Before DNA kits and deepfakes, Nancy Burson used morphed images to reveal fundamental truths

Burson’s photographs of missing children and powerful dictators helped us see things we otherwise couldn’t imagine. 50 years later, her work is still unsettling.

Nancy Burson and I are sitting in the bathroom of her Soho studio. It’s sunny outside but the bathroom is pitch-black, and we’re both staring at a tiny statue of Mary which sits on the far side of the room, waiting for our eyes to adjust as the rhythmic twang of Nicolas Jaar’s “Mi Mujer” grows incrementally louder. Burson told me Mary likes to dance, so the music is playing on my iPhone, which has been wrapped in a towel to prevent any blue light escaping from the screen and ruining the moment. Maybe it’s because Mary likes the track or maybe it’s because I do, but she seems to be glowing more brightly than before, and either my eyes are flipping out or she’s actually moving. Maybe it doesn’t matter; either way, the whole experience feels weirdly meditative and calming.

Burson’s “Perpetual Mary” is a performance piece of sorts, and the culmination of the pioneering American artist’s decades-long career, throughout which she has created some of the most consequential images in our recent history. You’ve likely seen them even if you don’t know the artist by name; a digitally morphed ‘Trumputin’ on the cover of TIME, aged portraits of missing children seen on milk cartons and TV programs around the country, a multiracial composite of an ‘average American citizen’ in our imminent majority-minority future. Through her work, Burson has always attempted not to distort the world but to reveal truths about it. This is what led her to work with organizations from Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver’s EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology) to NASA and the FBI, collaborating on groundbreaking software that allowed us to see things we otherwise couldn’t imagine. It’s also why I’m sitting on a stool next to her bathtub, in the same building where Burson made the morphed image of Etan Patz in 1984, squinting at a statue of the mother of Jesus.

Burson knows her latest work, including “Perpetual Mary” and an upcoming book called Carrying the Lineage, will be unsettling to a lot of people. But her central thesis—that we’re all living in a Matrix-like simulation, that we have little control over our destiny—doesn’t sound quite so crazy in a time when we’re all consulting psychics and mailing our saliva to Jeff Bezos in search of answers about our lives. Over the phone, Burson tells me more about her famous morphing images and the meaning of photographic truth.

Time magazine’s July 20, 2018 cover, by Nancy Burson.

Hannah Ongley: I thought I was unfamiliar with your work before the FotoFocus symposium, AutoUpdate: Photography in the Electronic Age. Then I realized I had seen, of course, your Trump/Putin composite image that was selected for the cover of Time magazine’s July 30, 2018 issue [following Trump’s disastrous summit with Putin in Helsinki, Finland].

Nancy Burson: I just came from Paris Photo, where the big hit there for me was still Trump/Putin. The new video was such a huge attraction—this time I really wanted to bring the point home even more, if I could. So I redid it and slowed it down. There were hundreds of people that just stood there and videoed the video [laughs]. It was completely different than the fast-paced one that I did for Time magazine. Its slowness made it more diabolical than ever! I also showed a second piece, from 2016—before Trump was elected—of Trump as five different races. That’s a GIF on my website. It’s five stills of him lined up as Black, Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and Indian. That brought more smiles than anything I’ve shown in a long time!

Hannah: I remember you mentioning that second work at FotoFocus. You said the magazine that originally commissioned you for it then decided they didn’t want to run it.

Nancy: Yeah, very last minute they decided not to run it. And it took me quite a while to find somebody who would publish it. And when I did, it was after I showed it at ROSEGALLERY in Santa Monica. A Huffington Post freelancer from LA, Kee Kee Buckley, did the story.

Hannah: You mentioned The Human Race Machine, which was apparently used for at least a decade to show people how they’d look as a different race. But, at one point you said you felt that was the wrong kind of technology to be out there right now. Then you showed a new sculpture called DNA HAS NO COLOR, which you said was a better way of framing this idea.

Nancy: I do feel it’s a better way. I think with the upturn in racism today, the emphasis now should be unifying. When you’re seeing yourself as different races, the concept in itself is about difference, because it’s visualizing yourself differently. So I think that the message conveyed in the sculpture, that ‘DNA has no color,’ is more timely right now. It’s a reminder that we’re all one race, the human one.

Left: Ethan Patz at 6. Right: Ethan Patz update to 13. © Nancy Burson | All Rights Reserved 2020.

