Reflections on leaving the Lab

MIT Media Lab/Margaret Evans

How two years at the MIT Media Lab changed a student’s perspective of her art in the world

By Ani Liu

Memories of my first visit to the Media Lab are still freshly imprinted in my mind. Beyond the fabulous research that occurs there, the architecture of the Lab itself inspires wonder. Upon passing through its glass threshold and silver facade, you traverse a gleaming atrium six stories high. Riding the glass elevator, you catch glimpses of the enigmatic frenzy of creative work within. You might see a lab filled entirely with LEGO blocks, a drone painting a portrait, students stumbling inside their own virtual reality creations, or people in lab coats printing something enormous and organic, unlike anything you’ve ever seen. From my first visit, my heart filled with desire, wonder, and a deep intuition that I needed to study at the Media Lab.

When I applied, I felt it was a long shot but a worthwhile gamble. Every day for two years, I was immersed in my dream job: thinking deeply about technology and making art to express it. But soon after I started, I totally shifted my focus. Initially, I’d believed my path would be to continue my research in human-computer symbiosis, sculpting worlds in augmented and virtual reality, and designing extensions to our bodies and our sensorium. Instead, I filled my lab with bacteria, carnivorous plants, perfumes, microscopes, EEG headsets, and sperm. Yep, sperm—I’ll explain that later in this post.

Bio as the New Digital

What altered my journey was the declaration by Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte: “Bio is the new digital.” I knew absolutely nothing about biology, but I wondered: Is it really appropriate to make these connections between the biological and digital worlds? What does all this say about our perceptions of what it means to be human? What could drive scientific pursuits beyond efficiency and profit? As a thinking, feeling animal, what would I engineer if I could engineer anything? That “wondering” opened a whole new avenue of work that I made during my two years at the Lab.

Emotionally-driven Engineering

After I graduated from the Media Lab, I siphoned through my sketchbooks and memories. It was clear that one of the first desires that became lodged in me was to recreate an experience that I had lost, but wanted to relive. Intuitively I gravitated towards something that would appeal to my sensorial, animal self (perhaps because I’d spent the previous years in front of glassy screens, the virtuality of code, and sterile circuit boards). I became obsessed with olfaction—the sense of smell—and the study of odor as a medium. Smell is one of our most visceral senses: one whiff transports you to the heat of your first kiss, or the tenderness of a beloved relative. In my case, I desperately wanted to recreate the smell of my grandmother. She and I were very close, and though I had a handful of her letters and photographs, after she passed away I felt such a yearning to relive the emotional rush of being cloaked by the perfume of her presence.

My plan was to design a flower to emit the smell of my grandmother, eventually to plant it at her grave as a sensory time capsule of her. After all, we have been genetically engineering crops for years, many times with the drive of economic profit overshadowing even that of nutrition. Could we harness these same technologies for transcendent, emotional experiences? That project became Forget MeNot: The Botany of Desire & Loss. It then evolved into Human Perfume, a project aimed at bottling the scent profiles of individuals with emotional significance to me.

What originated as an artistic instinct to express loss and longing became a journey where I tried to study and piece together the principles of synthetic biology. I also asked deeper, more philosophical questions: What constitutes natural or unnatural? How could we engineer other organisms or ourselves for the better? Who gets to make those choices? And, whose version of “better” are we championing when “better” is often plastic and subjective?

BioArt as Activism

The fall of my last year at the Media Lab, the US presidential election stirred me to explore uncharted territory once again, and I felt compelled to investigate the potential of combining art, biology, and political action. My initial motivation stemmed from a class I took, called How to Grow (Almost) Anything. That’s where I learned about a phenomenon by which paramecia, single-celled organisms, will move towards a specific end of an electric field. I listened to a lecture about how Stanford University researchers used that concept to develop what they called “biotic” video games in which tiny paramecia swim on a screen according to how the player controls the electric field. I wondered if this would work with sperm, and I thought about using the idea for a feminist art piece in which women control something inherently male. While at first glance the idea of controlling sperm might seem absurd, my goal was to create something that would prompt people to reflect on the unjust violations of women’s control over their own bodies, including genital mutilation, forced sterilization, sexual abuse, rape, and contraceptive regulation. 

Thus, in an expression of female empowerment, I designed a system I called Brain-Controlled Interface for the Motile Control of Spermatozoa. Through the use of a brain-computer interface, a woman can control the movement of sperm with her mind. The project, a subversive counter-narrative, was an art piece that pushed the limits of what I could do with technology, and it allowed me to challenge the status quo. It also presented a chance for reimagining and shifting our notions of gender. This Spermatozoa project became the basis of my master’s thesis and has been an emotionally significant one for me. It is certainly a project I would never have dreamed of had I not been exposed to the breadth and intersection of disciplines at the Media Lab.

Towards the unknown

At the Media Lab, I challenged myself as I learned and drew from disciplines I could never have imagined being within the reaches of my experience or understanding. In my time at the Lab, I had the privilege and pleasure of exchanging ideas with some of the world’s most brilliant scientists. Several times I had the honor (and intimidation!) of dining with a Nobel laureate. I sat in silent sweat, both because I had (and still have) trouble negotiating with my shyness, and because I had a deep fear of exposing my ignorance. Like most MIT students, I arrived with a deep sense of impostor syndrome. So, to all future students: I encourage you to build up the confidence to ask lots of questions, even ones you think might be “stupid.” I rapidly learned how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and I can affirm that every time I took the risk to be vulnerable I gained so much more than I would have if I’d tried to protect my ego from bruising.

Speaking of ego— I also had to get comfortable with failing. A lot. This is one aspect that truly binds the artist and scientist: to accomplish anything, we fail many times. You might have a great idea, test it out, and it probably won't work for the next 20 times. But it's along the way that you’ll find all these weird moments that could turn into something interesting. In a way, through these experiments, new disciplines are invented, which is so exciting to me. Many people at the Media Lab make exciting work that doesn't fit into any box. The bottom line: prototype early and often, trust in the process, and revel in the exhilaration that you might just be a turn away from something magnificent.

Often I’m asked about how, as an artist, I know if a work I’ve created is successful. I admit I used to look externally—Did it garner good reception from critics? Did it win awards? And, in the digital age, has it gone viral? But then a visitor to the Lab inspired me to rethink that approach. Political activist Tania Bruguera, who is one of my favorite artists, offered this piece of wisdom: Perhaps the way we can measure art is by how it changes you. This really resonated with me. Each piece of research and work that I have made at the Media Lab has done just that. The plants that I tried to engineer with my grandmother’s scent transformed my sterile view of biotechnology into an emotionally viable one. My thesis work allowed me to express feminist views and personal frustrations that were rattling inside my mind and body.

As I set out on my journey as an artist in New York, I can confidently say that my experiences at the Media Lab have profoundly changed me. For this, I send my deepest gratitude.

Ani Liu has recently graduated from the Design Fiction research group at the MIT Media Lab with a Master of Science degree.

Acknowledgments: My advisor was Hiromi Ozaki who heads the Design Fiction research group. My collaborator on the plant project was Noam Prywes, from Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital. My deepest gratitude goes out to all the labmates who kept me up late at night asking, "What if?"

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