Artist Ani Liu has some radical suggestions for what pregnancy might look like. It all starts with artificial wombs

In 1970, a 25-year-old radical feminist named Shulamith Firestone published an incendiary manifesto titled The dialectic of sex: the case of the feminist revolution. In it, she identified women’s role in procreation as the primary cause of their continued oppression and proclaimed that “pregnancy is barbaric!”

Firestone called for the abolition of pregnancy and described a speculative utopian future in which women would be freed from the forced labor of biological reproduction via the development of artificial wombs. The nuclear family, which she saw as fundamentally patriarchal, would be replaced by “households”: groups of adults who would share joint custody of children.

Firestone’s ideas were controversial then and remain so today, not least because she failed to develop an intersectional understanding of women’s struggles; for example, she neglected to recognize how race and class determined which women ultimately bear the brunt of reproductive care work. Despite these shortcomings, her work has remained influential with cyberfeminists, queer theorists, and xenofeminists, who have also viewed technology as a means to emancipate bodies from the tyranny of nature (as discussed in Laboria Cuboniks). Xenofeminist manifesto: “if nature is unjust, let’s change nature! ”) and advocates the decoupling of kinship and caregiving relationships from purely biological definitions.

Ani Liu was reading Firestone while pregnant with her first child in 2019. An artist-researcher who had studied body-machine hybrids, cybernetics and cyborgs at the MIT Media Lab, she was familiar with the theoretical and political frameworks for considering the gender, gender stereotypes and the ways in which technology could enable individuals to transcend the limits of biology. Nonetheless, she was unprepared for the drastic changes her body went through during pregnancy. This experience marked the beginning of her personal and artistic interest in exploring the relationship between body, society, gender and politics.

Ani Liu’s latest exhibition, “Ecologies of Care”, is presented at the Cuchifritos Gallery. Photo: Brad Farwell.

“At the time, I was thinking about how I felt like a human incubator and that society has a stake in that,” Liu told Artnet News. She cites declining birth rates in many countries and the promises these nations make to women to increase fertility rates, as well as how they regulate women’s access to contraception and abortion. . “I thought, why do we keep doing this the old fashioned way?”

Following Firestone’s provocation, Liu began to wonder what might happen if humans outsourced the incubation of babies to techno-scientific processes. She found that while research is still far from the fully functioning artificial wombs envisioned by Firestone, science has made tremendous progress. Incubators can now accommodate premature babies born as early as 20 weeks (full term is considered 39 to 42 weeks). While reviewing this research, Liu came across the concept of cross-species pregnancy, an experimental technique in which one animal species carries the babies of another.

“It kind of blew my mind,” Liu recalled. “On Wikipedia it says we did this with cats where we impregnated them with pandas – because pandas are endangered and cute so we feel like we want to help them. I was really fascinated by this Back then, and recently, there was a lot of news about genetically modified pigs for human organ transplants and so I immediately looked at a pig because it looked like we already had a lot research there.

This line of research has led to the first work in her current solo exhibition, “Ecologies of Care,” on view at Cuchifritos Gallery and Project Space in New York’s Essex Market (until August 6). Surrogacy (bodies are not factories)which depicts an inseminated pig’s uterus with pig and human fetuses, is the first room that greets visitors as they enter. Sitting atop an illuminated display case, the sculpture gleams, coiled upon itself, looking slightly alien but undeniably alluring. Bulbous bead-like shapes in 3D printed transparent resin look like priceless jewelry. Although there is undoubtedly something anatomical in the form, it Only on closer inspection does the milky white substance inside become recognizable as human and pig fetuses.

Ani Liu, Surrogacy (bodies are not factories). Photo: Brad Farwell.

For Liu, the work raises ethical questions in the exploitation of human and animal surrogates. “Using the pig as a vessel, I almost felt like I was assimilating my own body to that of cattle,” she said. “I wanted to show that we don’t really need artificial wombs, we really need better policies.”

The rest of the works in the exhibition explore the materiality of maternal care work and the relentless demands of the postpartum process. In Untitled (labor of love), Liu presents a data portrait of the first 30 days after the birth of her daughter. The 60 x 24 inch acrylic sculpture is divided into 48 notches from top to bottom, each representing a 30 minute increment. Some of them are equipped with tiny glass vials filled with breast milk, formula and diaper fragments, representing each feeding and diaper change that has taken place.

Ani Liu, Untitled (Labor of Love). Image: Ani Liu.

The pace is overwhelming and relentless and gives a sense of the round-the-clock work required to keep a newborn baby alive. Liu began collecting the data to monitor her daughter’s health using a mobile app, a process that is likely familiar to most new parents. She was struck by the visualization of the unrecognized work she provided.

“I remember there were several times when someone said to me, ‘Oh, it’s so good that you have maternity leave. It’s like a vacation! and I would retrieve the data and say “Welcome to my vacation!” So I knew I wanted to incorporate that data into my art somehow,” Liu said. “I also really wanted to bring the materiality of my life into the gallery because that’s what I was going through and you never see breast milk and diapers in these spaces.”

And there’s a lot of (synthetic) breastmilk on this show — about three gallons, to be exact. Shortly after giving birth to her second child during the pandemic, Liu had to return to work; she had not worked long enough at her new job to qualify for maternity leave. Since she had to get away from her child, she had to start pumping, and her symbiotic relationship with her breast pump became the inspiration for a pair of sculptures: Untitled (pumping) and Untitled (feeding through space and time). Both are made with food grade tubing connected to a milky white acrylic box containing an air pump, liquid pump and microcontroller. They circulate a milk-like substance that Liu had to “sculpt” through months of trial and error to arrive at the right color and consistency. Untitled (pumping) sits perched on a shelf, neatly rolled up, looking like a giant donut made of butter, except for the persistent sound of pumping and the sight of milk and air bubbles circulating through its tubes. Untitled (feeding through space and time) is laid out like a tangle of tubes on the floor, reminiscent of the messy realities of child care. Together, they’re like the before and after pictures of the “how it started, how you doing” meme.

Ani Liu, Untitled (pumping). Photo: Brad Farwell.

The rhythms of both sculptures are programmed to match the rhythms of Liu’s breast pump and contain approximately one week’s worth of milk. Because Liu started working so soon after giving birth and pumping accordingly, she was unable to make a deep connection with breastfeeding her second child. The kind of physiological reactions she used to have when breastfeeding her first child (the mere sight of her daughter was enough to make the milk flow) that she was now starting to have with her breast pump.

“All of those Donna Haraway vibes popped up for me — I’m a complete animal-human-machine cybernetic creature,” she recalled. “There are a lot of hormones that go through your body when you breastfeed and I think mine was starting to get activated by the sound of the breast pump. I kept thinking about the relationship between me and the pump but also between the pump and society. On the one hand, the pump frees the breastfeeding person to free themselves from their baby’s mouth. This allows them to travel, work, do all kinds of things. on the other hand, I feel like sometimes society relies on certain types of technologies to say, “Oh look, you can pump!” So ​​you can go back to work now, right? But breastfeeding isn’t necessarily ‘free’ per se, it takes a lot of time and effort.”

During the pandemic, there was a brief moment of recognition that ‘care work is essential work’, but the return to normal has been swift and particularly unforgiving, especially in light of the recent repeal of Roe v . Wade and the ongoing attack on female reproduction. rights.

“I’ve always been an advocate for choice and the right to abortion, but I became even more attached to it after becoming a mother,” Liu said. “I wanted this and it still is then hard. No one should have to be forced into this.

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