“My Film is For the Pigs”: Heather Dewey-Hagborg on Hybrid: an Interspecies Opera
Heather Dewey-Hagborg is on a mission to confront the uncomfortable future, especially when it comes to emerging tech. Stranger Visions features portrait sculptures crafted from analyses of genetic material the transdisciplinary artist, educator and filmmaker literally picked up in public places (one person’s discarded cigarette butt is another’s way into a stranger’s DNA). T3511, a collaboration with cinematographer Toshiaki Ozawa (Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog), sees an anonymous saliva sample become fodder for the alchemizing of the perfect romantic partner.
Now there’s Hybrid: an Interspecies Opera, perhaps Dewey-Hagborg’s most ambitious work to date. Opening at NYC’s Fridman Gallery on November 1, the multimedia project includes a short documentary/personal narrative set to an original score alongside a set of (robotically-constructed and clay-fired) “memorial pig sculptures,” which allude to the xenotransplantation topic at hand as well as the question of whether genetically engineering bovine for the sole purpose of harvesting hearts for human transplantation is the ethical easy call Big Tech would like us to make (and believe).
Just prior to the artwork’s New York debut, Filmmaker reached out to Dewey-Hagborg to learn more about “enmeshing the scientific and the personal” to shape a career in “biopolitical art.”
Filmmaker: What initially led you to explore the biomedical realm?
Dewey-Hagborg: This started more than 10 years ago, when I became entranced with emerging possibilities of genomics in my project Stranger Visions. The first community biohacker lab had just opened in Brooklyn (Genspace), and I became a member and learned all about DNA. What I realized at that time was that so much was happening so fast in biotech, but it wasn’t getting the same critical, artistic attention as digital technology was. Well, this is still true, and I am committed to changing that.
Filmmaker: How did Hybrid: an Interspecies Opera originate? Do you see it as an extension of that previous work Stranger Visions and (your collaboration with Toshiaki Ozawa) T3511?
Dewey-Hagborg: Yes, but also it is a pretty different approach for me in a number of ways. The musical collaboration with Bethany Barrett was something very new for me, and now working on transforming it into a live opera performance (which will premiere next year at the Exploratorium on March 7 and 8) is a really exciting but also very challenging new direction. The film itself has some similarities to T3511 in that both are unusual forms of documentary and exist as records of my practice, but also hopefully transcend this to stand as emotionally relatable media that draws the viewer into contemplating those topics of DNA privacy and xenotransplantation, respectively, more deeply.
Filmmaker: How did this idea of turning this piece into an opera come about? What was the actual process of developing the score and working with the various musicians?
Dewey-Hagborg: I was invited to work on a new piece about gene editing by the MIT Museum and guest curator William Myers. I had been intrigued by xenotransplantation for quite some time because it was the place where the most simultaneous gene edits had occurred—in order to make pigs essentially more human. Usually I like to work hands-on in the lab, but with this piece getting access to the kinds of labs that do this work was really prohibitively difficult, because of the controversy surrounding it and the fragile nature of this very experimental new technique. Additionally, it was during the height of COVID.
So, I started the project with a lot of research. I began interviewing scientists that study pigs and xenotransplantation, as well as archaeologists who study the evolution of the pig. I really wanted to get at this question of whether gene editing was something radically new or a continuation of 10 millennia of domestication and selective breeding (as molecular biologists often posit). I began having these Zoom sessions and recording them, then I started working with the words—transcribing them, editing them—and was struck by the beauty, poetry, humor and drama I was hearing from my interlocutors. I just started pulling sentences and arranging them into small poems, and suddenly I heard them in my head in “opera voice.” I thought, “Maybe that is the form this should take. Maybe music should convey the emotional layers of this emerging technology.”
I wrote the libretto and went through several iterations and experiments until finally a friend recommended composer Bethany Barrett, who is based in Berlin. She wrote the music and sent me the names of singers she wanted to work with, and we just continued to pass ideas and recordings back and forth.
Now, in working on the live production, I have a music director, Sam Faustine; an associate director, Becca Wolff; and a local crew of singers in San Francisco. It’s really an incredible team. (Also, the staff at the Exploratorium has been wonderful.) We rehearse together because my (speaking) parts are intertwined with the singing. It is such an amazing feeling standing onstage and hearing these powerful voices sing the words I wrote live.
Filmmaker: Why do you bring personal narrative into your art?
Dewey-Hagborg: When I was an undergraduate art student I was taught not to: I was told to keep my work conceptual, impersonal, abstract. And while I love work like that too, ultimately it was not my voice. The personal for me is authentic. I want to put my subjectivity forward. I really enjoy enmeshing the scientific and the personal, the messy and the clean. I call it “writing through.” I like to write my experience through the scientific and technological critique. It feels real to me and more honest than a standard documentary would. And I hope it brings an emotional layer that people can relate to. But every project is different, and I try to listen to the material and orient my approach in a way to best serve its dimensions.
Filmmaker: You’ve spoken in the past about your discomfort with both corporations and governments having such easy access to our genetic material —be it through seemingly benign ancestry tracing sites or even COVID testing—and you also seem similarly uneasy with xenotransplantation and genetically engineering pigs for human hearts (i.e., for humanity’s greater good). So, what sorts of change do you ultimately hope to accomplish through your biopolitical art?
Dewey-Hagborg: Some issues are very straightforward, but most are complex and contain layers of tradeoffs. Xenotransplantation is clearly a morally complicated issue. The goal with my work generally is to question the status quo, to advocate for critical attention and debate to topics that are under-discussed. With all the reports in the last year of the remarkable progress in xenotransplantation, there is little to no discussion of the animals whose lives are taken. This is not to say I advocate for a ban on the practice, but I don’t think it makes sense to completely skip over discussing the moral dilemma, when we are setting structures into place now that will frame how the future unfolds. When I started the project, I tried to get access to the leading xenotransplantation company in the US to shoot and they told me straight up, “We don’t want people thinking about pigs.” So, my film is for the pigs.