This story is part of Women of Impact, a National Geographic project centered around women breaking barriers in their fields, changing their communities, and inspiring action. Join the conversation in our Facebook group.
Imagine bottling the scent of someone you love, eternalizing them forever, allowing you to dive into a fond memory of that person with just one whiff. Ani Liu has figured out how to make this sci-fi sounding fantasy a reality.
Liu is an artist who uses technology and science to develop multi-sensory experiences. Her work pulls from tools used in architecture, augmented reality, and synthetic biology—creating art that examines the social, cultural, and emotional effects of these emerging technologies.
We spoke with Liu, a graduate of the MIT Media Lab, about how she managed to bottle her parents’ scents, what it means to look through someone else’s eyes, and why we should stop being grossed out by germs.
What inspired you to start merging art and technology?
Being a first generation Chinese-American, it was always very important to my parents for me to learn about math, science, and STEM. I started by studying architecture and learning about all the tools architects use to design buildings, like Rhino or AutoCast [software used for computer-aided designs and mold casting].
I became really interested in the way the tools we use influence the design, which made me think about all the ways technology shapes the way we behave. It was a seemingly expansive, fruitful place to make art about how technology shapes [us] and how science influences the way we construct beliefs, especially socially.
You’ve now worked on many projects with that intention. Can you tell us about one of them: “Human Perfume?”
When I got to the MIT Media LAB, I was going to … make wearable tech. I got into these interesting conversations with synthetic biologists, and I was so obsessed with the idea of post-humanism and what it means to extend a human cognition or sensory system with tools.
But when I thought about it, editing your genes or your biology directly has so much more of an impact. I started learning about biological sciences and engineering, and I asked Can I use these tools to make art? How can I use them to make something very emotionally driven?
And you settled on smell?
Physiologically, smell is so connected with memory. I was thinking, wouldn’t it be great to grow a plant that smells like my grandmother? Because as soon as I smelled it, I would be completely transported back to those childhood moments. So I worked on that for a while, and it was really challenging, but part of that research led me to develop a protocol to make perfumes from anyone’s scent.
How were you able to do that?
Part of that process is to extract the volatile molecules from garments [test subjects] have worn and fix that into a solvent. It was a lot of experimentation. I had to try a lot of different solvents, concentrations, and settings in the distillation process.
It was kind of interesting, the accuracy of it. For instance, one of the people I tried a lot of the trials with was my husband. I would make these perfumes of him until I felt it smelled just like him, but when I let him smell it, he would be like “that doesn’t smell like me at all; that smells like my brother and it smells disgusting!”
I think living in your body… certain things become invisible. It was interesting how these smells are experienced when they are separated from the body.
And it’s kind of uncanny to unscrew a bottle and smell a person.
Who have you bottled so far?
I did around six people: My husband, myself, my parents, a lab mate, and the chemist that was helping me out. Using my parents … was very emotionally driven. I know there will be a time when they pass away, so it was to create a time capsule of them before they passed.
Your multi-sensory work isn’t limited to smell. You’ve also experimented with sight through your “Empathy Machine.”
I made [the empathy machine] around the time Google Glass and Oculus Rift came out. [I wondered] what if you could see through someone else’s eyes? I was tinkering around with all these video headsets and realized I could do that. So I built these goggles.
How does the technology work?
I used video glasses, which is basically like a pair of goggles. Each [one has] a tiny screen in them and uses tiny cameras and transmitters, or drones. I hacked those and crossed the radio frequency signals, so they would transmit to each other.
What are they like to wear?
As soon as you try them on, you kind of lose your eyesight and are constantly walking into things. You become totally disembodied. It’s kind of like learning how to walk again.
After a while you become cybernetically linked [with the other person wearing the goggles]. I walked into a trashcan and the other person wearing my eyesight turned toward the sound, so I saw myself walk into the trashcan. It was interesting to see us become these networked animals, where we are really codependent.
You’ve also worked with microbes and germs. Tell us about your “Kisses From the Future” project.
Microbes are these tiny organisms that aren’t you. They’re a totally different species. They live on and in your body but can influence all kind of things like your mood, your behavior, and your weight.
I started to think about how… to make a self-portrait in this day and age, to express all of the interspecies co-evolving, [a] dissolution of self that is a self. I cast molds from my body, [set]them with the same gels and nutrients people use in labs to grow microbes, and then displayed them as parts of myself.
Did certain body parts work better than others?
I cast a lot of things, but mostly my mouth. We pass many of our microbes this way. Also, I cast my nose, my belly button, and parts of my feet. In the end, I found that most of them grew the best on casts of my mouth.
People tend to cringe when they think about germs and microbes, but that doesn’t seem to deter you. In your work, you’ve also used hair, spit, and semen—bodily fluids often seen as “gross.” What are you hoping your art says about these perceptions?
When we first learned germs create diseases, everything was antiseptic. You have antibacterial everything, from soaps to sprays to gels. But as we learn more about microbes, we now have trendy kombucha and probiotic face creams.
I think when we expand and deconstruct these notions of disgust, we are able to relate and empathize with each other on a global scale. We are all microbe-infested humans on this Earth [and we should focus on] the commonalities rather than the differences.
What do you think is the value of converging art with science and technology?
It’s important because we need a wider breadth of points of views. Imagine how problematic it could be if the only people who investigated reality were of a specific gender or cultural background?
Having a lot of points of view to express the same truths allows for a richer and more meaningful conversation. Yes, there is a reality, but it is very fluid and it matters a lot how the stories are told.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.