Zhiqin Lu investigates love and sex through “AI porn” in her project Synthetic Eros

Zhiqin is a creative coder and designer exploring our relationship to algorithms and how they are impacting our social and cultural behaviours.


A fascination with technology guides much of the work in designer Zhiqin Lu’s (written 卢芷钦 in Chinese) graduate portfolio. Having studied graphic communication design at Central Saint Martins (CSM) in London, her works traverse the boundaries of several mediums but are first and foremost concerned with creative coding. It’s a proclivity that makes sense as Zhiqin (who often goes by Betty) previously studied for a degree in maths in Canada (where she moved aged 14, having spent her childhood in China), so her practice today appears to be an amalgamation of her creative and more pragmatic interests. As well as coding, she utilises the many diverse practices that fall under the graphic communication design umbrella including “moving image, narrative storytelling, information design, environmental and experience design.”


Zhiqin Lu: Synthetic Eros (Copyright © Zhiqin Lu, 2021)

Not just interested in working with technology, Zhiqin’s projects are also often about technology, as she explores our relationship to algorithms and how they are impacting our social and cultural behaviours. Her projects are varied in their output although her prolific use of technology often prescribes how her designs look. She’s also a staunch believer in experimentation, trusting your process and therefore allowing both to dictate aesthetic and conceptual decisions, something she says she learned from her tutors and peers at CSM. “Studying at CSM has always been exciting, surprising and a journey of discovery,” she says. “It is a place where everyone can explore their creative path without rules. I think my best memories of CSM are all the fascinating, expressive and creative souls I met there and the works they produced.” Continuing this thread of thought, she adds that her course in particular provided ample inspiration for her multidisciplinary practice, saying “the kids on the GCD course really challenge what graphic design means with their practices.”

Zhiqin finally points to her cultural background as shaping her creative thinking and visual instincts. “For example, I think Chinese is a beautiful language and love using it in my designs,” she tells us. What’s more, as someone who has lived in so many different countries, she always aims to “acknowledge how diverse people and cultures can be, hence becoming interested in the various social challenges that our generation is facing.” Having been based in London since 2016, Zhiqin is set to move to Oslo soon where she will be starting a new job (more about that later on), and so she imagines herself flitting between the UK and Norway in the near future. “It is safe to say that I move a lot and love wherever my work takes me,” she concludes.


Zhiqin Betty Lu: 1Dose(Copyright © Zhiqin Lu, 2019)

Zhiqin Lu: Synthetic Eros (Copyright © Zhiqin Lu, 2021)

It’s Nice That: Your work explores the “socio-cultural relationship between hard-to-talk-about taboos and algorithmic living” – what have you learned about the relationship between these two things from your ongoing investigation?

Zhiqin Lu: Yes, from three aspects. Firstly, we are more and more used to the benefits that new technology breakthroughs offer us, but not their impact on how we still experience taboos. These taboos, having existed for so long, start to migrate into our algorithmic living and require immediate reflection – for example, racial bias within artificial intelligence. Secondly, problems such as privacy and social feeding are certainly causing some fear for the algorithmic gaze. Lastly, algorithms can be a medium used to communicate and reflect taboos by inspecting a possible future that illustrates social problems. For my dissertation, Algorithmic Confrontation, I wrote about design representing a reflective contestation about socio-culture complications through the engagement of the computer as an information renderer.

INT: Your project Synthetic Eros embodies many of these themes. Talk us through its technical and conceptual elements, and how the two impact each other.

ZL: Synthetic Eros is a project in which the technical aspect is very much intertwined with the conceptual element. At its core, it challenges the lack of sex education in my childhood and my reflection on eros. Sex is a cultural taboo; I wasn’t exposed to proper sex education from school or my family growing up, and it is bizarre to me because we always find out somewhere else, and sometimes people make mistakes. I am inspired by the pre-Qin dynasty in ancient China and the Edo period in Japan, where erotic art flourished. I had a thought on how to revive eros in the current view which led me to decide to make what my friends call “AI porn”.

I used a type of machine learning model, GAN (generative adversarial network), to produce the moving images; I felt the artificial aspect of the GAN highlights a sense of absence and implies the work as a hypothetical fantasy. The data source I fed to the GAN consists of plants, landscape photos, abstract paintings and shunga paintings; no actual pornography was included in the dataset because it disrupts the haziness and ambiguousness of what makes it erotic.

“Creative coding allows me to explore concepts that are harder to achieve with traditional mediums.”

Zhiqin Lu

My understanding of eros was further influenced by the book The Agony of Eros. I also came across a 1967 work by Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton, Computer Nude (Studies in Perception I), it reminded me very much of censorship. The mix of curated UNICODEs partly conjuncts with Chinese erotic idioms in an attempt to test the limits of minimal information given to represent eros.

Lastly, I wanted to wrap all my experimentation into a sensory experiment for my audience because sex is the type of taboo that’s unarticulated by words. Vibration devices that react to the audience’s touch can make people feel the eros much more directly than hearing it or seeing it.

INT: If you had to pick a favourite project, which one are you most proud of and why?

ZL: My favourite solo project is Synthetic Eros, the most recent project and my final project at uni; it closed my chapter at CSM with bravery, experiments and fun. But of course, nothing beats a good team project, CSM Bloom, the identity for the 2021 graduate showcase at Central Saint Martins is another of my favourite projects, a collaboration with Tom Bugg, Jann Choy, Jessie Zhang and Max Zimmerer. I am very proud of the visuals and concept – we called out to the students and staff to contribute to the dataset which made up the identity. We asked them what “bloom” translates to in their mother tongues. Together, the identity learns and evolves from the diverse community and communicates the individual and collective growth with a generative cycle at its core.


Zhiqin Lu: Synthetic Eros (Copyright © Zhiqin Lu, 2021)

INT: Is there a certain avenue of design you’d like to focus on in the future? What’s your dream project or client?

ZL: I would love to explore this path of technology and conceptually driven works that communicate to younger audiences. Graphic design with a blend of digital interaction and experiential design is my primary focus. I recently got into physical computing and Arduino as well, so I am excited to produce more projects that bridge physical and digital realms. In terms of clients and collaborators, it would be a dream to work with people who are also interested in innovation and technology.

INT: What’s next for you?

ZL: I will be joining the independent design consultancy Bleed in Oslo as a designer and creative coder. I am super excited about the new journey!

Since winning D&AD New Blood and the CSM identity design competition, I have gone on to form a design collective with my colleagues and friends as Applied Logic. We will collectively and individually keep exploring technologically driven designs and are excited about any future collaborations.


Applied Logic: CSM Bloom (Copyright © Applied Logic, 2021)

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Zhiqin Lu: Synthetic Eros (Copyright © Zhiqin Lu, 2021)

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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