Science fiction artist Lucy McRae on relation between technology and humans

STIR takes a deeper look at body architect Lucy McRae’s speculative work on the future of human existence by exploring the limits of the human body, biotech and the self.

by Devanshi Shah Published on : Sep 11, 2020

Our everyday lives have become increasingly intertwined into larger systems we no longer see, like Big Data. We have willingly sequestered our rights to various aspects of who we are, our decisions and how we interact socially. At this time it seems like we are living in the “near future” postulations written by the science fiction writers of the early 1960s. It is important to note that a lot of these discussions tend to be restricted by our present. Speculation should go beyond that, and really analyse aspects of human behaviour and what evolution might look like in these imagined futures. As we continue to dream about living on Mars and enhancing anthropomorphic technologies, have we paused to wonder if we are prepared emotionally to deal with these changes, or the evolutionary changes we may encounter on our own bodies based on the technological changes we are craving? Science fiction artist, filmmaker and body architect, Lucy McRae’s work addresses these gaps of neglected concepts. In a candid conversation with STIR, McRae elaborates on her work and process. Set in a near future reality, and supported by a rigorous research process, each art and design installation goes beyond a mere aesthetics, but rather as a prototype for the future. Prompting the artist to lament, “what is art and what is entrepreneurial speculation?''

Lucy McRae’s Solitary Survival Raft opened on August 27 at Real Feelings – Hek, Basel | Lucy McRae | STIRworld
Lucy McRae’s Solitary Survival Raft opened on August 27 at Real Feelings – Hek, Basel Image: Courtesy of Ariel Fisher

Space

McRae’s work creates a very intimate exchange between the body and the spaces it occupies. One could potentially attribute this to her past, as a classically trained ballerina, with a degree in interior design. In her 2016 project titled The Institute of Isolation, McRae created a fictional research and training ground, portraying alternative methods to condition and alter fundamental aspects of the human body. While the film actually looks at the body, it conveys information about the space it occupies. The sensory chambers are imagined as a way of affecting human biology, this is a notion we are familiar with, with states like “a clear desk, leads to a clear mind”.  Here the artist takes this idea, and postulates the impact of space on the human body, on an evolutionary scale.

The Institute of Isolation is a fictional research and training ground, portraying alternative methods to condition and alter fundamental aspects of the human body | The Institute of Isolation | Lucy McRae | STIRworld
Lucy McRae, writer, director, producer England born 1979, arrived Australia in 1979, lived in England and the Netherlands 2001-19, United States 2019 / Lotje Sodderland, co-writer and cinematographer French born 1977. The Institute of Isolation 2016 still from colour digital video, co-commissioning agents Ars Electronica, Linz and Sparks, Brussels Image: Courtesy of the artist and the National Gallery of Victoria

McRae’s ideas while seem complicated, evolve from an understanding of how to connect narratives. Relying on what the artist referred to as ‘a knowingness of the materials’, more people can relate to these concepts. One of the ways she does so is with the materials she uses. She elaborates further, “I take familiar everyday objects and materials. For me it is interesting to transform them and take them to another place than they were. By doing that the familiarity allows everybody to touch or feel the story”. Another interesting spatial exploration is, the Future Day Spa. An experiential installation, the work invited participants, or clients, to enter a clean room to receive a treatment to induce relaxation. Here the experience is completely removed from the space. A therapist guides you to lay down underneath a pressurised sheet, as a controlled vacuum is applied to the entire body. To be vacuum sealed, with restricted movement while in a clear box, there is a hyper realisation of how much space we inhabit, and the bare minimum we could potentially inhabit. The work had very interesting results, with people claiming it helped them with their hangover, and helped relieve the fears of an individual with haphephobia; a fear of being touched. It is an intriguing outcome with real-life applications. It also makes one contemplate why deprivation of space and movement were able to affect biological phenomenon.

03 mins watch The Future Day Spa - an experiential installation, the work invited participants or clients to enter a clean room to receive a treatment to induce relaxation | The Future Day Spa by Lucy McRae | STIRworld
The Future Day Spa - an experiential installation, the work invited participants or clients to enter a clean room to receive a treatment to induce relaxation Video: Courtesy of the artist

Body

While the term body architect has become part of the contemporary design lexicon, when McRae first started using it in 2006, it came from a place of best describing her abilities, training and experience while not falling into the traps of professional labelling. One of the key ideas that encompasses all of McRae’s work is her experiments in trying to decrypt the human body. Speaking about her past, the artist says, “My investigation of technology through the lens of art was brought to my own attention when I was working at Philips Futurelab, a far future design research program called The Probes. We were looking at whether you could sense emotions, way back in 2006, through design. Here we created an electronic tattoo which could embed technology under your skin, and through touch an image would appear. The way we would pair technologies and stories, this is where you see, learn and discover how to tap into very subtle signals of culture”.

