Emma Yimeng Zhu 朱艺蒙, from Beijing, China, received her Master of Art, Culture, and Technology from MIT in 2021 and her bachelor’s degree in architecture from Cornell University in 2019. Emma identifies herself as an artist that works in-between the context of visual art and architecture. Emma has a strong interest in the parasitic and endocytosed relationship between human body and architectural space. Through a diverse range of media, including physical and virtual installation, performance, and video, Emma investigates the elasticity of this relationship. In 2020 Spring Emma was an artist in residence at Pioneer Works. Most recently she co-founded ppppress at MIT with the support of CAMIT Grant. Emma is also the co-founder of 坐北朝南, an architectural design studio in Beijing.


Lines can be seemingly benign as a series of pixels or vector objects, but lines are political and social, as when they are used to draw a divide between groups of beings both in concrete terms in the way that lines demarcate borders and thus define patterns of migration and more obliquely in the way that lines are drawn between disciplines such as architecture and visual art. This sense of division takes on a more instrumental quality under Euclidean geometry which imbues lines with the authority to keep things tidy, neat, and hygienic…. Is there any line beyond a “clean” line? Ingold provided a taxonomy of lines in his book, ranging from thread, trace, cut, crack, to crease and more. These alternative interpretations of the line hint at non-Euclidean ways of perceiving the world. 

By examining the threads, cuts, cracks and creases, the lines that are not clean, or well defined, this thesis attempts to make room for the “in-between space.” The “in-between space” happens at various scales and in various contexts, from the very intimate level of perceiving one self’s (one’s own body’s) boundary as an in-between space to connect across entities, to the rendering of screens (medium and object) as liminal and porous lines facilitating unusual linkages, and eventually to the reinterpretation of borders and migration as spaces for collective imagination.

The approach is mostly self-reflexive and self-referential, combining selected writings and works I did over the past three years, while suturing them with the thought experiment of “finding the in-between space.” As the title suggests, I am in the state of finding and not-knowing. I want to be as open as possible towards different perspectives.

Dissolved Boundary (Costume, made with thrift clothing, Fall 2019)

Unlike a silhouette or scale figure, human body is in fact not bounded by a solid line. Our skin is porous and elastic, while our senses are dispersed. We can even augment our bodies and senses to extend the definition of body boundary. But what if we erase rather than emphasize the boundary. Can we let go of our senses? Can we lend our bodies to others? With this costume made to introduce vision and mobility impair, the boundary of human body is dissolving for both the performer and viewer as the body moves through space. The human body here is placed in an intentional vulnerable situation as an attempt to evoke sensitivity and empathy with the surroundings.

A Pilgrimage to the Bed (Video, 18min, Spring 2020)

A Pilgrimage to the Bed is a video inquiry searching for different modes of orientation and perception of space, while blurring the boundary between physical and virtual space. Starting with an aerial view in Google Earth, the way of perceiving and navigating through space shifts constantly among human view, non-human view, machinic view, modeling view and analytic view. The only element that remains unchanged is the motion of tracking. The tracking renders the very familiar space into unfamiliar, unfolding the multiplicity and complexity of the space through very linear movements. Zooming, crushing and transforming, one linear space traverses through and turns into another one. Along with the visuals, the sonic experience renders the sense of disorientation one step further by fusing and dissolving the distinction between the interior of human body and domestic spatial body. This piece is made during COVID-19 lockdown when the concept of space and time was challenged in every possible way. By narrating a seemingly linear itinerary to the bed, which is also the ultimate destination of everyday life, this video work in fact intended to unfold the multiplicity of space and time for viewers.

Watch here.

Space in-between the Lines (Virtual Installation & Ongoing Research, Spring 2021)

This research project explores the creative use of machine learning in proposing and narrating alternative world models. Counter to the ways that machine learning has tended to maximize efficiencies, or the ways that computational “brute force” techniques have been used to analyze and categorize enormous “data sets,” I am proposing a type of “machine imagination” that offers a way to converse and think collectively.

Machine imagination is not just an emulation of human imagination. In the context of machine learning, many ‘imaginative’ results are produced in every training. However, this definition of ‘imaginative’ is still limited to solely human perception. I would rather believe that the native machine imagination lives in the latent space of its neural network. Rather than imagining within the clean lines that humans have drawn, machines imagine beyond the lines and divisions by connecting discrete data points into gradients of ‘difference in itself.’ The results that machine returned to us are traces of its imagination that can guide us into the latent in-between space, which is currently invisible to us and incommensurable for us to grasp.

Machine imagination is also collectivity. It fuses intelligence and imagination from different entities including but not limited to humans. Similar to the process of alchemy, a recipe of different proportions of different ingredients are mixed together in a certain order, and machine imagination acts as the catalyst/agent in-between. Despite the many criticisms of machine learning, specifically generative adversarial network (GAN)’s analogy to alchemy, I do think this is exactly why machine imagination has the ability to traverse different ontologies and entities. With input of image, text, sound, video datasets of human, animal, plant, bacteria, virus, non-living entities, and even extra-terrestrial beings, machine imagines and connects them altogether into a matrix while treating each of them equivalently as individual and heterogenous data point. Machine becomes the alchemist container where entities collide and imagine collectively. Instead of machine intelligence and imagination, I would like to call this collective intelligence and imagination. Together we find a way out of the confined lines and into the in-between space where connectivity and affinity prevail.

Referencing Bernard Rudolfsky, Yona Friedman, and Constant’s models of ‘architecture without architect, plan without planners, design without designer,’ I am experimenting with the possibilities of collective imagination among different entities through the process of GAN training. What if humans are not the sole decision maker for the built environment? What if we invite other entities such as lichens to imagine together? Compared to humans, these other entities know much more about collectivity, connectivity, and affection. Can this be a way to disrupt and reimagine the current world model (in which generalization, individualism, and stinginess prevail)? A series of GAN training was conducted using datasets of modernist architectural plan diagrams, images of lichens, and images of human face. 

These datasets function on both the visual and metaphorical level. In a stereotypical architectural design process, the first step is to develop some schemes in the form of plan diagrams. So here in this StyleGAN training process, I first brought in datasets of grid-based plan diagrams to symbolize the stereotypical way of spatial planning and ordering, then the datasets of human faces to symbolize architect’s agency, and finally the datasets of lichen images to symbolize the possibility of subversion and intrusion of the set order. The training result is a new kind of human-plan-lichen compound network that provokes questions. What if the spatial order and the building of infrastructure begin with these compounded plans? Can we construct a possible parallel world where human, machine, architecture, living, and non-living entities dream and imagine together? This project is meant to ask more than answer.