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Lucy McRae is a one-of-a-kind artist. Her work is on the edge between art and science, which has made her become a body architect. After many years of thinking outside the box and of finding what happens when one is not in his or her comfort zone, McRae has become one of the most important names when it comes to explain how science will affect our everyday lives in a near future. Transcending her work and limitations has made her collaborate with internationally renowned organizations such as NASA, TED Talks, Harvard and MIT. We talk with her about what does it mean to be human and how will this definition look like in the near future.
What made you change your whole career, from being a fashion and interior designer to switching into science applied to the body?
I don’t think it was a swing of perspective, I don’t think I aimed to do something. I studied interior design but I was very interested in architecture, and it’s through the people that I’ve met and that I have come in contact with that I really defined what I do. I also think it has something to do with being open and mobile; relocating from London to Eindhoven, to Amsterdam, then back to London, via the United States. There are contributing factors but I would have never imagined that I would be calling myself a body architect. I’ve learnt that when I exchange familiarity for getting out of my comfort zone, things become far greater and go beyond what I originally set out to do.
Maybe you also transcended yourself, in a way? As you said, getting out of your comfort zone?
Maybe. I haven’t thought about it like that, but it could be seen like this. Applying for the job at Philips was really off the scale in terms of my skills, it definitely was out of my perimeter of comfort. I would be going in during daytime, and at night I would go home and study the stuff we were talking about during the day. Then I’d go in the next day and leave with a whole list of other things to study at night when getting home again. The position at Philips was unique. We were exploring emotional sensing and how the development of sensitive technologies might yield new businesses for a consumer electronics company.

There is a certain fear, a dystopian view of technology, in the sense that it cannot be applied to the human body because, then, we’ll lose ourselves. How would you defend the fact that technology can be applied to the body in a liquid form and make ourselves better?
To use the swallowable perfume as an example, by telling the right stories you can create worlds that people believe in. When you put a story, film or book out into the world, you hand over the narrative and the way it will be interpreted; anything that comes back is out of the author’s control. I discovered that portraying a world where you swallow technologies could change the lives of people who suffer from a medical condition called hyperhidrosis (a compulsive sweating disorder). There is no way I could have known about that condition before.
Fiction and entertainment are able to do so. It opens up the doors to innovation in a very different way than just by sitting down and saying: right, I’m gonna design something that is gonna change someone’s life. Where do you even start? When technology makes someone’s life better, there is no question. I think it’s about finding the right applications for it.
I was amazed by the project you did with NASA, the Future Day Spa. How was working with NASA? It’s kind of the dream for a lot of people.
I, totally out of my comfort zone again, went to see a TED Talk from an economist called Alex McDonald from NASA. I am a TED Fellow and am getting more used to meeting people that are changing the world. On that conference, he explained that we went to space because three people told stories about leaving Earth, and it was these stories that set the wheels in motion and seeded the idea and momentum to start doing research. After meeting Alex, I followed up with some crazy absurd experiments, which led to the creation of the Future Day Spa, a guided experience that replicates the feeling of being hugged. Audiences temporarily hand their bodies over to a part-human, part-machine process that induces the body into a state of relaxation.
Guided by a therapist, participants enter a clean room and lay down underneath a pressurised sheet, as a controlled vacuum is applied to the entire body. Biometric technologies are integrated into each treatment capturing physiological changes of the body. Clients review the depth of their relaxation and how are they compared to previous visitors. The emotional changes brought on by restricted movement places this work in the ‘market of pleasure’. But could new kinds of isolation be developed to treat spectrums of autism? Whether it’s ridding hangovers or treating social isolation, transcending people has great value.

Do you think the Swallowable Perfume, for example, or other projects that could be more feasible in a short-term future, have a market?
Absolutely! For example, baby food and other technologies we use every day have been invented as a result of space exploration. You could speculate that the Swallowable Perfume or the concept of a mating fragrance (changing the way people emit body odour) could steer/change human instinct or the way we communicate with our sexual partners. I believe in the human potential and in how smart we are. We are already swallowing technology. If science and biology continue to converse with the creative, art and design worlds, we will bring more magic to the future faster. Also, disrupting markets is fascinating. Elon Musk is seriously disrupting the space, car and transport businesses, and it’s positive. He’s aggressive with his missions.

I was thinking about the wearables and all these technologies you can apply to your body, in particular, the ones focused on ageing. How can technology and science really make a change and not just produce another cream that is similar to the previous one?
CRISPR technology allows us to remove faulty DNA and replace it with corrected DNA. Simply put, we could remove all cells and replace them with new ones, which means you can regenerate (and then not die). Is that what we want? I’m not sure I want to live for a hundred and fifty years… I was invited to speak at the End of Ageing conference at the London Science Museum alongside Steve Coogan, Daisy Robinton – a philosopher – and smart doctor Dr Jack. Will we ever end ageing? There is a lot of effort going into this conversation and to technology. It’s both scary and exciting.
What do you think is the limit to all of this? When do we know we’re pushing too hard, for example, our age or our health?
That’s a great question. I think it’s an ethical question that requires the points of view of as many diverse thinkers and beings there are; whether it’s the butcher down the road, or the farmer in the very, very far depths of the Nordic countryside. That’s why I think it is so important for art to reach the fringes, making science familiar, whether it’s with a film, an art piece, design, or an app. Being able to communicate science and have people understand it will hopefully ensure that we don’t go too far, by everyone having their say.
By talking to you, it is clear that science can be applied to every field possible.
I was in a conversation with two scientists that set up a genetic engineering lab that’s open to the public. We were talking about when is it enough, the ethics of it. The scientists said working with designers help communicate what they were trying to do in a deeper way that he could have ever imagined. I was in Boston in May talking at a conference with MIT and Harvard; a comment from the mostly science­y audience was: “I understand what you’re saying that we, as scientists, have to learn how to communicate our ideas, but I’m really scared that what I’m trying to say doesn’t come through, that my idea or invention is communicated the wrong way”.
That’s when trust comes in. It’s like falling in love: you have no control over it. An astronaut described love as putting your hand out of the shuttle and not being able to see the end of your arm. That’s what scientists need to do: put their arm out in space and trust that the artist or the designer is going to communicate their ideas in a true way. If they breed the creative process in the scientific process, then the communication will be true to the idea.

“Being able to communicate science and have people understand it will hopefully ensure that we don’t go too far, by everyone having their say.”
Do you think some of your projects are inspired by dreams? Where does your inspiration come from?
Sometimes I write down dreams, but having a shower is when ideas percolate unexpectedly.
Do you think you’ve found answers to open questions? For example, what is it to be human?
I don’t think I’ve answered any questions, I think I’ve asked even more. Someone said that it’s really important to ask the right questions. You can ask, but if they’re not the right ones they don’t really have any impact. I would say that, possibly, what makes us human today could be very different next week. I think it’s about being able to mutate, to have a malleable answer to these questions, and being able to adapt. Things are changing so quickly.
I really like a quote from Danny Hillis, an inventor, in Herzog’s film Lo and Behold: “We are going to have a revolution in the definition of what it means to be human”. It means that we are really seriously changing. This gets me very excited because from there you can start asking what it means. I guess the hope is that you pass ideas onto younger generations who bring their unique experiences and thoughts too. My experience of the world will be different from theirs, to yours, to the generations ahead. These questions are going to keep changing.

Irene Ramón

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