Bubbelle, experiment in decrypting the human body | Lucy McRae | STIRworld
Bubbelle, experiment in decrypting the human body Image: Daniel Sannwald

In the project titled Make Your Maker, McRae explores the relationship between food and the body. What starts out as a futuristic bakery, is soon revealed to be a recipe of a very different kind. As absurd as it may seem to assemble a body in a kitchen, the true intrigue comes from the act of consumption of the assembled body. The idea explored here is being able to manipulate genetic material based on what we eat. In the case of Make Your Maker, it is the ability to customise personal enhancements by first building it yourself, and then consuming it. It speaks not only to the mass production of food, but also to the characteristics one values when creating their ideal traits. While in this project it is the maker consuming themselves, there is a compelling argument to be made regarding which body we are talking about. McRae summarised, “Is it a gendered body? We speak to the body in terms of calling it a name or a label, we are now moving much further away from black and white labels to hybrid mutating unfixed forms of humanity”.

03 mins watch Make Your Maker explores the relationship between consuming food and the body | Make Your Maker by Lucy McRae | STIRworld
Make Your Maker explores the relationship between consuming food and the body Video: Courtesy of the artist

Skin

The research does not end at the body. McRae further breaks down her postulation beyond the human body, by exploring a very detailed take on what happens to the human skin as it continues to evolve. Going so far as to prototyping how the human skin would react to environmental changes. In a series of photographs McRae and her collaborator Bart Hess explore possible future silhouettes of the human body itself. Generated from speculations of human evolution these modulated forms are meant to indicate ecological skins. The staging of these images illustrate a deep understanding of motion and use the human body as a unit of design.

Click here to take a virtual tour of the exhibition Lucy McRae: Body Architect featured at the National Gallery of Victoria.

With the Swallowable Parfum, McRae transforms the human body into a product. Filmed as an advertisement, it announces a new pill that has the ability to change the scent of human sweat. One rarely thinks of sweat as a part of the human skin yet when it becomes a sellable product, with measurable value, it completely transforms how one views the human skin. The pill one sees in the edible perfume advert is in fact jelly. By using this what the artist has done is allowed anyone viewing the film to feel the pill and reach into their own memory of experiencing the consumption of it. In doing so she also grounds the work allowing spectators to engage in a work that discusses genetics and biochemistry.

01 min watch Swallowable Parfum transforms the human body into a product | Swallowable Parfum by Lucy McRae | STIRworld
Swallowable Parfum transforms the human body into a product Video: Courtesy of the artist

McRae’s latest work has great significance in contemporary discussions. Highlighting the importance of skin to skin contact, and the lack of it leading to a “touch crisis'', seems especially significant now. This thesis, however predates our current situation, it was researched and executed in December 2019. The project titled, Future Survival Kit, is conceptualised as part of a post-apocalyptic sherpa’s belongings. The survival kit is designed as a means of comfort for a single person as they try to live in a world where companionships and physical relationships are missing or rare. In March 2020, when the pandemic hit, McRae, like most of us was in a shock trying to understand the situation, but she also encountered a crisis of identity. An art installation with six to seven years of research and experiments backing it had now manifested as a reality. This is where one really has to consider McRae's work and process as an act of prototyping as opposed to creating art.

The survival kit is designed as a means of comfort for a single person as they try to live in a world where physical relationships are missing or rare | Future Survival Kit | Lucy McRae | STIRworld
The survival kit is designed as a means of comfort for a single person as they try to live in a world where physical relationships are missing or rare Image: Credit: Ariel Fisher

While one looks at the titles associated with McRae's practice, it is very important to understand how she personally sees each of them. Speaking specifically to being a science fiction artist, she clarifies, “What I am interested in is breaking down and assessing the tropes of science fiction. I have said it in the past, it is due and I want to give science fiction a sex change. My natural affinity to not want to look at what other people are doing takes me to the edge of, and makes me an outsider to popular sci-fi.” It is in exploring these chasms and cracks of popular speculation that Lucy McRae finds her artwork resulting in real word applications.

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