The Future

The Future

Portrait of the artist as a microbial growth

The body contains more microbes than human cells — bioartist Ani Liu wants us to think about that.

A bottle of human sweat, if left untouched for months in a sweltering, sun-soaked room, will slowly change color from clear to a hazy red. Its scent will transform, too, from salty and unpleasant, to salty and unbearable.

This sensation — which can only be described as an olfactory assault — fascinates Ani Liu, a Queens-based speculative artist, designer, and tinkerer. Liu’s work is carnal. By creating intense sensory experiences, she finds new ways to perceive the ordinary. You may stop to smell the roses, but when was the last time you stopped to smell the sweat?

“When I smell you, a molecule off of you binds to my receptor and makes a very intimate connection," Liu told me when I visited her mad scientist-chic studio. "We all live in a somewhat digital and virtual world, and I think I really long for that visceral, messy, wet connection.”

The bottled sweat is a product of her obsession with the sensual. She’d collected it from Laboratory of Longings, one of her recent exhibitions that featured plants hydrated by the perspiration of two humans pressed up against each other in a greenhouse-like enclosure. It was messy, it was wet, and boy, did it smell.

Laboratory of Longings, an exhibit designed to capture the runoff of an intimate interaction.

Laboratory of Longings, an exhibit designed to capture the runoff of an intimate interaction.

Liu’s most recent project is a meditation on what it means to be a self: a collection of her microbes, cultivated in petri dishes as part of the Mirror Mirror display at Rutgers University. "I created this sculpture in which bacteria can live, and then I would plate it with different parts of my body, literally from my mouth, or inside my nostril, between my toes, or my vagina," Liu said. "Depending on where they're from, different strains grow, so you can see a really wide diversity of my microbiome.”

An estimated 38 trillion microbial cells are present in the human body, which is made up of around 30 trillion human cells. And as the flourishing field of microbiology has discovered over the past few decades, microbes are not just residents along for the ride. A healthy gut microbiome, for example, plays a role in both metabolism and immune system development.

Microbiology is still a nascent field, but researchers seem to be making new discoveries at an incredible pace for laboratory science. Earlier this year, scientists at the synthetic biology company Synlotic began experimenting with genetically engineered microbes in hopes that they can insert them into the gut microbiome and treat rare diseases like phenylketonuria, a condition that prevents people from properly digesting protein, causing developmental problems. Last month, scientists called for the creation of a microbe vault to preserve microbial diversity for future study. While there’s much we don’t know, it’s clear is that the microbiome is essential to human health.

Liu’s artwork, called Microbial We, encourages the viewer to look at these bacteria — moldy, discolored, alive — and wonder: Is that me?

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.”

Vision-swapping helmet design

Vision-swapping helmet design

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.

Liu smells one of her microbe cultures.

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.

Botany of Desire

Botany of Desire

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.”