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Curating the human experience of space—present, future, and fiction

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Xin Liu

Xin Liu

Xin Liu (MS ‘18) is an artist, engineer, and designer. As the recently appointed arts curator for the Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative, Liu works to bring speculative and science fiction together with technology, and with visual, multimedia, and performance arts—in exhibitions and presentations, as well as in research and project development.

This September, Liu will be at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria to present A Glitch in the Stars: the Space Exploration Initiative’s first arts exhibition featuring work developed for the inaugural research parabolic flight—projects designed to imagine and design for humanity’s future in space. In this interview, Liu explains why the arts are a crucial component of the Space Exploration Initiative, and offers some insight into the projects and concepts explored in the upcoming exhibition.

What is your background? What are your current interests?
As a research-based artist and engineer, I’m deeply fascinated by how technological development is changing the human experience: the time we live through, the way we die, the food we eat, the emotions we share. In my recent work, I’ve been pursuing an interest in the relationship between everyday materials and events, and the larger-scale, scientific understanding of the human experience. I want to make sense of the fact that in every moment of life—whether we are having lunch, listening to a concert, or falling in love—we are all pulled by gravity to this big rock, the Earth, and are floating, spinning in the massive emptiness of space. I find this duality of life hauntingly beautiful.

As the Space Exploration Initiative’s arts curator, what do you do? Walk us through some details of how you work and what you work on.
My work focuses on establishing a structure to connect different efforts surrounding the arts in space, in- and outside of academia; supporting, giving feedback, and encouraging research projects created with an arts and design audience in mind; helping connect students to art resources such as critics, scholars, other artists, and designers who have experience in this area; and introducing the Initiative’s projects to exhibition opportunities and curating the exhibitions.

Arts in space is not a new area, but it’s by no means a mature field. In the first year, I am initiating lots of programs and collaborations. Sometimes people approach me, but mostly I have to be creative and think of possible collaborations and projects to pitch.

One of my primary objectives is to advocate the importance of the arts in space exploration. At our Beyond the Cradle event this year, we had a fascinating and thought-provoking arts panel wherein scholars, curators, and artists shared their thoughts with audiences from the space industry. We also featured an arts gallery highlighting work imagining life and culture in space.

Growing an inclusive community is important too. We got a visiting artist grant from CAST for the 2018-2019 academic year, which allows us to bring in three or four visiting artists to campus for a week each to work with researchers on projects. There are also several joint open calls we are developing with museums to have artists join the Initiative for longer-term projects. Within the Media Lab, we encourage and support artwork proposals. Several projects from our last parabolic flight have already received media coverage and have been invited to exhibitions.

Tell us about the upcoming exhibition at Ars Electronica
Ars Electronica is one of the world’s most renowned festivals focusing on art, science, and technology. It is a perfect place to showcase the Space Exploration Initiative and connect with talents from all over the world. Our exhibition space will feature six projects to show audiences a holistic view of the arts element of the Initiative:

  • Telemetron: a musical instrument that only plays in zero-gravity
  • Orbit Weaver: a wearable apparatus that allows for spider-like, three-dimensional movement in space
  • Spatial Flux: a pneumatic silicone surface that morphs to embrace the human body in zero-g
  • TESSERAE: self-assembly infrastructure for the next generation of zero gravity habitats
  • Smells for Space: scents designed for a gravity-free environment that capture memories of  Earth
  • Grappler : a launch-and-grappling mechanism for landing foundational infrastructure on an asteroid 

The theme of Ars Electronica Festival this year is “Error: The Art of Imperfection,” asking, “At what point does an error become a mistake, a failure, and what makes it the celebrated source of unprecedented ideas and inventions? When is an error an oversight and when is it an intentional deception?” Our take on this topic is focused on space exploration and the possibilities it brings—the tension between ideation and failure in a place so entirely alien (no pun intended). Endeavors in space are necessarily trial-and-error; in the arts as in technology, mistakes and misfires are a crucial part of the process of bringing something from the imagination out into the reaches of space. From my curatorial text:

In 1990, from six million kilometers away, Voyager 1 took a snapshot of our existence in the universe: a pale blue dot. In it, we saw the loneliness and impermanence of our species, a realization that continues to sustain a thriving, resonating call for the future. However, space is not for humans. We are never meant to be there, an error in the wild. The isolation, lack of gravity, radiation, and all the risks there can kill us in minutes.

What is the human experience beyond the earthbound? Here, six projects from the Space Exploration Initiative at the MIT Media Lab are asking the same question and bringing possibilities to the toughest, most impossible frontier: space.

I hope when people enter the exhibition, they can experience a moment of being somewhere else, somewhere otherworldly but at the same time familiar. All the imaginings we have about space are about human experience, ultimately. I hope the audience will feel connected to it on a personal, intimate level.  

I hope to see you in Linz!

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Ani Liu tests her Smells for Space project while floating in zero gravity

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 Spatial Flux on board the Zero-G flight

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