For this year's Core77 Design Awards, we're conducting in-depth interviews with each of our jury captains to get in a glimpse into their creative minds and hear more about what they'll be looking for in this year's awards submissions.
Ani Liu, our 2018 Core77 Design Awards Design Concept Jury Captain, is a designer, experimental artist and speculative technologist working at the intersection of art and science. In addition to having her work featured in various museums and publications, Liu is a recent member of the MIT Media Lab where she works on research-based art projects that explore the various implications of emerging technologies in our lives. In a recent chat with Liu, we discussed her buzzed about mind-controlled sperm project as well as delved into the power of speculative concepts, what they can contribute to today's cultural climate and in what ways they differ from art.
What brought you to start doing this research and this work?
It's kind of cheesy, but ever since I was little, design and aesthetics spoke to me. I've always been super nerdy about going to every art museum and looking at design objects. At the same time, I'm Chinese-American, and my parents always pushed me towards math and science, so I was also always geeky in that way. For me, landing at architecture became this intersection of engineering and the technical aspects of how to build something with things I was deeply invested in like aesthetics, design and how materiality makes you feel.
And then getting into speculative design wasn't that far-reaching. In many ways, an architect is the visionary for asking questions about how we might live in the future. Buildings last so long that political questions always arise like, "where is the kitchen? Is there a kitchen for servants? How are women thought of in this space?" From the beginning of architecture school, I always thought of these questions. Then I started reading Anthony Dunn and Fiona Ravies' "Speculative Everything" and learned about critical design, and I think for me it was a really natural meandering of my interests with what was out there. There have always been architects that worked at the intersection of speculative design and design, like Buckminster Fuller or Art Graham or Cedric Price.
How would you succinctly describe what it is you do? What is some work you've done that helps encapsulate what that is?
I'm an artist and a designer, but I use the tools of science and technology to make up my body of work. I think part of the reason I use science and technology to make art is because we currently live in a time where we almost unquestioningly give so much weight to scientists and engineers.
There are certain paradigms that I think need to be looked at. For instance, one of the things I became interested in—as a precursor to the mind-controlled sperm project—was how we usually look to science and medicine to be an objective reality on our biology, but as I was reading a lot of scientific papers on reproduction, [I noticed they] were super loaded in a gendered way. For instance, there would be papers about reproduction and it would be like the "heroic adventurous sperm" on its path to the "docile heavy egg" and if the egg is not fertilized, it's like garbage, sloughed away, like the sea of waste. These are not neutral words.
"Designers look at the landscape of everything, and then design turns something like science into a system with values. It tells us what we care about as humans right now in this kind of moment in time."
There was even a picture that I saw in a paper that was captioned something like "Portrait of the Sperm," but it was actually one tiny speck of sperm in a gigantic egg. I can't remember who it was, I think it was Evelyn Keller Fox, a feminist writer, who said, "That's like taking a picture of a dog and saying it's a portrait of the flea." So there are all of these little things and, of course, I think throughout the history of medicine there have been a lot of, I guess to be polite, misunderstandings about the female body. So often the paradigm for research is the prototypical white man and we are very different biologically.
That was a launching point for me to really consider within the fabric of how we find our truths there were still so many prejudices that come from society. I think that speaks to the kind of strength and potency of speculative design and of design in general. Designers look at the landscape of everything, and then design turns something like science into a system with values. It tells us what we care about as humans right now in this kind of moment in time.
Would you describe speculative design as taking normal aspects of life and bringing them to the extreme in order to help people realize these contradictions or to make their own connections?
There are a lot of techniques that different designers use. I don't know if it has to be the extreme, but I think that speculative design to me always reveals something that is right in front of you or completely surrounds you. I remember one of the first speculative design projects I looked at was Anthony Dunn and Fiona Raby, and it was a Faraday Cage chair. It was like a reinvented lounge chair, but it was this orange plexiglass box, and it was meant to protect the person lounging from all the radio waves in the air. I thought it was so brilliant because at the time, of course, the invisible air that I walked around in was filled with wavelengths of data, but I never thought about it until there was a chair that claimed to protect you against it.
In a way, designing a chair is not as extreme as designing, I don't know, a prosthetic or some kind of didactic. A chair was something that was within the language of everyday things, but it was very effective in revealing some aspect of the technological landscape we reside in.
So as an artist and designer, is there anything art is effective in doing that's different from a speculative concept?
I think there's probably a lot of overlap in art and design, and I think that each informs the other, but I think one of the powerful aspects of art is that it allows you to feel a new reality. I think that's why we're really drawn to science fiction or fiction in general because it's one thing for you to sit down and tell me, "In the future there will be self-driving cars," but it's a different experience of that future if you were said, "Imagine you're in that self-driving car with your new infant, and your vehicle has to make a decision about whether your car crashes into a thing or an opposing car with three nuns or something."
