Biotyranny and its Resistance: Who Owns Your Body?


Image: MOTHERBOARD
Inspired by Foucault, Chelsea Manning and techniques like gene editing, artists and activists are taking back power over our bodies from governments and corporations.

By Andrew Smart | MOTHERBOARD

In early 2015, a Fedex package arrived at the studio of artist/scientist Heather Dewey-Hagborg. It contained only a sample of hair and cheek swabs. She extracted DNA material from the samples and ran it through a sophisticated set of technologies called forensic DNA phenotyping, a technique increasingly used by private laboratories to assist in criminal investigations, genomics companies in determining one’s predilection for disease, and law enforcement in establishing DNA profiles of suspects. This would enable her to, after analyzing protein assays and sequencing genes associated with distinctive features such as hair color and ethnicity, create a close likeness to the owner of DNA: Chelsea Manning.

The resulting portraits evoke an eerie sense of dread: Manning—who is currently serving a 35-year prison sentence for giving Wikileaks an enormous pile of diplomatic cables and government documents related to the Iraq War—has not been seen by the public since her arrest in 2010. (After a vigorous campaign on her behalf, President Obama commuted her sentence just before he left office, moving up her release to May.) As Manning told Cory Doctorow in an interview for Boing Boing:

„Our society’s dependence on imagery says a lot about our values. Unfortunately, prisons try very hard to make us inhuman and unreal by denying our image, and thus our existence, to the rest of the world. Imagery has become a kind of proof of existence. Just consider the online refrain ‚pics or it didn’t happen.'“

This wasn’t just a statement about the physicality of bodies, but the way they are identified. Manning has transitioned from male to female since her detention began in 2010. For Dewey-Hagborg’s project, called „Radical Love,“ the artist created an algorithmically generated gender neutral portrait and a portrait that had been „gendered“ female, in order to highlight the problem of using birth-assigned sex to also assign gender.

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