In “Mind-Controlled Sperm: Woman of STEAM Grabs Back” Ani Liu Flips the Script

by Michael Anthony Farley on June 23, 2017 Briefly Noted

Sperm, like some migratory birds, navigate using electromagnetic fields, apparently.

This isn’t the most shocking revelation from Ani Liu’s “Mind-Controlled Sperm: Woman of STEAM Grabs Back“, but it’s the scientific basis for the artwork. Liu, an artist and research assistant with MIT’s Media Lab, has figured out how to manipulate these electromagnetic fields and “trick” the sperm into swimming in choreography dictated by a woman’s thoughts. The project grew out of frustration with the political discourse, in which patriarchal ideologies often dictate the discussion over women’s bodies—particularly reproductive rights.

In Liu’s set-up, a woman wears an electroencephalogram (EEG) Brain Computer Interface (BCI) that translates brainwaves into instructions for a computer. The computer is hooked up to an Arduino Uno microcontroller, which dictates the respective charges of a positive anode and negative electrode attached to a microscope slide. Under the microscope, millions of tiny sperm swim, following the electromagnetic fields—never reaching their destination. A video feed of their back-and-forth movements is projected live, like the world’s most complicated game of cyborg Pong.

In an interview with PC Mag, Liu describes the political context that inspired her research:

“There’s a long history of policies that control what a woman can or cannot do with her body. Especially as it pertains to birth control… there’s this image of Donald Trump and a cabinet of basically men signing this document. It was very memeable—they almost look like villains. There’s a [parody] photograph… of a roomful of famous female politicians. You never see that—a roomful of women signing an edict…. they had this one rule that was something like “IT IS FORBIDDEN FOR MEN TO EJACULATE FOR RECREATIONAL PURPOSES”. I it revealed how ridiculous some of these policies are. Given this long history of female body domination I wanted to make a piece that spoke to that. What would it be like for a woman to feel this [control over a man’s reproductive system? …I found it strangely empowering”

A handful of other artists have been using EEG technology for projects (Yehuda Duenyas’ epic “The Ascent” or Anthony Antonellis’ exhibition Internet of My Dreams at TRANSFER come to mind) but there’s something uniquely satisfying about this particular work. The “mind over matter” element of the Liu’s practice feels potently real. In an era of such visceral political frustrations as our own, the idea that an artist’s thoughts alone can literally impact life is powerful. “Grab back”, indeed.

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