Those kinds of narratives suddenly force you to consider the reality of these hypotheses in a much more visceral way. That kind of emotional narrative also stays with you. It's one thing to talk about genetic engineering and another thing to see a realistic sculpture of that outcome or jewelry that has been designed for your six arms. I think really good designers hit on certain emotional nerves that really captivate us.
You mentioned your mind control sperm project earlier. How did you ultimately arrive at that idea, and what's the story behind it?
It started with the presidential election. I was super shocked that he was caught on camera saying things like "grab them by the pussy." It was really crazy to me that after these kinds of remarks were made public that he could still be elected. I think part of the devastation for me is that a president beyond all of the laws that he passes, which are incredibly influential, is also a cultural signifier. Young boys and girls will look up to him and think, "This is what a leader is". There are certain things about the way he spoke, his actions and his relations to women that I found troubling.
I felt the need to respond to that with a project., and about a year before that I was taking a class called "How to Grow Almost Anything", which had a lot of synthetic biology in it. There were a few researchers from Stanford who showed that you can control the movement of paramecia with electric fields, and they would always swim, I think, toward the negative electrodes. Immediately I wondered, "could this work on sperm?" The kind of cultural significance it would be for a woman to control something so male.
After the "grab them by the pussy" statement, I thought, "OK this is it. I have to go and see if this works. I have to do this." It's a project that, at first, seems absurd. When I talked to men about it, they were like, "Oh my God that's so violating! I can't imagine being controlled in this way." And I'd respond with, "Well, welcome to the history of female bodies." Female bodies have always been controlled down to the level of birth control or abortion. When I talked to most women about it, it was a totally different response because of that history and the way women's bodies have been bio-politically controlled or objectified.
With this project, I try to hit on some emotional nerves to have this kind of empathy or first-time experience of how violating it feels when laws like this are passed. It was a really meaningful project for me.
Absolutely, it's something important to discuss. What do you think the value is for a designer creating a speculative concept in this fashion?
I think, first of all, that a lot of speculative designs end up becoming a reality. For instance, engineers who were really influenced by the sci-fi that they read as teenagers actually end up building those things. I think this kind of storytelling has a huge impact on the collective cultural landscape of what we think is possible, and it also creates a dialogue about what we want.
"I really love speculative design that reveals something in the fabric of my reality that I wasn't aware of before and how once it's revealed, it's so obvious."
I also think that even though speculative design seems really future-gazing, it often actually reflects what's happening right now. Kind of like in Star Trek when a human has a relationship with an alien, it kind of also reflects the cultural temperature of multinational couplings. It becomes a metaphor for race even though it's kind of clad in aliens. It allows us to look critically at ourselves and our society for the time being.
It's really important because for better or worse, a lot of the overall decision making is in the hands of the few—in the hands of those in politics or those in the ivory tower—but speculative design projects allow everyone from a scientist at Harvard to a twelve-year-old girl on YouTube to have the conversation of, "what do I think about the future of genetic engineering?" I think these things impact us so much that they have to be publicly discussed.
I've thought about this a lot too, especially because a lot of startups actually hire sci-fi writers. Can you think of a way in which we can look past this retro-futuristic vision of what the future's supposed to look like?
One of the things I'd be the most excited about is including more voices. For instance, a lot of sci-fi is super retro and for some reason, all of the astronauts are white men, so I think it's really interesting when the main character is a black woman for instance. When you imagine these scenarios and when you imagine these tools or chairs or whatever they are, it's really important to think about who the multiple users are. I think that's why it's so interesting for speculative design to become more of a thing—I'm hoping it attracts everyone, not just sci-fi writers.
I think it would be interesting for a young girl from Tokyo or a veteran with a prosthetic to design the future of X because they would have such different points of view. I guess it's my hope that those kinds of tech companies can look beyond what they believe the version of the future is and hear this kind of multiplicity of voices.
What are some foundations that make for a successful speculative concept?
First of all, to some extent it should probably be captivating and emotionally palpable—like you could immediately understand in an intuitive way that this is something you could imagine being intimately part of your day-to-day landscape in the future. Then, secondly, I really love speculative design that reveals something in the fabric of my reality that I wasn't aware of before and how once it's revealed, it's so obvious. Lastly, I think that kind of inclusivity of presenting traditionally marginalized voices is important and that it's not just all certain socioeconomic points of view because it's not just one person that makes it to the future. It's the whole ship that lands.
The Core77 Design Awards Design Concept Jury
2018 Design Concept Jury Captain Ani Liu will be joined by these designers for the awards selection process: