Lucy McRae: Body Architect

Arts, Technology

Lucy McRae is fascinated about the relationship between humans and technology and through her art, filmmaking and work with institutions like NASA and MIT explores how science is slowly reconstructing our body and what that means for our future existence.

Nikki Stefanoff: It’s so hard to describe your work in one easy sentence, which is why it’s so fantastic, but how do you explain what you do to the person on the street?
Lucy McRae: I recently met this really interesting woman at Art Basel in Miami and I thought she was a neuroscientist because we spent a lot of time talking about the brain and very interesting brain technologies. After a while I asked her what she did and she replied: “I’m a strategist and I find people’s blind spots.” And I thought: Oh, ok, now she’s even more interesting! It turned out that she did it for companies like Cirque du Soleil and Bitcoin and when she walked away from our group we were all saying to each other: “Oh my God, who is that woman?” And then someone said something I found interesting, he said: “What she’s really good at is gauging who her audience is and answering her questions based on what we need to know.”

So, to answer that question, I would say that I do the same. I tend to work out who my audience is and then [when they ask what I do] say that I am an ‘artist’ or a ‘filmmaker’ and if I feel that people can tolerate a bit more complexity then I go into the fact that I’m a body architect, and work with institutes like MIT and NASA to look at how science is slowly reconstructing our body.

But you started as a classically trained ballerina! How have you gone from this to working with institutes like NASA and MIT?
It happened over around a period of nine years.I think that each step came from being really curious about something but not really knowing how I was going to get to the next point. So, I think that all the steps I took have been crucial and all those crucial moments have been related to meeting the right people at the right time. I was always searching and looking for answers and I always agreed to do things that I was totally unskilled at! I had a lack of experience but I was willing to do them anyway.

Nikki Stefanoff in conversation with Lucy McRae
Photos by Lotje Sodderland and Julian Love
This interview has been edited. The full interview can be seen in issue 1.
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'I was always searching and looking for answers and I always agreed to do things that I was totally unskilled at! I had a lack of experience but I was willing to do them anyway.'


You talk of the feminine point of view when it comes to the creation of emerging technology – how would you define a feminine point of view?
The feminine for me comes through in the process of being messy or visceral about a future that’s kind of fleshy and familiar. So maybe it’s not feminine in the stereotypical way we think of something being feminine, but more about the approach emerging technology takes – for example, I will often talk about technology being visceral and elastic, hands-on and experimental.

What was the first project where you combined your love of art with technology?
I don’t think there was one definitive moment but the Swallowable Parfum project was a big step for me as an independent artist. The creation of the Swallowable Parfum was for various reasons – I was interested in what happens when technology shrinks in size, to become the size of a blood cell, and if we eat it does the body become technology? I also wanted to innovate on a traditional product, the perfume bottle, by impregnating a pill with colour [so that once ingested] we would sweat out cosmetics and biologically enhance our body odour to see if it would change the way we seek out sexual partners.

You’re a real storyteller, which is such an ancient form, yet the way you’re using the medium couldn’t be more futuristic. How do you approach the combination of the two?
I think that if I look at my earlier work it’s been about using familiar [everyday] objects but talking about them in a way that’s more complex, so, like with [short film] Make Your Maker I was talking about cloning the body in order to enhance our experience of the world [and then] turning the body into a food item and eating yourself. I don’t know if that answers the question but I think that a lot of things happen subconsciously and you’re making decisions but you don’t really know why. It just comes out of you.

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Your work focuses on the interface between technology and the human body but how do you see this work as helping to prepare us for the future?
I think if you can imagine a landscape, a colour or a world then you can imagine inhabiting that world. So, by telling stories about what it might be like to inhabit space or life in the vacuum of weightlessness through words or visuals then everyone can step closer into that existence.

Can you talk about the work you did with NASA?
I had met an economist from NASA who, at the time, told me that NASA was concerned about the complications in growing a fetus in zero gravity. For me, it crystalised an interest in space travel and I dedicated the next four years of my art practice to understanding the implication weightlessness has on the body. That one very random encounter opened up a dialogue with NASA’s emerging space portal and I visited them in San Francisco to talk about the fact that we don’t know how we will continue the human species off Earth because no-one has had a baby in space.

What does our future look like, Lucy?
I think that we are at a point now where a lot of redefinition is required and so original constructs about what we think of as gender or identity or what relationships and a sense of home mean to us is all up for grabs. I’ve talked before about the concept of the fourth industrial revolution, which promises a future of combinations where we will see no difference between what is physical, biological or digital and so it will all be a mishmash of, essentially, body augmentation.

What does your future look like?
Basically the fourth industrial revolution! A combination of weird hybrids. I think for me I am continually steered by my curiosity. So, right now I can’t tell you as it’s all a work in progress and I’m just gravitating towards it.


‘...with [my short film] Make Your Maker I was talking about cloning the body in order to enhance our experience of the world [and then] turning the body into a food item and eating yourself.’

Nikki Stefanoff is editor of Matters Journal. After spending 13 years editing and writing for newspapers and magazines in London, Nikki now uses her journalism background and love of a good chat to find powerful and meaningful stories to tell.