Weitzman News

Posted October 14, 2021
  • Ani Liu

  • A.I. Toys

    "How does society construct gender through toys? This series is created with a machine learning model fed with real toy data marketed as 'boys' and 'girls' toys. These algorithmically generated toys reflect the gendered societal values we place on children through objects of play."

  • Olfactory Time Capsule for Earthly Memories

    "This project consists of a sensory token for astronauts that contains the unique scent of three memories of Earth: that of a loved one, that of a home, and that of a natural resource. Speculating on a future where some of us might embark on a one-way trip into space, this project investigates the sensory modalities of memory beyond the digital."

  • holding back is another kind of need

    "From 2016-2018 I created a series of perfumes that capture the smell of individuals who have emotional significance to me. An exploration in the use of science for emotional ends, I have successfully bottled the scent profiles of three people. In the obsessively hygienic and reason driven laboratory where I distill these smells, I often reflect on the constant negotiation between the animal with the cultured human within ourselves."

  • Shapes and Ladders: Battles of Bias & Bureaucracy

    "A video game that shows how systemic racism and sexism can exist in the workplace. Set in the metaphor of a career ladder, players attempt to navigate through an office building rife with challenges."

Q&A: Ani Liu, Professor of Practice in Fine Arts

This fall, sought-after interdisciplinary artist Ani Liu was appointed professor of practice in the Department of Fine Arts. Her practice reflects her graduate studies at both the MIT Media Lab, where she earned a Master of Science degree, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she earned a Master of Architecture. Much of her work explores the effects of new technology on how we experience the world, from how we take in information to creating personas. Using a diverse array of technologies, Liu has created perfumes that capture the smell of people she loves, a video game that looks at systemic racism and sexism in the workplace, and a garment that explores non-female and transgender pregnancy. Three of her projects, including A. I. Toys, are currently on view at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice. She was recently selected to be a member of the New Museum’s cultural incubator NEW INC.

In this Q&A, Liu describes her experience teaching at Penn for the first time, the ways in which toys perpetuate gender norms, and her collaboration with astronauts to support mental and physical health in space.

Can you describe your A.I. Toys project, which is now on view at the Venice Architecture Biennale?

I started this project shortly after becoming a new parent, which brought a lot of toys into my life. One of the things that struck me was that my first child, who is a girl, was given an overwhelming amount of pink things, along with toys that were incredibly gendered. It caused me to reflect on the values that we push towards our children at very young ages. I started to see these toys as a lens by which she might form ideas about the world, and I became really interested in how we teach gender roles or norms through toys.

When I shopped for clothes or toys on online stores, I noticed that the interface often tries to get you to sort by gender. Are you looking for boys’ or girls’ toys? I started collecting this data, scraped from the internet, from shopping sites like Target and Amazon. When you search for “toy” on Amazon, it will ask, “Do you mean boys’ toys or girls’ toys?” They're already segregated. We took all of this information and fed it into a machine learning model and then asked it to invent new “boys’” and “girls’” toys, based on what it's learned about our world. It was meant to be kind of a black mirror about gender and toys. I want to mention that I did this project with a wonderful group of students that I was mentoring at Princeton at the time.

Many of the toys the A.I. model generated surprised me, such as the I Can! Change Anything! Kitchen. This toy was so interesting because there's a lot of girl-power toys in the market right now, so it learned the phrase, “I can! change anything!,” but then it still added “kitchen” to it. The algorithm also learned that girls’ toys generally have some kind of domestic or kitchen component, so it tagged it together. Girls’ toys often had makeup, jewelry, soft animals, and forms of domestic play, such as cooking. Boys’ toys were generally very weapon-based, full of things like Nerf guns, soldiers, super heros, and robotics. It was an experiment to get at the zeitgeist of what makes something “boys” or “girls” in terms of what we give to our children.

What are you teaching at Penn this semester?

I’m teaching the design senior seminar with [Lecturer in Fine Arts] Jacob Rivkin. I’m learning that within design, the students here have really diverse interests,ranging from industrial design to UI/UX design to art direction. It’s been interesting to build a kind of pedagogical philosophy on how to teach design to young designers who have such varied approaches.

My other class is called Futures for All: Reimagining social equality through art and technology, which is about how art can be a form of activism. We are investigating inequity in a lot of different ways, including how it relates to race, gender, socio-economic class etc, specifically through the lens of technology. For instance, we look at AI algorithms that help police officers target certain kinds of neighborhoods in a way that is problematic, and we examine how computer vision can be used for we look at surveillance. Then we also look at what artists have done, both in the past and currently, and what the students can do as designers and artists to make work either to raise awareness about these issues or actually to change the world that we live in.

So far, how has your experience teaching at Penn been different than other schools you have taught at?

I feel like each school I have taught at has a different culture. Penn is such a big campus and has so many professional schools, such as its business school and medical school, which I think makes the university inherently super multi-disciplinary. One of the things I was blown away by on the first day of class was when we were introducing ourselves, and the students were describing their academic trajectories up to the point of becoming seniors. I was so impressed by both the diversity and specificity of classes that they had taken, and also the breadth.

You have taught classes at Princeton, Harvard, and MIT that examine the effects that emerging technologies have on our lives and communities. It is also a core part of your own practice. Can you talk a little bit about how you became interested in this topic?

I became really interested in all the ways that we create our world through design, and then how our designs design us back. A classic example is when you look at the design of kitchens throughout time and you can see the relationship between architecture, domestic labor, and women or hired help.

I was studying architecture at a time when a lot of emerging technologies had a lot of impact on me. Both the Oculus Rift and Google Glass had just come out, and I got to try virtual reality and augmented reality for the first time as a young designer. There was a lot of talk about how these technologies will change the way we perceive public space and interact. I remember people asking, “Now that there's Tinder, will people still go to bars?”

Technology operates so invisibly sometimes that we take it for granted. I started to really peel back how technology shapes us, and the deeper I dug into it, the more interested I became. I’m happy that there's more public awareness and conversation around it now, but we haven’t fixed the problem. For instance, we know that our algorithmic news feeds can problematically spread fake news and polarize us. We also know that social media is designed to be addictive, designed to get us to click on ads, and can lead us to have poor self-esteem. However, we don’t really know quite what to do about it as consumers. As someone who is very critical of these platforms, I also consume these platforms.

You look at the emotional impact of technology and platforms on users, particularly in your examinations of scents and smell. Can you talk about this aspect of your work?

One of the things that’s important to me as a human is that there are many forms of intelligence: the logic-based systems that I think society tends to value, but also emotional intelligence, which I think is also important, amongst others. There's a lot of communication that happens nonverbally or even non-symbolically, and I think that's one of the powers of learning through art. Sometimes when I am experiencing a work of art, when I’m basking in an aesthetic experience, I feel like knowledge is being transferred, but just not in the traditional ways.

There’s an art historian named Caroline Jones and she says that smell is pre-verbal and has no capacity to pretend. I really love that because I am interested in the idea that there are still some forms of communication that are inherently somewhat animalistic and biological. Can we smell fear? If so, then you can’t really mask it. I really like that kind of truthfulness, and also the nonverbal nature of it.

I'm also interested in using the tools of science and technology to create emotional experiences, which artists have traditionally created with media like paint or charcoal. Part of my interest is going back into the conversation of logic versus emotion and thinking about ways we might integrate both of them by creating art that utilizes the tools that we don't usually associate with emotional expression.

Because of your highly interdisciplinary approach, have you been presented interesting or unexpected opportunities?

While I was part of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative, I had the opportunity to speak to some astronauts about how space smells. It’s hard to say exactly how it smells because we're never in space without a space suit, but I had a lot of interesting conversations about the experience of smelling in zero gravity. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood down towards our feet and the heart pumps it back up. But in space, or in zero gravity, because the same forces are not at play, your blood is more equally distributed throughout your whole body. Because there’s more blood in your head, a lot of astronauts told me, it’s like when you have a head cold and have trouble smelling.

As a result of not smelling well, astronauts talked to me about how it's hard to taste things, so they put a lot of salty and spicy flavorings into their food, which is bad for bone density. When I started to think about the issues around smells in space, I thought I would design something for astronauts that amplifies specific smells, like the smell of pizza. So when they're eating pizza that they are having trouble smelling, perhaps I can design a super-strong pizza smell to double up on that sensory experience.

The project resulted in the design of a sensory token. While astronauts can bring bring gigabytes of data on a thumb drive into space, I thought, “What if I gave them gigabytes of smells on a scent drive.” I designed this wearable amulet that you could use to smell scents of Earth that you might long for in space, such as dirt, the ocean, and maybe someone that you love. I created a prototype and I was able to take it on a zero-gravity flight to test it out. It was one of the projects that was serendipitous, out of the blue, and really fun!