Senses + Synthetic Biology

Senses + Synthetic Biology

Imagined futures allow us to look at current trends and technologies, and how they may impact us. This type of critical thinking can show both the positive and negative way things, such as technology, can change our lives and our planet. Speculative design does this by creating objects and scenarios which may be apparent in the future, which in turn makes it easier for us to imagine. These may at times be far fetched, but allow the viewer to see to what extent our current behaviour may change the future. Ani Liu is a transdisciplinary artist whose work bridges the gap between art and science. Her work focuses on synthetic biology, but her research and installations also use state of the art prosthetic wearables and virtual reality immersions. The common thread is that she explores senses and our bodies by using these emerging technologies.

“The subjectivities of humans have long been influenced by scientific and technological breakthroughs. Subjective and objective realities rarely sit in a vacuum apart from each other- some scientific revolutions, such as those of Darwin and Copernicus had religious implications. Other breakthroughs, such as that of synthetic biology and artificial intelligence raise philosophical and existential questions on what life is. With every technology and scientific development, our plastic subjectivity goes through modifications and expansions.

As an artist, I live in this plasticity, exploring the impact of technology on culture and identity. Imbuing scientific processes with storytelling, narrative, and emotional expression, my work explores themes of the subconscious, longing, nostalgia, and memory– exploring in this technologically mediated age, what does it mean to be human?” Ani Liu


Ani Liu is an artist who explores the human body in unexpected ways. Her works are playful and emotive, while they also derived from synthetic biology and new technologies, thus making science work for our emotional needs. Often her work explores our sense of smell and how this is connected to our brain, and in turn our emotions. Liu began to work in this sector when she heard that bio is the new digital, while studying at MIT. It was then she began exploring science, and even made a lab in her dorm room. But biotechnology and art also involve collaboration. Now she has worked with many leading scientists. She has even used some of their research in new and evoking ways. This can be seen in her project which uses technology developed at Stanford to control sperm with a female mind. The scientists used electric currents to direct the motion of single-celled paramecia. But Liu wanted to use this technology to allow women to have control over an aspect of a male body, flipping the gender dynamics of society. Much of her work looks at feminism and human bodies. After falling pregnant she began a project on pregnancy after looking at how it was seen the female postpartum body was something to be fixed. This led her to creating “The Simulator,” which is a series of speculative devices that give the experience of being pregnant, in order to create empathy for the physical discomfort of bearing a child. For this project she researched the future of artificial wombs and animal surrogates.



The microbiome is a huge source of interest for Liu. Our microbiome is the bacteria that lives on all of our bodies, and consititutes for a large percentage of our make up, as our microbiome can contain up to 2 million unique bacterial genes. “Biota Beats” is a vinyl created by a human. Music was created from an individual’s unique patterns of gut flora. While “Kisses from the Future” involved people kissing a petri dish to create colonies of bacteria. Liu also created a series of self portraits to look at her own identity. The aim of the project was to look at how the microorganisms on our body impact other aspects of who we are, such as our mood and behaviour.



Smell is one of the most powerful of our senses, and is closely related to our brain. Liu was so interested in this connection she created perfumes that smelled like her husband. As they lived long distance she missed him, so therefore asked him to send objects which would have a strong smell of him. These were then put into a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry machine to identify the chemicals found in the scents. Chloroform and ethanol were also added to the objects in order to capture the organic compounds and specific molecules which created the smells. This project is also linked with “Biotic Yearnings”, which sees Lui looking at engineering plants to smell like a loved one, specifically those who have passed away. As scent can trigger memories and plants are a symbol of life, this new way of extracting scent from flowers explores new and old. 


Ani Liu
National Geographic