Arts artist feature

Human-scented perfume, bacteria-painted sculptures, mind-controlled sperm: art in the new era

Research-based artist and MIT graduate Ani Liu’s redefines contemporary art

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Ani’s first project combining art and science, Eyeris is a 'cultural prosthetic' preventing its wearer from seeing unless someone else holds their hand.
Courtesy of HANG XU

Art is a visceral form of storytelling that has existed throughout human history. It captures the human experience across generations, cultures, and places. Time melts the raw, rock-etched pictographs and fruit-dyed pigments stroked on cave walls into the sinewy marble sculptures of the Romans and natural landscapes of Asian woodblock prints. Time flows, transforming art along with it, swirling in a current of emerging technologies of each age: from the simple wheel enabling the sculptor to move large stones to chemical processes blooming vibrant dyes to digital photography capturing scenes with pixel instead of paint. The powerful influence that evolving technologies have on artistic expression, or perhaps art itself — the innate messages and techniques — propels the growth of human civilization. Technology shapes our thinking and self-expression. As the 21st century rapidly brings us closer to a world woven with the synthetic threads of artificial intelligence and automation, how will art react?

This is one of many questions that fuel research-based artist Ani Liu SM ’17 in her transdisciplinary work. Her pieces encompass the intersection of aesthetics, science, design, and technology. In one project, Liu took an alternative perspective on the traditional artistic motif of the human portrait. Instead of painting a figure on a canvas, Liu used silicon, oil, wax, minerals and hair to symbolically dissociate the body into its constituent components as a deconstructed machine: water, fat, protein, and minerals. She also added non-organic elements, such as microcontrollers and diodes, to represent a future where technology is integrated in our bodies. Confronting the viewer with the materiality of life, the piece begs the questions, What does it mean to be human and alive? How did such rudimentary building blocks create the phenomena of qualia, subjectivity, and sentience? In another project, Liu created performance art in which female participants could control a magnified plate of sperm with their mind using a headpiece that measured the electrical activity on one’s scalp — a compelling feat, both technically and politically. Contextualized in an era of “locker room talk,” contraceptive regulation, and age-old sexual abuse, this subversive counternarrative pushes viewers to reflect on what agency, or the lack thereof, a woman has in controlling her body. From virtual reality to MRIs to microbiomes, Liu leverages the technologies around us as media to redefine this era’s version of contemporary art.

Growing up in Chinatown as the child of immigrants, she was pushed towards science and math in what she describes as “a very typical Asian American fashion.” However, she always dreamed of becoming an artist. “Finding a way to make art with the tools of science and technology was my way of integrating both the pressure I felt from my culture and my family, and then also pursuing my passion,” Liu said. In integrating technology with art, Liu felt that she “finally found a way to voice the questions [she] wanted to ask.”

Despite this intense passion, Liu had reservations about becoming an artist in a society that most values commercial products, materiality, and corporations. When discussing this doubt with her mentor at university, he suggested Liu think about political revolutions: “You know what the regimes always stifle first? They kill the artists first.”

Liu can pinpoint the project that launched her journey into the amalgam of art, philosophy, and science. While she was an architecture master’s student at Harvard, one of her design professors, Dr. Krzysztof Wodiczko, mentioned in class the idea of “cultural prosthetics” — wearable technologies, like Google Glass and bodily implants, that reflect the ideas, customs, and social behaviors of society. These technologies are designed to be additions or interventions that eventually “become” part of you and your identity, blurring the boundary between human and machine. Outside of class, Liu read Sherry Trickle’s Alone Together, which discusses the idea that, even though technologies connect society more than ever with global networks that run 24/7, many people actually feel more isolated. That concept resonated with Liu, recalling times at parties when, instead of talking with those around her, she would ease her social anxiety by looking at her phone. Liu began to wonder, “Can I build something that would force me to interact with people?”

Her first piece was inspired by these questions. It was a helmet that prevented her from seeing anyone unless they stepped up and held her hand. On her hand was a capacitive touch sensor that was connected to the helmet by a wire running up her arm. That sensor, in turn, triggered a gear that caused an iris in the helmet to open and close like the aperture to a camera. During this project, she also learned how to use an arduino and 3D printer; Liu said, “I spent my life learning how to draw and sculpt, and with these tools, I could give [my art] a brain.”

