How Chelsea Manning Covertly Made a High-Tech Art Exhibition While In Prison

Steph Eckhardt, W Magazine, August 8, 2017

Besides grabbing a slice of hot, greasy pizza and sipping on champagne, one of the first things that Chelsea Manning, famed whistleblower and trans activist, did following her release after seven years of a 35-year prison sentence was go out to brunch for some avocado toast—a normal enough activity for someone getting reacquainted with contemporary American society, but one that held extra significance for Manning. The meal marked her first real-life encounter with Heather Dewey-Hagborg, the artist to whom she’d been sending DNA samples for years.


Before that, the pair’s collaboration, which is now publicly on view at New York’s Fridman Gallery through September, had been largely clandestine. The former U.S. Army intelligence analyst’s spell at five different facilities over the last seven years, which a United Nations expert called “cruel” and “inhumane,” allowed for little outside contact—which is why, in 2015, when Paper wanted to publish a portrait of Manning along with an interview conducted via email and “encrypted web platforms,” the magazine resorted to unusual methods and called on someone who was then arguably one of the industry’s least popular artists.


At that point, Dewey-Hagborg’s infamous portraits constructed out of the DNA extracted from found items like cigarette butts and chewing gum had attracted the artist her fair share of flack, but in this case, they provided the perfect phenotypic opportunity: A couple of ear swabs and hair clippings later, she was able to create two 3D-printed portraits of Manning—the first images of her seen since 2010. They were also the first images of Manning, who was known as Bradley Manning at the time she was sentenced, since she announced that she was transitioning. “The only thing, really, was that she was concerned about appearing too male,” Dewey-Hagborg recalled recently of her early interactions with Manning.