Hannah: I want to go back to when you first arrived in New York. Throughout the trajectory of your career, you’ve been closely tied to science and research agencies. When you came to New York in 1968, and you saw The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age at MoMA, were you, at that point, seeing yourself as an artist or as a scientist?

Nancy: Definitely as an artist.

Hannah: What first led you, as an artist, to the MIT Media Lab? Was it just that you needed a partner on this work because the technology was so experimental at the time?

Nancy: Absolutely! I needed a partner because the technology was really in its infancy. I had gotten to know an early computer graphics specialist through [Robert] Rauschenberg’s and Billy Klüver’s organization EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology). I kept in touch with him and he was my lead into many of the pioneers of the early computer graphics world. There were a bunch of people at NYIT (New York Institute of Technology) who were working on animating computer graphics, and who went on to have notorious careers working in movies in LA; and there was Tom Brigham, who eventually got the technical Oscar for the first animated morph. One of my contacts suggested it might be a good idea if I could get together with MIT. I still remember calling Nicholas Negroponte, head of MIT’s Media Lab, and saying, ‘I have this idea,’ and he was so enthusiastic. This was when you could get somebody important on the phone, like, right away!

Hannah: What a time!

Nancy: Yeah, what a time!

Hannah: Did your proximity to these organizations—which are surrounded not only by secrecy but by an increasing amount of skepticism—influence your ideas about the relationship between images and truth? Government agencies and tech companies are being called upon to police manipulated images, or deep fakes, but they’re also creating them.

Nancy: I think I was extremely naive at the beginning. We all were. What we were thinking about, when we were thinking ahead, was how these things could be used for the movies. We weren’t thinking about how these things could be manipulated. Where I really got involved, of course, was with missing kids, and finding missing kids and adults. We had several finds in the mid-‘80s mostly from the airing of updates shown on national TV shows. I anticipated things like Snapchat, but I never anticipated the darker side of what’s going on right now. I just never thought about it. My whole relationship with the agencies evolved in a way that was not at all expected. I had no idea that MIT was funded by the Defense Department’s research arm, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). I only found out because of the Aspen Movie Map project that was being developed there at the time. It was being developed for its use in war, but it also eventually became Google Street View.

Crystals. © Nancy Burson | All Rights Reserved 2020.

Hannah: Yeah you did talk about that a bit. It was kinda crazy, it sounded like you were totally in the dark. The MIT guys were talking about [the creation of the Movie Map] as just, like, going on a ski trip to Aspen.

Nancy: Yeah. It seemed innocent. It was more like, ‘Oh, let’s go have fun skiing and sit in the back of the truck and film Aspen.’ And I have to say, Google Street View is pretty useful. Often there’s that aspect of technology that’s negative, and the other aspect that’s beneficial. I mean, what would we do without cell phones? It’s a mixed blessing. What’s really sad is the freedoms we’re losing now after having them for so long, like protections against pollution, and abortion rights. The difference between the truth and lies has been annihilated over the past three years. That, I don’t think, is human-driven. That’s my point of view.

Hannah: If our self-destruction is not human-driven, what do you think is driving it?

Nancy: I think we’re living in a kind of Matrix-like simulation and I’m not alone in that thinking. Apparently about half of physicists more or less agree with me. Physicists are unable to explain why the Universe is expanding so rapidly. They know Dark Energy or Dark Matter accounts for at least 85% of the Universe, but they still can’t find any of it. And from what I hear, being a medium—or whatever you want to call it—it’s not a human decision that it can’t or hasn’t been found. It’s part of the truth that’s been held back from us. And as unreal as it may sound, over the years I’ve been given a lot of actual evidence that I’ve been working to analyze with scientists, including some from the NSA, who eventually confirmed my findings.

I know it may be upsetting for people to think our destiny is not in our control, but on the other hand, if this is really our apocalyptic moment, then this darkness will soon lift. The word ‘apocalypse’ means to disclose or uncover. I think that is what is about to happen. I believe the actual truth about what exactly comprises the matrix, and its effect on humanity, is yet to be revealed. I think at some point in the near future, we’ll all be leading happier, healthier lives without wars and prejudice. However, when that will begin, I don’t believe it’s a human decision.

Materials of an unknown origin, spherical pellets. © Nancy Burson | All Rights Reserved 2020.

