[Labs] Vivian Xu: The “Bio-Electrician”

Executive Editor | Li Ruixuan

Does an electronic installation fall in the category of artwork or scientific experiment? This may not even be a question for artist Vivian Xu. Inspired by British Cybernetics theorists, Xu has created a variety of works that are related to electronic signals and biological life. The Silkworm Project is a case study that she has been working on since 2012. It is an installation series consisting of machine objects, experiments, and artifacts that explore the possibilities of hybrid bio-machines systems that can generate self-organizing silk structures. Through investigating the intelligence and ingenuity of insects, the artist explores a biological approach to machine logic.


Machine I: Flat Spinning, The Silkworm Project, 2014 - 2015

The silk machines utilize a closed feedback system between the organic and the artificial, providing a spinning environment for the worms and a fluid eco-system that demonstrates automated production. The series can be divided into three parts. In the first part, Machine I: Flat Spinning, Xu takes a cultural and historical approach through the entangled history of weaving technology and computation technology and places the silkworm and sericulture within a human-centric value system and machine system.



Machine I: Flat Spinning, The Silkworm Project, 2014 - 2015

The second part is centered around Machine II: Spatial Spinning, where Xu developed a machine logic that caters to the spatial perception of the silkworm and its spinning behavior, creating an artifact that brings out and projects the alien perspective of the biological insect.



Machine II: Spatial Spinning, The Silkworm Project, 2016 - 2017

The third part speculates on a new animal-machine hybrid universe that is explored through the design and testing of Machine III: Levitation. Through this process of experimentation, Xu questions and speculates on the complex cultural, biological, and technological fabric that makes up the context of the silkworm.


Machine III: Levitation, The Silkworm Project, 2018 - 2019

If The Silkworm Project is an observation of the behaviors of the individual organism controlled by mechanical movement, then its parallel work, Living Devices, supplements the artist’s research from a more microcosmic level — the bacteria and electrical currents. Living Devices explores the interaction between organic and artificial systems where a hybrid unity may be possible, where the function of the device relies on both the electronic and the biological components of the system. More precisely, Xu’s interest lies in creating a series of living devices that combine electronic control systems with live bacterial systems. The main research aims to investigate possible variations of negotiation with the different bacterial organisms, which will aid in identifying suitable electric ranges that may create interesting growth results and patterns. For this purpose, Xu developed a series of electrode configurations that can moderate and control the voltage level of every single electrode in generating diverse and dynamic electrical field environments for experimentation.


Some experimental results of Living Devices, 2014 - 2015


Illustrations of Living Devices


Prototypes of Living Devices


Designs of possible electrode configurations for Living Devices

As a continuation of the research for Living Devices, Xu started the Skin Series that investigates the boundaries between life and non-life with the skin as an interface. This is a series of the artist’s artistic and experimental exploration in the developing realm of wearable technology, demonstrating her interests in the epidermis, the largest organ on the human body — the boundary between the internal and external, self and other — and how new technologies can blur, manipulate and reinvent that boundary. This series speculates on the possible co-evolution of man and technology and draws attention to the environmental influence on the development of our bodies and behaviors.

The invisible landscape of electromagnetic signals has changed with the development and proliferation of electronic technology, but do we change with it as well? This is the question that Electric Skin, the first piece of this series, would like to ask. Xu created a wearable that extends the functionality of the skin to sense electromagnetic fields and translate that information into touch sensation. The wearable consists of two main functional parts: A matrix of omnidirectional antennas that act as sensors and probes and corresponding electrodes that stimulate the skin of the wearer. Through this artificial “skin,” the wearable changes our experience, perception, and understanding of space and movement, and in doing so, our interactions.



Electric Skin, Skin Series, Model: Vivian Xu, Photography: Harauld Sextus


The Sensor Unit of Electric Skin

Following Electric Skin, the second piece in this series, Sonic Skin, explores the issue and experiments with the medium of spatial sound. It was inspired by the sonar capabilities of bats and whales, where the journey of the sound is audible to the audience and illustrates the physical relationship between the wearer and the environment. Using a matrix of parallel ultrasonic sensors against the body, the artist created a sound armor that projects directional sound from the contours of the wearer’s body into their environment. The first prototype of this piece was supported by UNArt Center.


Sonic Skin, Skin Series, Model: Vivian Xu, Photography: Harauld Sextus, 2019.


The control circuit design of Sonic Skin


The chest plate of Sonic Skin, Vivian Xu.

Audio Interview

Was there a starting point for you to choose experiments as the main art medium and approach of research?


How did you become interested in the interrelationship between electronic signals and biological life? Do you have specific sentiments with these two?


Could you share a little bit about your new researching topics — data, networks, and cyberspace? Are they derived from your previous works?

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Related Person

Vivian Xu

Project UNArt 2020 #3: Infrastructural Plays 2020.12.22-2021.01.31
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