There’s something living under the bed in Morgan Chen’s Brooklyn apartment. She’s contained it in a storage bin, but it’s constantly growing, changing shape and texture. Eventually it begins to mold. And it resembles human flesh.
It’s neither a monster nor a shape-shifting beast. And it’s not scary; it’s SCOBY. The byproduct of fermenting tea, like the process that yields kombucha, SCOBY, which stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, takes only days to produce a biofilm called bacterial cellulose. Drying the material significantly shrinks its thickness. It encases or fuses with other objects, and it can be dehydrated and rehydrated.
For multidisciplinary artist Chen, growing SCOBY in her apartment and deconstructing the material into different states has fueled her curiosity to integrate her art practice with emerging tech. From early June through mid-August, she has spent six weeks at Cornell’s Hybrid Body Lab as the inaugural artist-in-residence, working with the latest interactive on-body technologies the lab is exploring while also collaborating with researchers to explore disciplines including on-skin fashion, tattoo art and makeup.
“To me, the deconstruction of material means to find meaning and purpose in its function,” Chen says. “I find commonality and metaphors within materials. I use materials as a tool to build identity, or to better understand my own.”
Chen learned to deconstruct material in part by exploring how SCOBY can be used in different contexts for different effects. As part of her graduate program thesis project at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, Chen literally took her art practice out of the box: Taking the techniques she learned harvesting homemade SCOBY in storage bins under the bed, she went one step further by growing the biomaterial in a glass tank. Upon completion, Chen created a living sculpture to represent the racial dissociation and melancholia she felt.
There’s this concept of the Asian American individual becoming a subject that is split between conflicting identities and expectations. … While I cannot speak for everyone, for my own practice of decolonization, it is important for me to deconstruct identity and get things in parts to understand them.
“Through this project, I deconstructed the idea of culture, which is passing on for generations how to live and survive symbiotically into this literal microbial culture.”
Chen’s six-week residency was funded by the National Science Foundation and a College of Human Ecology Engaged Research Grant made possible by the Einhorn Center for Community Engagement. The goal of the residency, set to run through the next five years, is to shed light on interdisciplinary processes for collaboration between STEM and the arts in designing future on-skin interfaces.
The Hybrid Body Lab, located in the Human Ecology Building, is a research lab inventing materials, processes and tools for crafting technology on the body surface. It houses facilities ranging from hardware electronics prototyping and digital fabrication to textile manufacturing and wet labs. During her residency, Chen is partnering with Ph.D. researcher Jingwen Zhu from the College’s Department of Human Centered Design.
“Morgan has given me a new perspective on the research we have been doing in the Hybrid Body Lab,” Zhu says. “It is fascinating to see how she has adapted the techniques we developed in the lab to her artistic practice, with her unique approach.”
Chen considers herself first and foremost a makeup artist. Her first foray into makeup came as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, where she was studying journalism. It’s a big film school, Chen says, so like a lot of USC students, she started to work on sets during her free time.
“My makeup practice is almost completely self-taught. How I learned is by spending a lot of time getting to know materials. The more I used them, the more I understood them: which paints to use for the face and which to use for the body, which eyeshadows to blend, what percentage of isopropyl alcohol to use to paint a tattoo,” Chen says. As her practice and expertise evolved, she began to better understand the role makeup plays in character building and character identity.
Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, assistant professor in human centered design and director of the Hybrid Body Lab, in close consultation with the board of advisors of the residency, selected Chen as the inaugural artist-in-residence from a talented applicant pool of on-body design artists that included weavers and knitters, tattoo artists, jewelry designers, makeup artists and musicians.
We chose Morgan because we are very excited about her fresh perspective on pushing makeup and beauty practices into digital realms, specifically in rethinking the role of beauty practices for narratives around decolonization and cyberfeminism.
The first week of the residency began with a mutual skill share between lab researchers and Chen. “We shared a total of six labs of on-skin interface prototyping techniques and toolkits derived from our research papers,” Kao says. “Morgan, in response, held a makeup and prosthetics skill-sharing workshop for our lab. As a result, we all got to experiment with the different types of makeup powders and inks by applying them to our skin.”
Beyond the formal workshops, Chen’s presence in the lab has led to spontaneous, cross-disciplinary discussions among those working on on-skin technology projects, Kao says. “For example, after discussing it with Morgan, a student was intrigued by a unique silicone she used and decided to experiment with it as a new approach for the adhesion of an on-skin device.”
Chen’s project during the residency, entitled Social Prosthesis, is a moving appendage designed as two headpieces made from rigid and soft structures. The soft skin of the prosthesis curls and contracts when triggered by touch on the face. Referencing the definition of prosthetic sociality, written by Mimi Thi Nguyen in the 2003 essay Queer Cyborgs and New Mutants, Social Prosthesis is an exploration of how technologies enhancing the human body create meanings that extend past the merging of biological and artificial – that must contest with the social and political contexts of its time. The project was made possible by using numerous Hybrid Body Lab techniques that lab members have introduced Chen to during the residency. “This interdisciplinary collaboration and mutual exchange process is fascinating for us,” Kao says.
Chen delivered a final public talk on her artist-in-residence project on August 18. Kao and lab members are planning to showcase her project as part of an exhibition of the lab’s work. More details on the artist residency program can be found on the Hybrid Body Lab website.