Ani Liu: Daughter of Invention
At a young age, Ani Liu had to disguise her art as science. Now she combines them.
Ani Liu is an internationally renowned artist whose work straddles the boundaries between art and science.
Raised in New York by Chinese immigrants, Liu got a BA at Dartmouth College and an MA in architecture at Harvard. She quit architecture to pursue another masters, at MIT Media Lab, creating research-based art exploring the social, cultural, and ethical implications of emerging technologies. Realized through playful experimentation, her art uses science to tell profound stories. She’s created garments that simulate the physical experiences of pregnancy, a video game that reveals systemic racism and sexism in the workplace, a textile generated from the brain waves of a factory worker in China, and a system that allows women to control the directional movement of spermatozoa on a glass slide with their thoughts.
Her work has been exhibited in China, Japan, Korea, Australia, Europe, and across the United States. She is a multidisciplinary lecturer at Princeton University.
Ani Liu is a research-based artist who works at the boundaries of science, technology, and aesthetics. All of her projects are governed by scientific rigor, while also leveraging the full scope of her intellect.
Ani Liu: I do really rely on my intuition and I am really interested in really listening to all the aspects of my intelligence, including the emotional ones. I was just thinking, when I was learning chemistry as a child, I tried to have crushes on the elements so I would remember their properties better, and so I think this kind of weird conflation of emotion and other modes of thinking have always been deeply entangled in me.
Liu thrives where science meets the realities of being human. She has engineered goosebumps to see if instinct can be manufactured, bottled her husband’s essence so she could feel close to him when they’re apart, she’s even designed her own way out of social anxiety.
Liu: I read Sherry Turkle’s book by the title Alone Together. She’s a media theorist at MIT and it was all about how we have all these networked devices now, all of us have smartphones, but somehow, we feel more lonely. I was thinking about this like, I am kind of shy and often, at parties, if I don’t know anyone, I’ll just stay on my phone the whole time instead of actually talking to someone. And so, I was thinking about how this specific piece of technology, the phone, is made, designed, to bring people together, and yet it was driving a wedge between me and human interactions. So, I was like, can I make a piece of technology that actually brings people together? And I made this gigantic helmet that obscured my face and my vision unless someone held my hand and then it would open and we would make eye contact. And it was all about human touch and eye contact, which apparently millennials are increasingly uncomfortable with because we spend so much of our time communicating across mediated digital interfaces.
From a young age, Ani Liu sought ways to explore her creativity, but her parents, who had both grown up under the social and economic restraints of Communist China had more practical ambitions for her.
Liu: Definitely engineering, math, science was very much favored as the only legitimate way to display intelligence or find truth, which of course is not true. But for them a lot of that had to do with what kinds of jobs will allow you to have work through wars, through ethnic cleansings. What can give us the most security in this life? And for them it was highly skilled labor that often had to do with math and science. They had a lot of friends who they knew escaped a life of farming, in some way. So, I went to a math and science high school, I was on the math team, I was on the robotics team, I really tried to make my parents proud in this way, but many instances in these explorations you come up basically kind of up against philosophy. You can find a lot of truths in math and science, and to some extent in technology, but the way it makes you feel, the way it impacts culture, is something that I think artists explore.
Liu’s early life was a series of delicate negotiations. She learned to draw under the guise of preparing to become an architect, which she almost did. She got a Master’s in architecture at Harvard before becoming disenchanted by what she saw as pervasive sameness within the craft. So, she went back to school to get a Master’s of science from MIT. There she devoted herself to the innovative artistic work she would become best known for. And though her journey has been circuitous, Liu acknowledges that it wouldn’t have been possible without her parents’ clear priority starting out.
Liu: I definitely was told that to achieve I had to do at least 10 times better than the next best person, that because I was a woman, or at that time because I was a girl, because I was a minority, getting 100 would never be enough and I’m sure that made me super annoying to teachers. Like after getting the 100 on the exam, I would literally go up to the desk and be like, “Can I do some extra credit? Because this is not enough for my mom. I really need the five to 10 extra points.” And they’re like, “Oh my god, what’s wrong with you?”
AJC: There’s no such thing as 110%!
Liu: Yeah! I think that some of my teachers were probably super annoyed and some of them were kind enough to actually give me extra credit.
AJC: And what was the downside when you would go home when you got a 97, or did you ever get a 97?
Liu: Certainly, I did. I think there was a really deep shame that came with failing. And that’s probably 1,000 little behavioral things in the household, you know, but I do remember at some point feeling like I would rather die than fail a test. Which I have since really calmed down about and it required a lot of realigning my own values in some ways. But I think in the time that my parents grew up, maybe it was kind of like a live or die mentality, like you must achieve to get out.
AJC: What would you keep from that? Or what will you keep when you become a parent, if that’s something you aspire to do?
Liu: Ah, that’s such a nice question. Maybe not the severity, but I think one of the things I really value is because this kind of discipline was taught to me, I was able to see very clearly the fruits of my efforts. Because for me it was like live or die, there were many moments where the feedback loop was very positive, where I’m like okay, if I do actually put in the crazy amount of effort, I can see the results, and that feels very euphoric. It’s still something that drives me when I’m trying to debug something and I like, oh no, this is so unbearably frustrating or uncomfortable. I do have a long history of those eureka moments. So, I think that discipline and teaching one to believe in oneself, in a weird way, even though maybe the way I learned it was rather extreme, I think is really important.
Ani Liu is grateful for where and who she comes from. And in 2017, she stumbled onto a profound connection with her family’s origins when a project brought her to Shenzhen, China. She spent a month in a factory learning about manufacturing before creating Mind of the Machine: Psyche in the Age of Mechanical Production.
Liu: It’s a piece of fabric that I made in a Chinese textile factory where I took the EEG brainwave signals of a worker and programmed the machine to knit according to her mood. So, when she was more tense, it would knit tighter stitches and when she was more relaxed it would knit these big, wavy knits. And it was really meaningful for me because my parents both worked super manual labor jobs. When they got sent to be reeducated, they were rice farmers, so I think I have a particular relationship to labor and especially anonymous labor. Whenever I’m in a hotel I can’t help but really think about the person who tucked in the sheets and made sure it’s all very nice and perfect, even though their job is to stay invisible. So, I really wanted to make visible the labor of things that we take for granted. Like this was probably knit in a factory and we think it was machine made, but actually quite a few hands touched this to make sure that it would go into the store as it looks. And I wanted to tell the emotional story of those people.
But in the middle of all this, she discovered an even more profound connection to the site when she phoned home one evening.
Liu: It’s the weirdest thing, but I was in Shenzhen in this factory, sweating and getting infections and being really stressed out and then I was having a call with my dad and we discovered that the factory that I was working in is in the same probably 10 square miles of where he farmed rice, actually. That rice field where he did manual labor is now the site of where I’m making art about labor and it was like, we cried. It was just the weirdest thing. Life is entangled in this way.
AJC: But also, that if he had ever possibly dreamed of how his daughter would end up, any daughter he would have, what a great outcome, you know?
Liu: It is the dream, yeah.