In addition to a mind, Liu gives her art smells. She created a string of scent-based works after reading a quote by Caroline Jones, an MIT professor in the architecture department: “Smell is preverbal and has no capacity to pretend.” When looking at something, one interprets the symbols, piecing them together to form meaning. By contrast, Liu believes that “smell goes straight to the core of emotions, clutching your body.”

Her “Smelfie Project” — a title that is a play on the words “smell” and “selfie” — is one in which she captures the scent of loved ones to create a “human perfume.” As unique as the project is in and of itself, Liu’s path to the project is just as intriguing. Learning about biotechnology for the first time, she was looking at what motivated its progress, like genetic engineering in agriculture. She unavoidably arrived at the products of Monsanto, a “Big Agro” company, where she learned that some of the genetic engineering embodied in their seeds has nothing to do with the nutrition or survival of the seeds. Rather, the seeds were designed so that farmers could not plant crops that reproduced themselves, thus forcing farmers to keep buying seeds every season; engineering an organism for the purpose of supreme capitalism. Liu was shaken by such a brazen use of bioengineering, a revolutionary technology, to grow pure profit instead of crops.

Instead of engineering infertile seeds for patent, Liu wondered how she could harness this technology for artmaking. What type of plant would she create if she could grow anything? Her thoughts meandered over “time capsule plants” which would blossom flowers that smelled like a specific person to preserve their memory. Unfortunately, the barriers of money, time, and scientific manpower prevented her from actually cultivating such an organism. As a byproduct of her research on capturing human scent, she instead developed a method for crafting a perfume that smelled like a particular person — the “Smelfie Project” was born. She put stinky t-shirts from her peers through gas chromatography, measuring molecular weights, to reverse engineer what molecules were in the smells. She also used traditional botanical perfume-making techniques, soaking the smelly garments in solvents to capture the volatile molecules, and then distilled the resulting essence. “This project was very meaningful to me,” Liu said, “because in all the ways we as humans try to hold onto ephemeral moments in time, like taking many photographs, this was a different way of recording a moment in time.”

The idea of scent as a time capsule led Liu to consider astronauts — those thrust into an environment of ultimate unfamiliarity. Liu said she although researchers “do so much investigation on jet propulsion, logistics, astrophysics,” she was more “interested in the emotional qualities of the person who was on this journey.” What would it be like to be on a one-way trip to space? What would happen if we actually destroyed the environmental resources on Earth and could no longer live here? “I was trying to imagine giving birth in space, like raising children there, maybe that child never having smelled the smell of the ocean. How could I again make this kind of memory time capsule where current or future astronauts could connect to Earth?” She was ultimately successful in capturing smells like dirt and the sea by working with the International Flavors and Fragrance Incorporation. As artistically innovative as her idea was, she had to consider many scientific factors before testing her project out in zero gravity. One consideration was that zero gravity redistributes the blood in one’s body, causing more blood to travel to the head, which makes one’s nose stuffy. Therefore, Liu had to make notes of certain smells stronger.

Liu’s captivation with the human body extends to the bacteria that inhabit us. As an MIT Media Lab graduate student, Lui attended a microbiology lecture about sterile mice born without microbiomes, who were later exposed to the microbiomes of an aggressive or anxious mouse. Mice given the microbiomes of the aggressive mouse became aggressive themselves, and the same for mice given the microbiomes of the anxious mouse. Liu said, “This was very pivotal for me because up until then I had understood behavior as nature versus nurture, but the idea that my microbiome could influence my moods and behaviors was so weird — another organism shaping who I am!” She found beauty in this realization as well, in that it removes some of one’s ego in knowing that “I’m not just me, but I’m me plus a million other organisms culminating me.”

Liu decided to explore the invisible prevalence of microbiomes through a series of self-portraits. She took a cast of her face and mouth to make a mold and poured in agar and microbial nutrients to make a “petri-dish” sculpture of her face. She then kissed this human-like petri-dish to impart her microbial cultures onto it. After incubating and growing the cultures, she created a visual reflection of her microbiome, ripe with blue fuzz, white puffs, and a plethora of other oddly mesmerizing bacterial patterns.

Through her artistic investigations, Liu has come to the realization that, “at the end of the day, we’re just meat machines that deeply, emotionally, feel.” As rational, logical, and systematic as we make ourselves to be, Liu says that humans will always be drawn to consuming and making art because it captures some core essence of living in us. Liu’s scientific, research-based art is not only entertaining and beautiful, but also educates viewers on how technologies shape what it means to be human, how we interact with each other, and our relationship to ourselves.

Ani Liu’s work can be found at the following website: