The Once and Future Pig

Heather Dewey-Hagborg Talks Xenotransplantation on the new Team Human Show

Douglas Rushkoff
5 min readJan 17, 2024

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Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s Hybrid is an interspecies opera that takes us on a journey from today’s cutting-edge genetic engineering to the origins of pig domestication ten millennia ago, and then back to the wild boars still inhabiting our forests. It’s an intimate and sometimes heartbreaking account of the interspecies relationship at the heart of the science of xenotransplantation, the genetic engineering of pigs to supply human hearts.

It’s all part of an art project that includes memorial sculptures to the pigs sacrificed in the research, as well as speculative components of potential future pigs. I got to see all of this at the Fridman gallery in New York City, and it blew me away — not in that spectacular Pink Floyd spectacle way, but in a subtle way that gets more intense the more you open to it.

I’m honored and humbled to say Heather was a student of mine twenty years ago at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications program, where she always challenged my understanding of what art could and shouldn’t be. She went on to do speculative experiments in biohacking, like collecting samples of DNA off the hand poles on New York’s subways and then using computer modeling to generate masks of what the people might have looked like. She created a forensic DNA phenotype portrait of surveillance tech whistleblower Chelsea Manning, and made adversarial self-portraits that probed the structure of facial recognition systems.

Heather’s work is both high-tech and highly human. We took some time together to consider the alienating effects of the human effort to domestic our reality, as well as how to retrieve our sweet humanity to inform our highly engineered futures. Here’s a short excerpt of our conversation.

Douglas Rushkoff:
I’ve been emotional lately, partly because of the situation in Israel. But I was waiting for someone in the gallery while your movie was playing. It’s like a 30 minute movie and I watched it four or five times. It came to this moment where there’s four or five pigs in a corner and then this one pig looks up — almost at the camera — as if it was asking, “What’s going on?”

I started weeping when the pig did that. I don’t even know why I did.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg:
It’s a very emotional film. I think you can watch the film in so many different ways. Depending on what state you’re in, and how open you are to connecting with the creatures, you know the tragedy awaiting them. Even if they are treated really well for pigs in that situation, and cared for by the vets, you still know their fate is to be killed and to have their organs taken. It is devastating. I think that’s you allowing yourself to have a real response to the material.

Douglas Rushkoff:
Right, because the pig was so innocent. Then, she also ends up being the model for a future, genetically altered pig, right? The one in your speculative, animated portrait of the cutest pig ever engineered? I’m sure people will want a sculpture or 3D print of that little pig. It’s almost like how they bred pug dogs to have faces to make them more like friendly little creatures. They move their eyes closer together. It’s like this pig has features almost a quarter of the way towards a human’s.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg
Yes, exactly. In the installation you see the different directions of the future pig. Those are based on two or three different branches. The one you’re talking about? This is the even-more-human pig. It’s imagining that we take the pigs that have been engineered for xenotransplantation that are already more human in that sense.

Douglas Rushkoff:
Because you want their hearts to be more like a human heart for transplant.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg:
Right. Exactly. And one of the scientists I talked to literally said: This is a humanized pig.

I imagined pushing that one step further. Actually, when I first started thinking about doing something on this topic, my original impulse was to see if I could get into the lab and make the pig not just be internally closer to the human, but also make it look more human. Maybe I could create some of that empathetic connection that I think you’re seeing in that pig.

I thought I could do that by gene editing the snout to get smaller. The really interesting thing was that once I started doing the research and talked to one of the veterinary scientists working with the pigs, he said that was exactly what happened when we started domesticating pigs. Basically, through the domestication process, and then through the genetic engineering process, the snout receded in exactly that way. So I thought it’s so interesting that this thing that I wanted to do as an intervention was actually coming along for the ride with the other genetic manipulation that we were doing through selective breeding, and then through active breeding and genetic programs.

Douglas Rushkoff:
It’s such a bad question to ask, but are you hopeful? You must be hopeful because you are doing tactical artistic interventions. You are not just delivering palliative care to the end of human civilization. There’s an intervention here.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg:
It is a really hard time to feel hopeful, but I do think I am generally hopeful. I mean, I do feel like the trend of young people is to be more caring for the public, more open to caring for people, more inclined toward social care. That is what I see, at least. In terms of numbers, younger people are more likely to vote for Democrats or progressives — and not just in the United States.

So I do feel like there is reason for hope. The young people that I interact with, and of course that’s a biased sample, but they are so impressive in terms of how accepting they are of difference and how dedicated they are to this mission of making sure that everyone is taken care of in a socialist way. That gives me hope.

But I don’t see much hope coming from technology. That’s the interesting thing that everyone has realized now. It really changed over the decades we’ve known each other where, when I met you, you were really trying to push people towards thinking more critically about technology, which I bought into completely, but it was hard because it was right at the beginning of Web 2. 0 and there was the next wave of utopianism that came with that. Now, the whole conversation turned to where it’s pretty rare that I see an article in the mainstream news that is in any way enthusiastic about technology.

Douglas Rushkoff:
Right. People realized that social media was algorithmic since that was made public through Shoshana Zuboff.

Heather Dewey-Hagborb:
And the facial recognition stuff, with AI, I mean, it’s just a disaster.

Listen to the whole conversation on Team Human!

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Douglas Rushkoff

Author of Survival of the Richest, Team Human, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://teamhuman.fm