Heather Dewey-Hagborg at Kunsthall 3.14

Updated: Sep 25, 2018

By Fiepke Sofie van Niel.

Probably Chelsea, A Becoming Resemblance (2017) by Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Kunsthall 3.14 in Bergen, Norway

Numerous faces staring in the same direction with a blank expression lingering over their surface. They are disembodied and floating in the sky. The faces seem inanimate and as if they do not belong to a human owner; they seem everything but real. Or are they? These floating faces are part of the installation Probably Chelsea, A Becoming Resemblance (2017) by Heather Dewey-Hagborg that is on display now in Kunsthall 3.14 in Bergen, Norway.

The question that concerns the connection with reality that this artwork calls upon itself is a difficult one. Dewey-Hagborg collaborated with Chelsea E. Manning who underwent Hormone Replacement Therapy, in order to transition her gender into the female sex, during her imprisonment for sharing documents with WikiLeaks. There existed no clue of the way she looked during her isolation in prison from 2010 to 2017. Manning managed to send Dewey-Hagborg a buccal swab and some strains of hair. The faces in Probably Chelsea are generated through an algorithm from Chelsea Manning’s DNA. However, these rendered faces are not just created by the artist from the intention to create a piece of art. An e-mail from PAPER Magazine in which Dewey-Hagborg is requested to produce a portrait of Chelsea Manning to go along with an interview with her preceded this project, as Dewey-Hagborg explains in her lecture called Hacking Biopolitics at the University of Michigan [1]. The desire of the outside world to construct an image of the way Manning looked like during her imprisonment and her transitioning phase could serve as exemplary for the way we deal with human bodies nowadays; we try to get control on every part of the body and every move humans make through technology. Dewey-Hagborg calls this craze on DNA ‘genetic determinism’ in Hacking Biopolitics [2]. This issue also concerns privacy. What if we could just obtain all possible knowledge about a person through their DNA, just like PAPER magazine was almost trying to get a grip on the influence of the imprisonment on Manning’s life? Probably Chelsea, and Dewey-Hagborgs work in general, could function as a conductor to explore the way in which algorithms and genetic surveillance intervene with our privacy.

The control that society and, more importantly, political institutions try to have on genetics and the registration of our DNA are better understood through Foucault’s idea of biopolitics. Foucault coined this definition in the mid-1970s, and stated that: "… for the first time in history, no doubt, biological existence was reflected in political existence; the fact of living was no longer an inaccessible substrate that only emerged from time to time, amid the randomness of death and its fatality; part of it passed into knowledge’s field of control and power’s sphere of intervention" [3]. In other words, biopolitics are a way in which institutions of power can be in control of life, which easily translates to the relationship between the government of a country and its inhabitants. As a concept, it focuses on all biological processes and not just on DNA. A part of Foucault’s writings address the racism and generalisation that comes along with biopolitics. Based on someone’s DNA, a person would be compartmentalised into a certain race or gender when a certain institution would create a profile of this person [4]. Therefore, politics do not allow you to be a race or gender that is in between established definitions. Biopolitics thus comes across as a reductionist way of looking towards the human species.

The racist and generalization that comes along with biopolitics is also a topic that Dewey-Hagborg explores in her lecture Hacking Biopolitics. She speaks about criminal databases that are based on DNA in the US which targets minorities. By linking their DNA to each other, entire families of a certain minority become visible throughout these databases. They are under the watch of the government due to their race [5].

Dewey-Hagborg also uses the word visibility in relation to her collaboration with Chelsea Manning. She made Manning visible again in a positive sense. Whereas imprisonment excluded her from society, partly due to the fact that it was not allowed for the world to see photographs of Manning, rendering a portrait could turn her into a real and existing person again [6]. This applied to Radical Love: Chelsea Manning (2015), the artwork in which an accurate portrait of Manning is to be seen. The concept of visibility is explored in a different way in Probably Chelsea. The faces that are on display in Kunsthall 3.14 in Bergen are all extremely different, and yet all derived from Chelsea Manning’s DNA. The viewer can even distinguish faces that look like as if they belong to people from all over the world and from different kinds of sexes.

Thus, this aspect coins the negative aspects from visibility through biopolitics. We could see that the interpretation of Manning’s DNA was subjective and did not point directly towards a certain race or gender. On one hand, Probably Chelsea shows that technology is not yet at the point where it is able to know every detail about us through analysing our DNA. But, on the other hand, Dewey-Hagborg shows us the dangers of this upcoming genetic determinism. Her work makes us think about the way in which technology will progress in the upcoming years. With complete genetic surveillance, we will probably all be compartmentalised into certain types of race and gender and there would be no in between. This resonates with Foucault’s idea of biopolitics; complete control of living creatures will result in racism and generalization. Just as was almost impossible to avoid for Dewey-Hagborg in creating Chelsea Manning’s portrait.


[1] Dewey-Hagborg, Hacking Biopolitics, digital file, 8.57-9.16.

[2] Dewey-Hagborg, Hacking Biopolitics, digital file, 7.16.

[3] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 142. Derived from: Peterson and Somit, Handbook of biology and politics.

[4] Peterson and Somit, Handbook of biology and politics, 43-44

[5] Dewey-Hagborg, ‘Hacking Biopolitics’. Website E-Flux Conversations.

[6] Ibid.


Dewey-Hagborg, Heather. Heather Dewey-Hagborg: Hacking Biopolitics. UM Stamps. Digital file. July 31, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ah34fw0XGwU.

Dewey-Hagborg, Heather. ‘Heather Dewey-Hagborg: Hacking Biopolitics’. E-flux Conversations. https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/heather-dewey-hagborg-hacking-biopolitics/6045 (consulted September 19, 2018).

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. London: Penguin Books, 1998.

Peterson, Steven and Albert Somit (ed.). Handbook of Biology and Politics. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2017.