Moving Beyond The Body
Trained as a classical ballet dancer, Lucy McRae knows a thing or two about pushing the human physique to its limits. A self-proclaimed body architect from Australia, McRae revels in challenging our preconceived notions about our relationship with technology.
Giving birth in space? Swallowable perfume? Emotion sensing clothing? How about pleasure-zapping architecture? These are all things McRae spends her time dreaming up and has even managed to build.
Talking to Lucy, we get a sense of subtle impatience, perhaps a frustration with how slowly technology in the present day is moving, and eagerly anticipating the possibilities of the future. Having worked alongside N.A.S.A., music pop star Robyn and brands including Aēsop, McRae operates at a very eclectic intersection. In essence, she is trying to lead us to a future that we all might be embracing sooner than we think.
Let’s start with science fiction and how you feel it will start merging with everyday life?
I’ve been saying this for quite some time – the gap between science fiction and reality is shrinking and that’s based on the growth of technology. That technology is now able to render imagination so much faster, and because this is happening exponentially, Science Fiction narratives are becoming our life.
We almost romanticise technologies such as CRISPR, nanotechnology, precision medicine and so on, but none of those seem like an actual reality right now? We still drink coffee. We still use our own two feet for everything. Do you know what I mean?
I think that there always needs to be the presence of imagination, even when we have cured everything, though that will never happen. In 2006, I was leading a team of engineers, product designers, fashion designers, at Philips Design in their Far Future Design Research Lab, and I came on as a body architect to develop wearable technologies around stroke patients. As a side project, we were creating shivering textiles and blushing textiles, innovation and art for Philips as a kind of marketing tool. This was wearable technology as it was in 2006.
I dislike the term ‘wearable technology’ because after 10 years nothing has happened in my opinion. It hasn’t flooded the market as you are talking about, in terms of science fiction and reality.
Google Glass is another example.
Yeah. I guess that’s an example of that gap that maybe is always going to be there. However, I think we need time to have that narrative about whether we want it or not; about whether CRISPR will change the evolution of generations to come. There are massive ethical questions around that, that need to be had before it’s available on the shelf.
I think what’s really interesting is that you use art as a cultural a tool to ignite these very powerful discussions around technology.
Unfortunately I feel as though we have these kind of intellectual bubbles that we ‘silo’ ourselves in. So, how do we make wider society engage in these discussions?
To be honest I’m not sure, but I definitely know I want to ask more questions and provoke everybody to have a conversation about what happens when we exit Earth and colonise new planets. How do we reproduce in interstellar.
I started having conversations with different people and one of them was with a space biologist and she went through what they’ve done so far with fish, frogs, and mice. I think that’s all they’ve done. So I said, “What are the next steps? How are we going to be able to procreate in space?” And she said, “We just have to move our way up the animal kingdom and then start experimenting on humans.” But if Elon Musk is going to commercialise space travel and we are going to be colonising Mars and circulating Jupiter now, then who’s taking care of humanity? And the kind of evolution of that?
I am extremely curious about the future of evolution and how our bodies, our skeletal system, our nervous system, our cognition, our consciousness, needs to change or will evolve in order to live within the scenario like space. What can we learn? How will that examination of future scenarios improve health and our lifestyles on Earth?
There’s an inherent femininity in what you do, which I love, and that you seem to embrace. I can’t imagine a man making a swallow-able perfume, or talking about making babies in space. All these incredible projects that you are hinting at seem to come from a matriarchal, nurturing narrative. Would you agree with that?
I understand what you’re saying. My process is extremely primal and intuitive, and I would say that’s based on being a ballerina for 14 years and navigating the world with my body. So, I guess that’s something that’s always been there. I’m very interested in the visceral-ness of life, and transformation. I react really well when things change dramatically, and I think that’s my interest in looking at the psychological responses to extreme experiences.
I was doing a lot of reading into Red Bull’s Human Performance Lab. They did a project where they sent four elite athletes for 10 days under the most extreme conditions. They mapped the brains of the athletes before they went and again 10 days after and found that the resilience of the human brain had changed. When they were faced with fear, by the end of it they reacted in such a different way. So what I’m really interested in is, as someone who naturally merges things that don’t normally go together, like pharmaceuticals and the luxury market, is creating experiences that are improving and positively shifting human resilience. If I look at the design of buildings from an architectural point of view, or if I look at the design of a vaccine from a physics and a medical point of view, could I look at isolation from both of those points of view and design isolation as I would a building or a vaccination?
"The smartest people who have studied all the right subjects, are allowed to go [to space], but the people who don’t have the backgrounds, like genetics, mathematics, physics and sciences, don't get to go – and if we are colonising new planets, then the point of view needs to come from the masses."
Lucy McRae on the future of space travel
How does it feel to be working in such a male dominated environment?
I think I had a really good rearing when I was at Philips. For a lot of the time it was myself and a group of men. I did that for four years. At one point I would wear a baseball cap, men’s trousers and men’s deodorant, and that was the way that I entered the building because it was my way of dealing with a very dominant male energy. That was 10 years ago, but I think that really helped.
I completely understand this conversation and for some people it’s a very big movement. In Sweden, I’ve been at a couple of conferences where we’ve had the Equality Governor come and I think Sweden is really interesting when it comes to leadership.
