The milk on this exhibit is not real. After much experimentation, Liu ended up filling the pump with “Wizard’s Milk,” a proprietary formula purchased from a magic store that doesn’t require refrigeration and comes with the warning “Not food. Don’t drink!” It’s convincing nonetheless. When installing the piece, Liu’s original idea was to have milk coils occupy the entire floor of the gallery, immersing visitors even more aggressively in the visual and auditory landscape of newborn care.
Liu, who holds degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and MIT Media Lab, resumed teaching just five days after giving birth in 2021. She just signed a new contract as an assistant professor of practice in Pennsylvania, and the university only provides maternity leave to employees over a year old. Although she was initially allowed to teach via Zoom from her Queens home, she ended up pumping more than breastfeeding. “I developed a very strained relationship with my pump, where I was disappointed by the sound of her work, and not the crying of my baby. It was just such a weird Donna Haraway cyborg moment,” she says, referring to the feminist science and technology scientist who wrote of the cyborg that it “doesn’t dream of a community modeled on the organic family.”
It was also the moment that led Liu to new research. Her findings are reflected in the work exhibited at the Cuchifritos Gallery, which includes a series of algorithm-enabled 3D meditations on technology, motherhood and childhood in our world.
Pumping also exhibited as part of the second edition of the Designing Motherhood exhibition, now at the MassArt Museum of Art in Boston. Michelle Millar Fisher, a member of the curatorial team, wrote that the work “goes straight to the heart of the ways in which reproductive labor is hidden, romanticized, socially tabooed and undervalued.”
Liu’s work has additional relevance and resonance after the overthrow Rowe vs. Wade. Who controls, who supports, and who does the reproductive labor is not just a matter of a bedroom or closet (and never should have been); they are played out in the streets, in state houses and in the Supreme Court.
Millar Fisher drew parallels between Liu’s pumping station and the work of artist Hiromi Marissa Ozaki, known as Sputniko!, whose 2010 work menstrual machine mimics the experience of menstruation; the video part of the piece shows a fictional day in the life of a young man who builds a device to experience life as a man with a womb.
Liu has long been fascinated by this kind of simulated experience. In 2019, after watching YouTube videos of men trying simulated labor pains to understand their wives’ experience, and discovering what they wanted on multiple levels, she decided to create her own devices, including clothes called Untitled (women’s pains), equipped with a belly and electrodes that would allow any non-pregnant person to experience the severity and discomfort of pregnancy. Another in the series Untitled (minor inconvenience)mimics incontinence. Made in collaboration with fabricator Randy Shandrosky, the clothes look like underwear and mimic one of the results of sex, but it’s not an experience that’s usually considered sexy.
Her writing showcases mischievous humor embedded in the everyday indignities of modern life. Consumer culture may seem to celebrate pregnancy, but the products offered to pregnant women focus on all the things that are “wrong” in a pregnant woman’s body: mood swings, stretch marks, urinary incontinence. In response, Liu created Consumer pregnancy, which includes a series of creams, masks and drugs designed in the style of the high millennium (monochrome packaging, sans-serif fonts), but with honest notes “Fatigue”, “Difficulty breathing”, “Swelling”. If you saw them on the pharmacy shelf, you would immediately like them, but after reading the description, even being pregnant, it’s hard not to say No thanks.