust that we have entered into. We expect certain things, like we might expect when we’re on Facebook, that the people that work at Facebook are not directly reading our things. That they’re not sitting there, and becoming obsessed with us, even though they have access to everything about us as individuals. But we kind of suspend our disbelief and trust that that’s not happening.

Similarly, when we give blood, we might not think that someone might then analyze that blood and become totally obsessed with what they find. So there’s a trust there, but it’s a trust that overlooks a security vulnerability. And so there is interestingly a shared vocabulary there in exposing something around trust and vulnerability and then linking that to something very strangely personal. So it is about trust. And it builds on the earlier work I did which showed this vulnerability of the human body, shedding genetic information in a way we can’t avoid, and it crosses that with this vulnerability of falling in love.

Ozawa: Technology definitely imparts an illusion of anonymity. Sophie Calle and her use of words were references for us from the get go. I’d seen her Sherry-Netherland Hotel show in New York shortly beforehand. Actually, Laurie Anderson took me there to introduce us, so it was fresh on my mind. If you think about it, Sophie references the abstracting effect of technology in her work too. The personal becomes impersonal occurring at an arm’s length. The “technology” she employs can be words on paper, but I think her works with answering machine recordings and SMS texts show notes and letters are forms of technology too.

When my son was younger, I explained it to him like this. If you punch someone, your fist feels the force of your blow pretty much one to one. If you use a hammer, you not only multiply the force, but you decrease the recoil. Maybe that’s what Sophie is exploring. The devastation is actually multiplied, but the one who says, “I don’t love you anymore,” via text or voice message, gets to abstract themselves from the impact of that blow. The personal becomes impersonal.

On the other hand, surveillance technology is assumed to be impersonal, but Heather makes it personal in T3511. That’s what’s great about Heather’s insistence on the personal and intimate. There’s a social implication, a societal implication, but it’s also always personal. In fact, the we show exactly how personal DNA can be.

Filmmaker: T3511 was originally presented as an installation and now as single-channel work. Adapting a single work to different forms and  presentation modes, which have included performance as well, is something you’ve done throughout your work. How do you think about this content differently when it sits in these different forms? Or, alternately, what do you want each of these different forms of presentation to do differently?

Dewey-Hagborg: The original four-channel installation which we developed for Mu Art Space, and we wanted to evoke this feeling of being inside the work, this feeling of being in the biobank. Having a metaphorical connection to your own vulnerability, to being part of a system in which your data is also visible and potentially hackable and readable in these ways. And so that’s why there are these moments on the four channels where suddenly, the freezer is surrounding you on all sides. So this was something that we were thinking about with the four-channel version.

Ozawa: Having worked with Isaac Julien on several multi-screen installation projects, I am a strong advocate of the form. His current retrospective at Tate Britain is very impressive, the way he orchestrates 10 screen pieces for example. At its best, it’s a great form of immersive cinema without goggles or other intrusive viewers. I think T3511 in its four-channel iteration offers that experience to viewers. It allows us to complicate feelings of stalking and being stalked, of surveilling and being surveilled. Perhaps it allows us to portray the DNA biotech machinery in grander terms and make people appreciate its pervasiveness. 

Dewey-Hagborg: But four-channel video installations are limiting. What we learned after we finished is that few institutions really have the capability to show it. And so immediately requests started coming for single channel, and that got us thinking about how to translate the work for a different type of viewing. The point is, we want the work to circulate. We want people to see it. That’s why it’s exciting to have this version available now to stream online. 

Ozawa: Like I mentioned before, there’s a social, societal theme and a personal theme. But the personal implications of emerging biotech is what probably hits home to the wider audience. In a way, the art installation allows us to present the context more fully. People going to see art also want to learn about the motivation for a piece at the exhibit. Maybe movie watchers want to know that later, when they finish watching something inspiring, but during the screening they just want to experience the story. So hopefully, that’s what this is. A stripped-down version of the intimate and first-person narrative where the audience can focus on Heather confiding in you.

Filmmaker: The concept of T3511 seems ripe for further exploration and perhaps a feature treatment. Have you thought of extending the work even further?

Dewey-Hagborg:  It’s not my normal way of thinking. I’m used to thinking in terms of these projects and research and experimental outcomes. It’s a very different set of thought processes. So I feel like I would always be open to someone coming and saying, “Oh, I want to work on extending this further with you.” But it’s not necessarily something that I would have thought of doing on my own.

Ozawa: When Heather shared her ideas for T3511, I was excited by the story and I think I said it could be a movie. If I remember correctly, I was thinking of a detective noir story, Chinatown, Rear Window type movie. Movies where a character longs for and imagines encounters with another person — it’s pretty classic. There’s an internal monologue represented by the emails written kind of to no one. The character’s fantasies are both encouraged and challenged by what unfolds. Hopefully, the viewer’s imagination is also activated, and they question the character’s actions and motivations Or they empathize, and identify with them. Another reference for me was My Dinner With Andre, where it’s all about Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, who are playing themselves, questioning each other, and trying to convince each other. But they are really trying to convince us, or at least that’s the way I take it. But here it’s just their words, and the viewer has to imagine the stories being told. There are also many other films like La Jeteé or Angels Over Berlin that this story makes me think of, so I think it’s not such a stretch to imagine it as a narrative feature. 

Dewey-Hagborg: It would definitely be interesting to think about revisiting. And now Tosh is working on a related project.

Ozawa: Essentially, it’s another stalker story with the same DNA detective work in it. It’s the film I mentioned earlier about the Golden State Killer. He escaped identification for decades even though he left plenty of bio forensics at the crime scenes. But until DNA sequencing and amplification technologies advanced, and enough people shared DNA profiles on online databases, identification without a criminal record was not possible. As we discussed, DNA stories are about traces and ghosts, who we are and where we come from. So, it’s like the ultimate detective story. It’s always fascinating.

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