Living Distance

Xin Liu

This video is no longer available

Xin Liu, Living Distance (still), 2019-20.

Artist Cinemas presents Living Distance
Xin Liu

Artist Cinemas
Week #1

February 22–28, 2021

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for an online screening of Xin Liu’s Living Distance (2019-20), on view from Monday, February 22 through Sunday, February 28, 2021.

Living Distance is a fantasy and a mission, in which a wisdom tooth is sent to outer space and back down to Earth again. Propelled by a crystalline robotic sculpture called EBIFA, the tooth becomes a newborn entity in outer space. Its performance is about death, body, and home, in a world where our science exploration and spiritual journeys are diverging.

The video is presented here alongside an interview with Xin Liu conducted by Emma Enderby.

Living Distance is the first installment of Crashing into the Future, a program of films and interviews convened by Cao Fei, and comprising the fifth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

Crashing into the Future will run from February 22 through April 5, 2021, screening a new film each week accompanied by an interview with the filmmaker(s) conducted by Cao Fei and invited guests.

Xin Liu in conversation with Emma Enderby

Emma Enderby (EE):
So, where are you right now? Is there a room you’ve spent most of your time in this last year?

Xin Liu (XL):
I’m in bed! You caught me during my morning phone-reading/-emailing time. I am a texter, so psychologically, finishing up short emails on my phone is much easier than grabbing my computer. They will be done before I get up.

But I’ve spent most of my time in my living room, if we are not counting sleep time. My partner took the den facing the backyard and I converted half of the living room into my office/studio. We live in a typical Brooklyn brownstone ground-floor apartment. This setup is the farthest apart we can be during a workday.

Well, as Andy Warhol said, everything is more glamorous when you do it in bed! And yes, there has been a complete reorientation of personal spaces this last year—especially in terms of distance and proximity. But before we get into Living Distance (2019-20), I wanted to start further back. I first got to know your work when I saw Orbit Weaver, a performance you did in 2017 that took place in zero-gravity. I wanted to start by asking how you first came to be interested in leaving this Earth—entering zero-gravity and then eventually space.

It was a combination of longstanding interest and pure luck. My graduate thesis at MIT was about interoception, a term used to describe how our body perceives and locates its own internal sensations and activities, providing the basis for a material sense of self. As part of the thesis, I developed psychoacoustic and multisensory virtual reality systems that allowed the user to manipulate their perception of themselves. I was interested in what it meant to be human in a post-metaphysical world. The inquiries and cognitive dissonances related to this question seemed pretty consistent whether seen from the point of view of an individual self or in terms of the collective earthbound consciousness. Meanwhile, my classmate Dr. Ariel Ekblaw was gathering interest in creating an initiative dedicated to enabling space research beyond the traditional space industry. And it was a bit of a natural progression from these inquiries that I joined the group and became a founding member of the Space Exploration Initiative at the MIT Media Lab.

Right, it was MIT that helped you realize Orbit Weaver.

The performance for Orbit Weaver was a turning point for me. It started with this picture of the NASA astronaut Ed White stepping out of his space capsule and “walking” in space in 1965—the first US EVA (extravehicular activity). Out in the vastness, his only lifeline was a shining, snake-like tether connected to the space station, like an infant attached to their mother through the umbilical cord. It was a profound achievement, and in that moment, humanity seemed so vulnerable. And so, I got interested in tethering and being tethered, with and without gravity. The performance happened during a parabolic flight, which simulates a microgravity environment inside the aircraft. Like a spider-woman, I shot threads and dragged my weightless self. The second before the plane’s first parabola, I was expecting an uplift in the absence of gravity pull. But I was wrong. I didn’t go up, and instead the floor beneath me suddenly sunk. The entire aircraft was freefalling mid-sky. Since then, I have been working on falling rather than lifting. So perhaps after I “left the Earth,” I realized I can never do so.

Have you by any chance seen The Expanse?

I have not, but I will!

Oh, you really should. What you just said, about a bodily experience with and without gravity, being tethered, and tethered to Earth are themes of the series. It’s also about aliens… which brings me back to Orbit Weaver, because, for me, the performance also connects to a larger theme of your work—inhabiting “alien” places or landscapes.

