Surveillance and Waste: the art, the history, the law

By Max Liboiron.

From Strange Visons by Dewey-Hagborg.

From Strange Visons by Dewey-Hagborg.

I want to be as surprised by my work as anyone else. For me, the joy in creating is that the creation takes on a life of its own. I am interested in exploring the intersection between art and life, between nature and artifice.
Heather Dewey Hardborg, artist

In her much-lauded series Stranger Visions, artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg creates busts from discarded genetic material collected in public places. It began sitting in a therapists office here in New York City, where she saw a hair lodged in a piece of furniture. “I stared at it for an hour,” she says. “I couldn’t stop wondering who it belonged to, and what I could find out about that person.” (Science Magazine). Based on her reading of forensic DNA prototyping, she took 11 found hairs and tested their DNA in a genetics lab. She then built three dimensional masks of those people based on the information she received about eye color, geographical roots, sex, and other traits (though an exact facial reconstruction from such testing is not possible– that is the stuff of science fiction and CSI-style television shows).

From Dewey-Hagborg's website.

From Dewey-Hagborg’s website.

From her press release:

The project began with me, going about my daily life in the city, and coming across samples of human DNA everywhere I looked. Hairs, nails, cigarette butts, chewing gum, we are shedding our DNA all over the place all the time, and we don’t even notice. So I began collecting “samples” – traces of human DNA I found in my travels.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 7.29.44 AMDewey-Hagborg claims that her work is meant to raise questions about genetic surveillance. Surveillance through things we leave behind (or on the curb) has largely been a legal, rather than scholarly, issue in discard studies. The website Surveillance Self-Defense, for example, educates people on what the fourth amendment of the United State’s constitutions does and does not cover, including trash:

The things you leave outside your home at the edge of your property are unprotected by the Fourth Amendment. For example, once you carry your trash out of your house or office and put it on the curb or in the dumpster for collection, you have given up any expectation of privacy in the contents of that trash. You should always keep this in mind when you are disposing of sensitive documents or anything else that you want to keep private. You may want to shred all paper documents and destroy all electronic media. You could also try to put the trash out (or unlock your trashcan) right before it’s picked up, rather than leaving it out overnight without a lock.


Weberman posing with Bob Dylan’s trash in his book, My Life in Garbology (1980).

The ability for people to collect your trash without recourse to the fourth amendment was decided in California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988) in the Supreme Court of the United States, where it was decided that government officials did not need warrants to search trash. Surveillance by curbside waste is now an accepted method. In fact, the word garbology, now taken to mean trash scholars in general, was first used in a research context by A. J. Weberman, long before California v. Greewood. Weberman tended to raid Bob Dylan’s trash more than the musician liked, and wrote a book about both his technique and his findings.

However, to my knowledge–and please correct me if I’m wrong!–beyond a guest post by Sebastian Abrahamsson and Katja de Vries on Dumpsters, Muffins, Waste, and Law, in which they analyze the roles of taste and diet in a legal case against freeganism in Belgium, there are few, or perhaps no, critical studies on waste and surveillance out there. It would seem that Dewey-Hagborg’s claim about the need for a discussion around genetic surveillance and her scavenging techniques do indeed fill a gap in discourse, both in public and academic settings. If you know of work on this topic, or would like to guest post, please leave us a message!


Weberman, A.J. (1980) My Life in Garbology. Stonehill Publishing Company.

Weberman, A.J. (unknown). Keep the Fuck Outta My Goddam Garbage. Privately printed.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg (2013). Press Release: Stranger Visions.


Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.

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