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Meet the YouTube Pop Star who Teaches at MIT

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Jan 26 2017

The designer and artist Sputniko! may sound like she's from outer space, and that's not far from the truth. An associate Professor at the MIT Media Lab, her work feels like a Large Hadron collision of design, fashion, technology, and pop music—all filtered through the multiple personas she presents on YouTube. 

The daughter of British and Japanese mathematicians, Sputniko! has become both a fashion icon and feminist spokesperson in Japan for speculative designs like the Menstruation Machine (which imagines a future without menstruation, in which people simulate having periods as a nostalgia exercise) and The Red Silk Of Fate (in which genetically-engineered silkworms produce a thread impregnated with the love hormone oxytocin—the perfect material to weave into a seductive outfit). We wanted to know more about why she chose speculative design as a medium, so we caught up with her to ask a few questions. 

Communicating ideas through pop videos is a bold move. What led you there?

I started as a pop musician. I was writing songs when I was at Imperial College in London, before going on to the Royal College of Art. So I was already making music videos. They seemed like a good way to challenge the "high art" culture. I liked pop art, like Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Andy Warhol. Plus, at the time I was graduating in 2010, YouTube was becoming more significant. So I wanted to tap into that. Nowadays, the internet is so important for this kind of work. I thought that there needed to be more new speculative design work that was intentionally aligning with internet culture and viral culture. 

How do the scientists at MIT feel about having their work portrayed in this way?

I work hard to be close to the scientists, and discuss with them how to best show their work. So far their reaction has been very positive. Some of the genetic engineers I've worked with have been getting more interest from investors because of the media interest. I think that a lot of scientists secretly want to be passionate and tell stories about their work. But they can't, because they need to be very precise. With us, and these stories, they can detach from that precision in a good way. 

Crowbot Jenny by Sputniko!

Where do your ideas come from?

I read a lot of science news blogs—I'm an information addict. I'll go through the news about AI, genetic engineering, and so on. What designers can do is imagine a consequence of these new technologies. If any of these imagined narratives ring a bell for me, then I'll do further research, in order to make the idea more concrete. 

What technology is capturing your attention right now?

AI and self-driving cars. And of course genetic engineering. But right now, my hottest interest is blockchain. This new system for handling money and identity is increasingly being adopted. Many people are thinking about it in terms of security. But creatives can think of other consequent narratives that could come from Blockchain. For example, how could it change lifestyles?

You've been at the Media Lab since 2013. How did you end up there? 

I first came to the Media Lab as a TV reporter when I was 27. I had my own TV show in Japan about design, and I came to interview Nicholas Negroponte. I told him how interesting I found the Media Lab, and he responding by telling me that they were looking for a new assistant professor in the arts category, and that I should apply. I was like, what? Me? I don't have a PhD! But I applied, they liked my work, and they invited me to start a new group. 

Red String of Fate by Sputniko!

What's the academic experience like for you?

I love being in this environment. The only thing that is a challenge is that academia is very paper-based. I don't publish papers, nor do my students. We are more about exhibitions and storytelling. It's not so much in the academic format. 

Why are you called Sputniko!?

It was my high school nickname. I attended an American school in Japan. I was tall and pale and I liked science and space. So the other students thought I must be half-Russian rather than half-British, and they started calling me Sputnik. Japanese girls' names often end in "ko", so Sputnik became Sputniko. Then, when I started doing music gigs as a student in London, I added the exclamation mark, because I liked the German band Neu!. It was completely not serious—just a band name. I never expected to be making and showing work, let alone teaching at MIT with this name. In Japan, when I go to symposiums and conferences, government ministers call me Sputniko-san. It's so surreal. My name reminds me of my weird career path. 

Adachi Hip Hop Project. Sputniko! and rappers from Adachi, a Tokyo neighborhood with high rates of poverty, collaborated and organized a concert tour to energize the art and culture scene in Adachi.

Your work is very cross-cultural. Was that a product of your upbringing? 

Partly it was having a British mother and a Japanese father. And also growing up in Tokyo, where western culture and eastern culture are present at the same time. I grew up in Shinjuku. It's where all the skyscrapers are, but also yakuza bars and the red light district. My parents are both mathematicians, so I was surrounded by math. But I also liked art and music. For example, take the way I read books. I usually read about ten books at once, on a kindle. I usually just read five pages at a time. And then I move to the next book. The way I consume information is very parallel. For me, associations and connections are the seeds of my creativity. 

Do you over worry about being overloaded with information? 

Overload is not so much a problem for me. For example, I get my eyelash extensions done every three weeks. While that happens, I have to close my eyes for an hour. Which means that I can't look at my smartphone. I used to hate doing eyelash extensions so much. But then I found an eyelash specialist who was a beauty technology expert. She's like a Google for me. When I close my eyes I always ask her, what's a new technology that you've found? That's an example of how information-addicted I am.

  • Neil Stevenson

    IDEO Alum
    Neil Stevenson is on a mission to understand creativity and find new ways to enable and encourage it in others. He's particularly interested in how the slowly-evolving human brain interacts with the rapidly-changing tech environment we live in, and the strange and wonderful new behaviors that emerge as a result.
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