For transdisciplinary artist Ani Liu, working in science and technology has provided a way for her to explore the intersection between research, culture, and implications of emerging technologies. Currently completing her Master's degree at MIT Media Lab, most of Liu's work involves what she calls "speculative storytelling."
Liu has long reflected on the role of the female body in the history of politics and patriarchal control. But two particular moments especially hit home for her: last October, when she heard Trump's now notorious leaked recording in which he advocates for sexually assaulting a woman; and in January, when Trump signed an executive action that reinstated the global gag rule, which forbids foreign NGOs that receive US funding from so much as speaking about abortion. These moments in succession, she said, led her to investigate the interwoven forces that shape our perceptions of gender and how they create a biased illusion of normality. This culminated in her recent project, "Mind Controlled Sperm: Women of STEAM Grabs Back."
Liu's project is a piece of performance art in which she dons an EEG machine (a brain-computer interface which measures the electric activity generated by thoughts) to direct the movement of sperm along an XY axis. Using a process called galvanotaxis, in which movement of single-cell organisms and other cells are influenced by an electric field, sperm—which Liu collected from her husband—swim towards the positive electrode at about 12 volts per centimeter on a circuit under a microscope. By changing the charge back and forth, the sperm swim left and right; this activity is then projected into a room, which Liu captures on video.
Liu, who personally designed the circuit, was originally inspired by scientists who were already using the process with paramecia, a common, single-celled organism, for "biotic games." "Art can be a lot like science," Liu said. "You can have a hypothesis and want to know something about the world, and you just keep iterating and experimenting until it comes out."
Read more: Does the Tech Industry Even Deserve Women?
The opening to Liu's video reads, "A body is not a body. It has become an object of political control." We spoke to Liu about the inspiration to use her brain to control spermatazoa, or "something inherently and symbolical male," as well as what her project aims to highlight about the state of reproductive rights and women's autonomy today. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
BROADLY: What was the inspiration behind this project?
Ani Liu: There was that viral video of Donald Trump being caught on camera saying, "grab them by the pussy"—you know, "when you're famous you can do anything." I've re-listened to this many times because it makes me so angry and really amps me up to make my work. I think a big part of this is having him on film saying something so chauvinist and totally women-objectifying and still being elected president—beyond all the terrible executive orders that will deeply impact women's health — it's also him as a symbol, as a man who uses women in this way.
So part of the inspiration behind this project as an artist, as someone who works in the cultural domain, was: How do you switch over the metaphors and the cultural landscape that men and women operate in, and how do you call to light the absurdities of power and bodies in politics?
The piece seems a bit more quiet and introspective than the work of someone like Barbara Kruger, who you name as an inspiration for the project. Was this intentional?
The materiality of the project itself was so charged already—to use semen in a project that has to do with feminism—so there was a decision to keep the aesthetics very lab-like, almost sterile. I also worked with a musician, Wendy Eisenberg, to create music for the project. So there's that juxtaposition between this very clean, contextless aesthetic, and then something very embodied, through her voice.
As an artist and researcher approaching this topic, everything to do with women's rights and feminism is already so charged, and I really wanted to use an aesthetic and communication that was more—I think "objective" is the wrong word—but something that speaks to the neutrality of science and information. And I think the music will bring the embodiment and emotion back into it.
Visually, the project doesn't specifically name Trump or make reference towards the executive order or international NGOs affected. What message do you hope to convey with this project?
The project itself is weird and interesting and sci-fi-ish: A woman is using her brain to control the movement of sperm. Biologically speaking, there is almost a determinism: Sperm always move towards the chemical signatures of eggs—that's just biology. In our cultural landscape, sperm is always used as a material semiotic—in pornography, for instance—to indicate dominance.
Part of my interest in combining art and science and having this lab aesthetic is to question what's possible: to combine both and to present something that seems impossible. I'm hoping that it can be metaphor for what we can question in our social landscape as well.
I wanted to keep [the message of this project] kind of broad because it doesn't just represent the problems with the Trump presidency as it relates to women. I think there's a lot of patriarchal governments everywhere in the world, and I wanted to speak a little more broadly than to this moment in time.