The Origins of Biometric Data

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Artist in Residence Open Studio, MOMENTUM AIR, The Max Plank Archive, Berlin, Germany 2015

Catalog (pdf)

Facebook page
Exhibition webpage

List of Works in Studio Installation:

  • Fingerprint/DNA Fingerprint
  • DNA Fingerprint Repeat Textile
  • Zwillinge, Archival Prints
  • EZ and ZZ Zwillinge (4 Books)
  • Zwillinge Handabdrucke Psychiatrischen Kliniken, West Deutschland 1950-1964 (4 Books)
  • Ghost Family Trees

Artist Statement

Research and studio work based on findings from the Max Plank Archive  at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Dr. Georg Geipel’s hand and fingerprint studies (1930-1960).                                                                                           

Special thanks to: The Max Plank archivist, Kristina Starkloff and librarian Bernd Hoffmann for assisting in the archive research, The Kunstquarter Bethianian studio managers for assistance in production.

In 2015-16, I was awarded both a Ford Family Foundation and a year sabbatical from Reed College to continue my research on the visualization of genetics and eugenics,. In the fall of 2015, I was an artist-in-residence at Momentum in Berlin, Germany, a research based artist residency, to access the Max Planck Archive of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.

I was given access to archives at the Max Planck in Dahlem to view the work of Dr. Georg Geipel, an anthropologist and statistician who worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin from 1930 through 1960. Geipel used methods of dermatoglyphics and dactyloscopy for the study of fingerprints and handprints to link the pattern to inheritance. Geipel assigned mathematical coordinates to the lines and curve in the hand to create a system of measurement.

Through these measurements Geipel was able to identify inherited hand line similarities in identical twins based on embryology and racial difference. It should be emphasized that although his ability to identify genetic inheritance was significant, his evaluation and conclusions of racial difference and mental ability had grave consequences on society during the Second World War. However, he did continue to refine mathematical identification systems after the war. Geipel’s mapping and measuring of fingerprints proved that these marks are unique for each of us. He created a system that measured the breaks and intersections of the lines in the hands which is now used in hand and fingerprint scanners today for the collection of biometric data.

The history of biometric data skips the 1930s through 1950s because of the negative associations.  However, the effects of taking biometric data then and the effects of taking it now as a method of surveillance and as an identity code for each human being, is hauntingly similar.

I have had the privilege to look at thousands of these studies and have focused on those from the 1950s through the1960s of identical twins. Twin studies have continued to be of vital importance to genetics as they show the subtle difference in the genetic make up of each human being.  

I aim to honor those who offered their identity markers for science. It is highly unlikely that they would have known how their personal mark would have been used to establish the system we use now. However, the knowledge gained, for better or worse, is part of a system of biometric data collection that begins at birth with the taking of a child’s handprints and has become the standard measure of our identify worldwide.