Hannah: You say this is upsetting for people to hear. To me it feels like images are often accepted as tangible evidence of something. These ideas, which you might only be able to depict in an opaque way, might be slightly more uncomfortable for that reason.

Nancy: I agree! I wrote a book called Carrying the Lineage, and I honestly believe that we’re all watched and guided and that the matrix is run by the balls of light that I see clearly around humans. I believe those balls of light are our only god and our lineage of light embodying our previous generations as our essences. I see them daily, but when I see them, I see them as science and not as spirituality. I see balls of electromagnetic plasma energies with tentacles and a nucleus. They appear in several different forms, the smallest of which enables them to travel through space as the tiniest of particles. The black holes in space are their superhighways, and I believe those wormholes will have to be shared with us if we are ever going to be able to get to other Earthlike planets. I think the only way that we’re really going to have the appropriate science for that is for them to reveal the truth of how they’ve been our invisible guides for thousands of years. And that also means that they will have to begin to reveal themselves to all humans, not just the ones who hear them as the voices in their heads.

Hannah: And your recent photographs, of the crystals and the light, that you say are capturing energy…

Nancy: I’ve been photographing energy and documenting it in various ways for the past 25 years. And in the past couple of years I’ve been getting amazing results just sitting in the darkness taking videos and consecutive sequences of images on my cell phone.

The crystals I’ve been photographing are the crystals that have been coming out of my feet for over eleven years now. I just got another analysis done by a scientist who specializes in crystal research. He used the most accurate state-of-the-art testing methods available and he found the crystals to be both organic and inorganic, like spider’s webs. However, because they contain silicates, they can be grown. What I’ve been hearing for well over a decade is that they are going to be useful in DNA synthesis for research in nanotechnology. I’m convinced they’re important so I keep following the breadcrumbs; in this case, the messages along the path leading to the next lab that will prove my hypothesis. What I hear is, ‘Now is the time for us to receive, the crystalline structure of DNA perceived.’

iPhone energy sequence. © Nancy Burson | All Rights Reserved 2020.

Hannah: I always thought science and religion were kinda similar in the way that they’re both tools people can wield to their own advantage—to prove whatever they want to, I suppose.

Nancy: I think that’s true. I think that people’s guidance has led them to see things and hear voices, but I think that’s been part of their game. 280 million people hear voices. I was a spiritual teacher for a few years, but what I began to hear was, ‘Forget spirituality. We’re science.’ These are the same beings, I think, that created human DNA. They’ve been called all kinds of different things in all different cultures. Plato used to refer to them as his Geniuses. He and other Greek philosophers felt their Geniuses stood outside of themselves, guiding their creativity. The Genies came from Middle Eastern culture. They were originally the Jinns; and they were supernatural beings that took any form they wanted.

When Taylor Swift writes a song, she sees a cloud in front of her that she takes into herself. When Elizabeth Gilbert writes books, she asks her guidance for their help, addressing them directly, as if they were standing in the corner of her room. When people see a ghost, a demon, or an alien, what they’re seeing is a construct that’s actually a shape shifted ball of light.

Hannah: There’s this kind of increasingly obsessive interest, amongst the general public, in DNA testing, like 23andMe. Why do you think this is the way that more and more people are seeking answers, whether it’s answers about the Universe or answers about themselves?

Nancy: Yes, absolutely! I totally believe that in the future our DNA and our ancestry will be found to determine far more than we ever thought. I believe it’s truly important to find out as much as we can about our lineages and that’s the reason why millions and millions more people are getting their DNA tests done. Of course, in a sense, all of humanity is one giant stew at this point, because we’ve all been mixed and are composites of those balls of light. Racism is ridiculous! When we have more access to the lights that surround us—and when they’re willing to give us more information—I think we’ll understand a lot more about who we are. It’s not just our physical health that has an impact on our lives. It could be events of our essences that are now being replayed in similar scenarios.

Hannah: Is there anything else you’d like to say about this recent work and research of yours, or where you plan to take it next?

Nancy: A lab for DNA synthesis is next. But if you want to come down and see Mary and all the energy moving around her, you’re certainly welcome. Perpetual Mary is always here for you.

Nancy is currently doing small group and individual “Perpetual Mary” visits and performances, which can be arranged through her website. She’s planning to show her work this year at the Triennale Museum in Milan and is speaking at Photo London in May.