Class of 2020 | Rae Yuping Hsu

Rae Yuping Hsu, Mistress Kinship, 2020. Stool, bacteria, blender.
ACT at MIT

Rae Yuping Hsu, an artist from Taipei and second year ACT graduate student, received her undergraduate degree in rehabilitation medicine from National Taiwan University Medical College (NTU), where she was trained as a therapist. As she transitioned into art, many of the experiences and motifs from her rehabilitation work translated into her art.

Rae’s art practice evolved during her MFA studies at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where she fell in love with the medium of glass. “I feel like a lot of work from that time was about the solving these dichotomies between abled and disabled bodies, and between the self and the other,” she said. Many of Rae’s works “look at times when the self can become “other” such as in neurological conditions where whole sides of bodies or limbs are neglected, or how the “other” can become a self, such as with a medical device or prosthesis, or in our microbiome.” 

Her 2017 project, Phantom Limbs, was a completely handblown glass project referencing the phantom limb phenomenon, which roughly 70% of amputated patients experience. Rae explained that many of the amputees she worked with “slowly feel that their amputated limb is still there and in pain. This is an instance of how the boundaries are muddled between the self and the other.” The 11 shapes that comprise Phantom Limbs were all inspired by case studies of how her patients described their phantom limbs to her. Inside, these glass pieces are silvered and mirrored in reference to the mirror box therapy she said is used for phantom limb pain; the mirror is also used as a tool for the gaze of the other.

Rae Yuping Hsu, Phantom Limbs, 2017. Glass, silver nitrate, leather.

Rae Yuping Hsu, Phantom Limbs, 2017. Glass, silver nitrate, leather.

Between her studies at RISD and MIT, Rae held a residency in bio-art at SymbioticA. It was at this time that Rae said she began to see her material not just as objects, but as subjects. Wanting to continue her work based on bio materials led Rae to MIT. “I came to MIT because of the relationship and history with synthetic biology, which began at MIT and was started by a bunch of engineers, not biologists.”

Rae’s recent work uses fermentation as a practice for building a community of human and non-human agents. For Living Archive, Rae created roughly 100 slides from dried SCOBY and bacteria that was cultured from her body; she put them through a slide machine and paired it with writings around fermentation.

Rae Yuping Hsu, Living Archive, 2019. Slides, SCOBY, bacteria.

A current project uses the language and tools of fecal transplant, the practice of transplanting the gut microbiome from a healthy donor into a patient. Rae created the character Mistress Kinship as a “humorous speculation on how maybe transplanting the fecal microbiome of different species can lead to becoming and kinship.”

Rae Yuping Hsu, Mistress Kinship, 2020. Stool, bacteria, blender.

Being part of the ACT and MIT communities, Rae has been able to expand the scope of her work and partake in collaborations that would not be possible in a traditional art program, such as with the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative. Rae said that prior to entering ACT she hadn’t considered microgravity or space exploration. After finding a class offered to Media Lab students, which included an eventual zero gravity flight, Rae reached out to Ariel Ekblaw, the founder and lead of the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, and made a proposal based on the Initiative’s mission statement: if you’re trying to democratize access to space technologies, designers and artists could have a powerful voice in it. This semester became the first time that Architecture students were allowed to take the class. Rae was hoping to do a performance for the flight, which was scheduled for May and now postponed until August or September.

Along with fellow ACT graduate students Nancy Valladares (SMACT ’20 candidate) and Po-Hao Chi (SMACT ’21 candidate), Rae applied for and received a grant from the Ministry of Culture of Taiwan for a two year film project about microbial ethics and interplanetary travel; they also hope to arrange a roundtable discussion around the decolonization of space. The students have also reached out to Danielle Wood, the head of the MIT Space Enabled Group, since her group focuses on how space technology could be used to better the lives of people on earth, and are exploring ways to remove the colonial framework through which space exploration is often described.

Though some of these projects are currently on hold due to COVID-19, Rae is also using this crisis to inform her work. “When it [COVID-19] first happened, I felt very conflicted,” she said. “Part of my thesis is about how we can move away from the militaristic metaphor of invasion and towards one of invitation.” She has also been considering the practice of social distancing and how it contrasts with what she has been writing about: how contact, such as touching, or grooming, or being close to other people, facilitates a flux in the microbiome.

“What is social distancing doing to things like our microbiome that aren’t in conversation with one another anymore?” she pondered. “I was thinking how I used to be in touch physically with Nancy [friend and classmate] almost every day and I miss her a lot….She had given me her house plant right before she left and said ‘This is my favorite plant, and if it has to die, I want it to die in the hands of a friend, I don’t want to just leave it in alone in my dorm.’ So I swabbed the outside of the pot that she had held and given me, and I began cultivating that inside the laser cut words I panic made before the shop shut down. And in the photo of the project you can see the words ‘social distancing’ but you can also see how the bacteria is also growing outside of that. I think it also visually demonstrates how these boundaries, or borders, no matter if it’s the body or the state’s body, these boundaries are very porous and these microbial agents move around it.”