I love the alien question. I grew up in a far-northwest city in China, called Karamay (Black Oil). Responding to China’s Western Development Program, my grandparents’ generation immigrated there in their 20s and built an oil city out in the desert. When I saw the SpaceX rendering of settlements on Mars, I was reminded of my hometown, an urban landscape of tidily arranged grids in the barren desert.

Humans are quite good at making grids. My birthday was February 26 when I was born. But several years later, my home province changed to Beijing time as the entire country started maintaining one clock. It shifted my birthday to the 25th and pushed everything back by two hours. When I moved to the US, I had even more trouble with time zones. My parents were living roughly ten hours ahead of me. It was cognitively confusing. There was this power dynamic in the measurement I wasn’t able to grasp. At the time, I had an intuitive response in my performance One Second on the Ground (2014), where I tried to measure the distance of one-second time difference on the ground by walking from west to east.

What does it mean to go into a vacuum, the land of no one, and make it your own? What is time if we are assigning it along straight lines from the North Pole to Antarctica? When the 1967 Outer Space Treaty defined the extraterrestrial space terra nullius as legally unoccupied or uninhabited, it was also to justify any future occupations. Sometimes I feel that if the land could announce or renounce its people, we would all be aliens here.

That’s an important point, especially concerning outer space. The twentieth century saw the politicization of space and the beginning of its colonization—there is literally an American flag on the moon. I think it’s interesting about Dr. Ekblaw wanting to go beyond the traditional space industry to explore outer space, because that industry was, and is, very homogeneous—only men, and only white men, have walked on the moon. It’s important that artists can expose these realities and uncertainties. I think that’s what Trevor Paglen is doing, or Tavares Strachan who launched his satellite-sculpture into orbit to honor Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., or Agnes Denes, who has an unrealized project to send a time capsule to space that could someday in the far future help humanity—a kind of interstellar communication. It’s imagining other possibilities for space, and your project, Living Distance does just that. Can you tell us a little more about this work?

Living Distance is a fantasy and a mission, in which a wisdom tooth is sent to outer space and back down to Earth again. It consists of an outer space performance, a two-channel video installation, and a VR experience. In this screening for e-flux, we are only showing the two-channel video.

Right, you sent your wisdom tooth to space! It was carried by EBIFA (Everything Beautiful is Far Away), a robotic sculpture. It’s a strange, dreamlike work, where the tooth (and robot) become allegories for really fundamental questions about life, death, and the relationship of the body to the cosmos. How did you conceptualize this?

My journey with this project started about three years ago. After the Orbit Weaver performance, I applied for this sub-orbital launch opportunity to test my spider-mimicking locomotion technique in actual outer space. The payload dimension was relatively small (like a tiny microwave), so I decided to make an avatar of myself, a fully automated robotic sculpture. To clarify, the opportunity I got was for its technical innovation, not for my artistic vision. I had just graduated from school then, and there was no way a young artist like me would have had such support for an art project.

For me, the robot is not just a vehicle. It is a body. I wrote this short paragraph at the time:

Is breeding a physiological instinct for women? I put my life (time, effort, intelligence) into an inorganic, ruthless mechanical system and then place my bone and blood (teeth) in the center. It is part of me, my avatar. It activates in space. It quiets down on the return to Earth. It comes to life without ground, but I am standing here firmly.

One of the most important influences for me growing up was the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. As with the Evangelion or Eva bio-machines, I speculate that humanity will not break through the interstellar space-time distance in an organic form. And ever since, I have wondered whether the death of organisms is the birth of inorganic life, as it returns back to Earth.

That’s a really beautiful conclusion. But if I may ask one more question—what happened to the tooth?

It’s back! I’ve since exhibited it several times. A weird thing happened last week. I was feeling some pain in my gums and I thought there was a problem with my wisdom tooth on the other side. But there wasn’t, it was the phantom one.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Outer Space, Video Art, Science, Cosmism, The Cosmos, Robotics
Return to Crashing into the Future
Return to Artist Cinemas

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