New York

Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Chelsea E. Manning, Probably Chelsea, 2017, thirty 3-D printed masks, dimensions variable. Photo: Paola Abreu Pita.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Chelsea E. Manning, Probably Chelsea, 2017, thirty 3-D printed masks, dimensions variable. Photo: Paola Abreu Pita.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Chelsea E. Manning

Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Chelsea E. Manning, Probably Chelsea, 2017, thirty 3-D printed masks, dimensions variable. Photo: Paola Abreu Pita.

It’s difficult to gauge the merits of “A Becoming Resemblance” with anything resembling critical objectivity. The incendiary politics surrounding Dewey-Hagborg’s collaborator and muse, the US military intelligence officer turned hacktivist Chelsea E. Manning, and the controversial nature of the show’s subject matter (the diagnostically and morally murky territory of DNA-based profiling) overshadowed one’s reading of the project from the outset. This was not a conventional collaboration—not least because half of the partnership remained incarcerated, periodically in solitary confinement and with highly monitored communication, for the majority of the project’s duration.

The unlikely collaboration between Manning and artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg was set in motion by Paper magazine in 2015, while Manning was serving time at a military correctional facility in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. On the strength of Dewey-Hagborg’s previous project, Stranger Visions, 2012–13, for which the artist attempted to create three-dimensional portraits using clues from DNA extracted from found biological traces, the magazine invited her to create a portrait of Manning using samples from cheek swabs and hair trimmings. No updated photographs of the infamous whistle-blower had been released since Manning’s arrest in 2010; in the successive years, the ex-soldier had transitioned from male to female while detained. Dewey-Hagborg’s renderings would, Manning hoped, restore some of the visibility she had lost during the lonely half decade.

For this occasion, Fridman exhibited Dewey-Hagborg’s set of two three-dimensional prints (made from the 2015 data set) and twenty-eight newer prints produced after Manning’s sentence was commuted this past January. The thirty masklike molds that jointly comprised Probably Chelsea, 2017, were suspended from the gallery ceiling, where they faced the viewer like disembodied soldiers standing mutely at attention. The portraits feature a range of skin tones, eye-color shades, and facial attributes associated with the various racial and gender-specific strains present in Manning’s DNA (Dewey-Hagborg has taken pains to underscore that neither biological gender nor its outward expression can be assured via DNA mapping), revealing the intricate constellation of traits that invisibly shape the appearance of this enigmatic public figure. In demonstrating the range of equally probable faces a single DNA set can generate, the prints also gave physical form to the artist’s own increasing ambivalence toward a biotechnology now routinely used by police. Dewey-Hagborg readily admits that her renderings are rough approximations at best and likens her work to that of a sketch artist, albeit one who chooses from a near-infinite range of possible profiles those she finds aesthetically compelling rather than those she assumes to characterize her subject (height, eye color, build, etc). She thus openly critiques the biases and assumptions that inevitably taint the operations of this supposedly neutral forensic tool. On Manning’s part, the prints’ significance derived not from their accuracy but from their shared resistance to the censorship that prevented her face from being seen and, implicitly, from the presumed truths and social norms that dictated her acknowledged gender identity for much of her life.

While the prints were its focal point, the show also included a handful of earlier works that trace the genesis of Probably Chelsea. On a nearby wall was Suppressed Images: Frame #10, 2017, a poster taken from one panel of a graphic novel that Manning and Dewey-Hagborg made with illustrator Shoili Kanungo in 2016, the publication of which, remarkably, coincided with Obama’s commutation of Manning’s sentence. It depicts Manning with a loudspeaker; her voice bubble contains a line excerpted from a piece of mail correspondence with Dewey-Hagborg: WHEN THEY CHILL YOUR SPEECH THEN THEY'VE WON — SO NEVER SHUT UP. This excerpt provides a glimpse into Manning’s role in the collaboration that was otherwise obscured. 

At times, the show was hindered by its attempts to conform to the gallery context. The framed poster made one want to read more of Manning’s correspondence sans graphic depiction, and the final work—a section of her mitochondrial DNA sequence scrawled in pencil on the gallery wall—felt a bit like a space filler. One wondered whether this research would have been better suited to a more discursive setting that might demonstrate Dewey-Hagborg’s impressively innovative and scrupulous research, as well as give Manning herself more airtime. The latter sticking point at least seems poised for resolution with a documentary (produced by Laura Poitras) planned for release this fall that should finally give Manning a means to articulate the inner details of her experience.

Cat Kron