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The incu-dater
Courtesy of Tigris Li

What if we used science to hack our love lives?

Ahead of the release of her Data Romantics book and exhibition, creative technologist Tigris Li talks hormones, pheromones and putting the data in dating

Romcoms are one of our first entry points into the touchstones of relationships: meet-cutes, rain kisses and tearful confessionals introduce us to an idealised, high-saturation vision of love. Tigris Li, a creative technologist and graphic designer, was obsessed with romantic comedies when she was younger, immersing herself in their stories and riding out the emotional turmoil, with the comfort of knowing that a nice, neat ending was around the corner.

Real-life, as we know, is not like the movies. But what if we could hack our feelings to create a fairytale narrative; our very own Julia Styles and Heath Ledger moment? A new book and exhibition by Li, Data Romantics, aims to “rethink the ‘human experience’ of dating” and apply data-driven science to it. “I was questioning and investigating the concept of love – what makes people fall in love? I think science and relationships go hand in hand: what are the elements that create these intimate bonds?” she says.

Growing up as a professional athlete, dating simply wasn’t on the cards for Li – another reason why she would indulge in the feature-length feelgood fantasies. Born in Montréal, she competed as a national figure skater until a series of injuries forced her to give up twirling on ice and she turned to Minecraft YouTubing to millions of streamers. Now based in London, the CSM graduate works on 3D animated fashion campaigns for the likes of Selfridges and Christopher Kane, while exploring future technologies with a creative, real-life lens.

Our love lives are now more guided by data and algorithms than ever, with the apps in our pockets supposedly able to find our ‘perfect match’ from a throng of potential suitors. “But when it comes to people, love and emotions – they’re not factors that can be quantified or ever reduced to encoded numbers,” says Li. Looking into the science behind lust, attraction and attachment, Li “discovered a cluster of hormones – dopamine, oxytocin and a few others. I realised that hormones are both the uncontrollable and unexplained complication to something I call the ‘equation of love’.”

Li’s work approaches love using tech’s pillars of efficiency, compatibility, and productivity, and Data Romantics compiles various projects of hers, including an experimental dating lab (‘the incu-dater’), a map detailing emotional increments in relationships, tarot cards, and a dating diary where Li lists her various rendezvous over five years (noting locations and observations like ‘drinks at Zédel’ and ‘all I know about him is that he drove a Mercedes’). It’s an exercise in pattern-spotting, as well as an appeal to our general nosiness.

Aptly, the book is being published on Valentine’s Day and arrives alongside an exhibition at 180 The Strand’s Reference Point library. The show will host interactive installations plus genderless speed dating nights, a workshop with open-source hardware platform Arduino where attendees can create custom digital love screen letters, a panel discussion on love, tech and sex with people from Queering AI, and “LUV L3TT3RS”, a love letter reading and writing event hosted by (h)ours (which you can sign up for here).

A human-sized box constructed by Li, the incu-dater is a theoretical installation that wonders whether, in the future, we will be prescribed oxytocin (the ‘love hormone’) to resolve emotional imbalances. It invites two partners to input and share emotional data: how much love, happiness, sadness, anger, and disappointment they feel towards one another. This then gets processed through an algorithm that evaluates the status quo of their relationship, and prescribes a dosage of oxytocin needed, if any, to mend any emotional shortcomings. Couples are then given the choice to either take the dose, or walk away and take matters into their own hands. Its purpose, Li says, is “not only to exercise one’s emotional intelligence, particularly towards a partner but to embody the ‘unreliable narrator’ where the audience is encouraged to question the premise and ethics of the installation. Allowing them to draw their own conclusions on an alternative reality we may be heading towards.”

How scent and pheromones come into play within dating is another topic that Data Romantics looks at. “Our olfactory senses are quite incredible and complex,” Li explains. “Unlike our other senses (touch, sight, and hearing), our ability to smell – which houses the olfactory bulb – has a direct connection to two areas in the brain. The first is the amygdala, which regulates our emotions; and the hippocampus, which manages our memories. Typically, our other senses are routed through the thalamus, which essentially acts as a ‘processor’ of information; scent is the only one that bypasses it, so there is an immediate and intimate connection between emotions, memories and scents.”

Pheromones, she explains, are the chemical messengers detected by smell and naturally secreted through our sweat and saliva. “Although it’s not scientifically proven, they are said to have the ability to trigger a social response and impact the behaviour of a receiving individual,” Li says. “Scent is an unconscious communicator that can influence our psychological and physiological state, and it plays a huge factor in attraction which is why perfumes have a strong association with love. Smell, emotions and sexual response are all processed in the same area of the brain so in many ways, we can say that perfumes are like our real-life love potions.”

With tech hacking into multiple areas of our lives – and the metaverse promising real sexual experiences in the near future – it’s unsurprising that people are looking to use new technologies to streamline our personal lives, but Li acknowledges the danger of playing around with these concepts. “Love as a concept is so vast and so interesting because it’s more than a romantic phenomenon,” Li says. “People do the craziest things for love, because of love, and when they’re in love. If love becomes something we can artificially produce or stimulate, it would simply be that – artificial and disingenuous. We already have parts of our lives on social platforms that are hidden with increments of deceit, [so] do we need that to trickle into our relationships?”

Tigris Li’s Data Romantics is published by Reference Press on February 14, and her exhibition is showing at Reference Point library from February 14 to 18. More information about the full programme of activities can be found here