This question of identity is the driving force behind many of Liu’s projects. While she was an architecture student, she created a set of “perception-swapping goggles” that allow you to swap vision with another person through a wireless video feed. Given the advances of virtual reality, this doesn’t seem like a particularly groundbreaking accomplishment. But to leave the comfort of your own senses in real-time is a jarring experience. When Liu and I both tried on a pair of the goggles in her studio, I was effectively looking through her eyes; the sensory disconnect between what I was seeing and how I was moving was near paralyzing. This feeling wasn’t alleviated when she turned toward me and, from her perspective, I could see that I had retained corporeal form. It wasn’t like looking in a mirror, but looking at oneself from the outside.
Liu experienced something similar after creating the goggles. “I wondered what would it be like to be actually tethered to you somehow,” she said. “It was also super interesting to see myself, to leave the subjective part of me.”
Still, perceptual disembodiment didn’t satiate Liu’s curiosity about the self. After finishing her architecture degree at Harvard, she joined the MIT Media Lab, a collective of scientists, engineers, and artists with near carte blanche to research and create anything from brain-computer interfaces to educational tools for children. It was there that she became enamored with synthetic biology.
“I really like working with living things because they’re very unexpected,” Liu said. Throughout the cultivation process of the bacteria for Microbial We, she was constantly experimenting to find the best parameters for growth and preservation: ideal temperature, humidity, amount of condensation. Despite adhering to specific practices, Liu still found it impossible to completely control the organisms. “I literally did the same protocol every day for a month, and every time it grew differently,” she said.
Over time, she developed a somewhat “pet-like” relationship with the microbes. “It’s giving up a lot of control which I like and I don’t like,” Liu said. “These new modes of expression carry new responsibility. It’s a lot more symbiotic.”
Liu told me about Paola Antonelli, a MOMA curator who featured a work of bio-art in one of her shows. The piece, Victimless Leather, featured a miniature synthetic leather jacket made from living mouse stem cells. The leather was kept alive through a steady diet of nutrients delivered via tube; however, it began to grow too quickly, and Antonelli was forced to pull the plug before the jacket broke through its enclosure. “I felt cruel when I turned it off,” Antonelli said at the time.
Liu has had her own qualms about tinkering with life in her work. Some of her past projects involved genetically engineering plants so they would bloom with certain smells. She put that strain of research on hold, after feeling that there wasn’t enough critical design behind the project, and the commercialization potential felt off-putting. “You can imagine selling the Kim Kardashian flower at the mall, and it was an interesting idea, but I wasn’t feeling strong enough about it intellectually to continue it,” Liu said.
Growing up as the child of Chinese immigrants made Liu keenly aware of processes of assimilation, how something shifts from taboo to en vogue. Just as foreign foods become absorbed, and oftentimes appropriated, into the dominant culture, so do other unfamiliar things, like bacteria.
“I think every artist has a private relationship to their art, and I find that a lot of my bacterial pieces are also about assimilating and feeling other and immigrant-y,” Liu said. “Certainly growing up I felt alot of shame, especially around food, just the classic immigrant story of my mom packing me something for lunch that smelled a little weird and then no one would sit next to me at lunch.”
Liu sees a throughline between her own cultural experiences and the scientific discoveries she explores through art. “It’s been interesting to see the history of our relationship to things like microorganisms,” she said. “From like, ‘Oh this microorganism causes disease, and now we will have antibacterial everything, and this is what it means to be clean,’ to ‘Oh, check out the microbiome, let’s have probiotic everything and eat kombucha and kefir.’”
She hopes to stimulate a similar process with Microbial We. “For me, the journey of making art with things that people consider disgusting is a way for me to reframe what is disgusting,” she said. And with enough time, even a bottle of putrid sweat can become unremarkable. “I used to smell it every day and then write notes,” Liu said. “But I don’t smell it every day anymore.”