A Kiss from the Future and Other Biodesign That Will Blow Your Mind

A Kiss from the Future and Other Biodesign That Will Blow Your Mind

A Q&A with Ani Liu, the MIT-trained artist whose boundary-pushing projects look more like science fiction
Sam Bertain
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"Art is how you can see and feel the future," says Ani Liu in her TED Talk, "Smelfies" (if you haven't seen it, go watch that now). Drawing on synthetic biology, AI, and the microbiome, Liu crafts multi-sensory art and experiences that are at once beautiful, poetic, and a total mind-bender.

I was fortunate enough to work closely with Liu on an art installation about food's carbon footprint when she was a Researcher in Residence at IDEO's Design for Food Studio. The piece was exhibited at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in collaboration with the Perennial, a sustainability-focused restaurant. Thanks to that project, I became an expert in engineering ways to pop balloons, and also a major Liu fan. I caught up with her to hear more about what inspires her work.

Meet Ani Liu.

In one sentence, who are you?

I am an artist, long-distance runner, sci-fi dreamer, and corgi-lover.

What do you do? How did you learn it?

I am incredibly lucky to have my dream job: thinking deeply about technology, and making the art to express it. I followed a meandering path. First, I learned how to express ideas visually and spatially by studying architecture at Harvard, and from there, I became a VR geek. Eventually, I ended up at MIT Media Lab, where I started making bioart.

The female body has long been a source of contention, where opposing ideologies in religion, politics, and cultural differences often play out. In this video, Ani explores what would happen if women could control something inherently male: Spermatozoa.

3 favorite possessions?

  1. My best friend's wisdom tooth
  2. My mother's family album
  3. A collection of smells I've bottled from those I love

What does a typical work session look like?

The beginning of my projects involve a lot of research. The process often starts with a large cup of coffee, a stack of papers, and my sketchbook in hand. In the next phase, I am often found visiting other scientists' labs to ask questions. I've sought advice on everything from how to use an EEG headset to read brainwaves properly to trying to score the right plant hormones to make flowers blossom on command.

The next phase is an enormous amount of exploring, prototyping, and failing. In the last phase, I hunker down and crank towards an impending deadline. It is often the most stressful part, but it's full of adrenaline, and my favorite.

How do you get over creative block?

I have the benefit of working across many disciplines, and I find that my love of one thing often inspires the next. If I am stuck debugging code, I'll draw, and the meditative act often untangles a logic block. When I am stuck on expressing an idea visually, I like to read physics textbooks (I know, this is unbearably geeky) to find inspiration in the way physicists express radically abstract concepts.

I also love looking for synaesthetic inspirations. I have a large collection of perfumes and scents, and sometimes breathing one in will trigger an unexpected thought or emotion, and my mind will spiral into new territories.

"Do I exhibit certain traits because of genes I inherited from my mother, because of the environment I was raised in, or because of the biome I have acquired through a life time of kissing and touching?" These are some of the questions that fueled her project, "Kisses From the Future: Speculative intimacy strategies from the microbiome".

What was the last item on your to do list?

To plate and incubate fresh bacteria for a new art piece. I have been invited to participate in a group show on self portraits, and I am prototyping a living work of art based on my microbial signature.

How do you see the world in 2078?

I can't claim to predict the future, but I hope the approaching inevitability of continued automation and augmented intelligence will cause us to deeply question what it means to be human, and what is worth pursuing in our lifetimes.

In a recent project, "Perfume From Proust," Lui creates perfume from the smells of the people who have the most emotional significance to her.

What’s your number one bucket list item?

To finally share my life with a corgi! The top contending names are Stardust and MOSFET. I would also love to write a science fiction novel in my lifetime.

Who are you creative crushin’ on lately?

Tania Bruguera is an amazing Cuban artist and political artist whose strength and solid dedication to expressing the truth and the narrative of marginalized populations inspires me every day. In every studio I stay in, I pin up a small image of her work because the images hit me at my emotional core, but also remind me that art and design can have a profound impact on the world.

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Sam Bertain
Sam Bertain is a Senior Industrial Designer, artist and food nerd. Reading in bars, montage moments and getting his hands dirty are his happy thoughts.
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