I also came from a background in architecture, which is predominantly masculine, and was the one single female person on a jury at the Biennale a long time ago, so I have been used to it. But it’s not a hurdle for me. I don’t see it as a problem.
So is your work more closely linked to architecture than anything else?
Well, it’s about designing something that potentially could change the patterns of the brain. I think that having worked with Lotje, who had a triple brain haemmorage four years ago, cognition and consciousness has been on the top of our conversations for the last four years and we are at the beginning of understanding anything about the brain.
"What I’m really interested in is [...] creating experiences that are improving, positively shifting, human resilience."
Lucy McRae on the future of human design
I’m really fascinated by where you came from. You said that you spent 14 years as a dancer. Where did you grow up? And how did you find yourself as a body architect?
I was training basic ballet from the age of four, but then was doing hard core ballet up until the age of 17. Then when I wasn’t doing ballet, I was doing 100m hurdles, so I was always pushing my body to the limits.
How did the intense exploration these exercises prepare you for what you do now?
I’ve been thinking about this for a while; the similarity between the creative process and the athletic process. I am extremely interested in the Tour de France, the Olympics and their processes of training and how we can relate that to the creative process of training.
To my very little understanding, it is like you can train a body to the point where many bodies are at the same level, but then the mind takes over and the person who is going to win that race is the one who has the strongest, most present mind. If you link that to the creative process, we can all work for the same amount of hours, we can use our hands in the same way, but then it’s a combination of mind and imagination.
I feel like you work really within the nexus of exploration of the body but also the magic of the body. The unforeseen potential right?
I am very interested in human adaptability and human performance. The swallow-able perfume was suggesting that the human body, the skin, could produce its own scent. So we became part of the luxury market by becoming an atomiser and being able to emit your own fragrance.
What I’m really interested in is creating new definitions, for example redefining what we know as skin. Why can’t skin be something else? That was very much coming from the work that I did at Philips, thinking about technology not as something that was on or off, or low or high, but it was a field. Maybe it was on or off, maybe it was tangible, or maybe we couldn’t see it.
The project that I’m doing now is a film about my wish to go to space. I have been training to be an astronaut.
There’s a whole other narrative that’s connected to that, which is very much to do with genetics and intelligence. The smartest people who have studied all the right subjects are allowed to go [to space]. But what if the people who don’t have that background in genetics, mathematics, physics and sciences, get to go? If we are colonising new planets, then the point of view needs to come from the masses. Not from those binary thinkers but more of a tunnel vision.
We spoke to a scientist called Chris Impey, who released a book about how we are going to colonise Mars. One of the things he said is that colonisation is in our genes, and that the primal instinct to go and explore new planets is part of our DNA. Do you agree with that?
I couldn’t agree more. It’s really interesting.
I sense that nature has a really pivotal role in the work that you do. I think it goes right back to your work at Philips, because a lot of the R&D centres actually look to nature for answers right?
I use nature as a way of living. Whether it’s listening to the wind when I walk, or being in spaces of silence. It’s almost like my body is processing it. I kind of take it in and process it, and then the work that I put out is an expression of how I integrate myself with nature. I’m hugely inspired by science, and for me science and nature are synonymous.
You work so much with the body and the unforeseen future of it’s potential. 90% of it might not come true but at least you’re asking the questions. So, what are the questions we haven’t asked yet?
Well I think there’s a big discussion to have around consciousness in the body and science fiction. Using far out concepts to better understand consciousness.
I also have a massive interest in the conversation around the brain and architecture. How will what we learn about the brain change how we educate people in architecture? If you can send a laser beam to the brain and trigger pleasure or erase memory, what does that mean to being in a building in the future?
What do you mean?
So, if I can send a laser beam to your brain and trigger pleasure, I could create an environment where you come in and the room is a certain design, shape. I can trigger a light and then you are pleasured straight away by the design of that light; by the space that you’re in.
"If I can send a laser beam to your brain and trigger pleasure, I could create an environment where [...] you are pleasured straight away by the design of that light; by the space that you’re in."
Lucy McRae on architecture merging with biology
So, it’s almost like the building takes on a physiology or a metamorphosis?
Yeah. Or the building drives physiology and is able to change behaviour and emotion. And that then changes the way that we educate students, because then we’re not only teaching them about architecture, mathematics, building code, we’re talking about. . . what are we talking about?
A soul code?
Yeah, it becomes science and biotechnology and physiology.
So, you’re talking about interdisciplinary discourse, really?
Well, not just merging things that will happen, but creating provocations around how they might pan out. I learnt this at Philips. It was definitely the foundation of it.
Learnt the provocation at Philips?
The methodology of layering two different trends so that you can start to understand where technology will evolve.
When I was studying your work, I sensed a lot of ego.
Not in a bad way, but in a sense that it seems you’re very impatient. You want the future now even if you have to die for it.
I don’t think I want the future now. I want to understand that, when it’s here, when it comes, that we’ve thought about all the options that could possibly happen and that we’re ready for it. And that it’s not just been decided by one type of mind but that everyone’s allowed to have a point of view.
It’s what they used to call a democracy.
That’s what I was just about to say.
All original images by Timo Wirsching
Listening to Dev Hynes at the moment. I saw him a couple of nights ago and he was phenomenal. An incredible man.
Written in a language that nobody understands and that nobody has been able to decode, and he suggests alternate worlds of flora, fauna, how rainbows were created, and how we have sex and turn into crocodiles. It’s brilliant.