Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Q: Dr. Heather, let’s begin all the way to the beginning and growing up years. How was life, what was academic life, and how did doing a PhD in Electronic Arts happen?

HDH: I knew from a young age I wanted to be an artist, though I wasn’t sure what it meant. Learning what it means feels like a lifelong project! In college, I became interested in the intersection of art and technology and started programming and building AI systems around 2003, which had quite a different meaning back then. I was drawn to the conceptual and philosophical questions of AI and the parallels with avant-garde 20th-century art like John Cage’s, incorporating randomness and algorithms into the production of work. This interest continued and branched out; in grad school, I began thinking more politically about art and technology and the implications of working with machine learning systems. As a research-based artist, the university is a natural home for my practice, and I was happy to have the opportunity to devote myself to it during a practice-based PhD at RPI in electronic arts. Probably if I could remain a student forever, I would, as my work is always about learning new things.

Q: As you are known for biohacking and biopolitical art, what kind of concerns have you worked through, and when and how did the idea of biohacking and speculating DNA information come to you?

HDH: My introduction to biological art began around 2012 with the project “Stranger Visions.” The backstory is that I was sitting in a therapy session and noticed a hair stuck in the crack of the glass covering a print on the wall. I sat there imagining the person who had left this hair behind and wondering what I could learn about them from this genetic artifact. In “Stranger Visions,” I explored this as a research question. I had never worked in a biology laboratory before; I was a total amateur in that sense. However, I had a lengthy background in machine learning, AI, and programming, and I understood how to hack things together. Biology was becoming hackable like computer technology, so I wanted to bring the political questions I had been exploring around digital technology and surveillance to the realm of the biological and the messy human body.



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