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Biometric Mirrorcourtesy of Lucy McRae

Lucy McRae combines art and science to probe the future of human existence

TextAlex Peters

From swallowable perfume to machines that prepare us for space and now a new mirror that analyses faces for attractiveness, body architect Lucy McRae’s art explores the way bodies are mediated by technology

What happens to the body when technology is enacted upon it? When it enters our body, when we start wearing it, when we start eating it? It’s a question that is becoming more relevant as we become increasingly intimate with technology, and our bodies are being constantly mediated by machines - what are AirPods, for example, if not aural implants? Absent of any wires they can sit in your ears all day, eliminating the seam between the body and the machine.

The boundaries are collapsing and it is these points of interface and instability that artist Lucy McRae is interested in. Part artist, part scientist, part futurist, McRae created the title “Body Architect” for herself as a way to encompass and communicate all the areas her work covers. From enhancing personal scent to increasing touch sensation, Lucy’s work uses technology in a way that heightens the physical bodily experience.

Growing up Lucy spent her time between the ballet barre and the running track, a training which informed her understanding of the body and its physical limits. Lucy combined this with her interested in science fiction, a mechanism she uses for understanding our place in the world and where we are headed, and now works with everyone from biologists to engineers to create her art.

For her most recent project, Lucy created Biometric Mirror as an immersive installation which analyses faces for attractiveness and emotional states, and asks people to question the implications of machine learning, algorithmic perfection, and the dangers they could have for our future.

We caught up with Lucy to find out more about her work, how the beauty industry can incorporate technology into their products, and the future of humanity.

Can you tell me a bit about the swallowable perfume?

Lucy McRae: The swallowable perfume is a collaboration between a synthetic biologist that was looking into smell and pheromone excretion. You know when someone’s on a date and lift up their arm they're actually releasing pheromones, kind of territorially marking their area. And on the other side of that is this certainty that technology is getting smaller and we’ll reach a point when it’s becomes a liquid, when it becomes edible. And so the perfume is a provocation around what happens when technology enters our body – what does it do after it enters our body, do we become the technology when we start eating it? And so swallowable perfume is a cosmetic pill that you eat and when you perspire you sweat your own biologically enhanced fragrance. And if you could impregnate that pill with colour then you sweat cosmetics which entirely disrupts the beauty market. I get very excited about that.         

There’s a lot of perfumes out there that say they enhance your smell and that it’s unique to your scent but this is really taking that to the extreme.

Lucy McRae: Yeah, no one would have the same excretion of fragrance apart from identical twins because of the way our DNA is structured. So it completely disrupts the beauty market because it’s a perfume that works from the inside out and there is no longer a perfume bottle - the body becomes the atomiser, the bottle, essentially. I think that the beauty industry, if they are smart enough, will start aligning themselves with the health and medical world because I truly believe that the beauty industry will become a healthcare and medical industry in the not too distant future.

You’ve spoken about trying to redefine the body as we know it. Can you talk a bit about what you mean by that?

Lucy McRae: If you take the swallowable perfume as an example, the body has never emitted fragrance before, so if we are able to swallow technology then that gives another program to human skin where we can produce a fragrance. So that’s essentially an example of redefining the body. I created a project called the Future Day Spa. Originally it was designed to prepare the body for space travel and that might be quite obscure but our body is not fundamentally designed to exit Earth. And as we’re seeing this space privatisation and Elon Musk’s mission to create the Ryanair from Earth to Mars, we need to start thinking about ‘how do we fundamentally change the design of our bodies to exist off earth?’

So I created the Future Day Spa in Los Angeles and we treated over a hundred people. On the last day, a client came in and you lay down underneath the pressurised sheet and we pull a vacuum across your whole body – we’re basically vac-forming your body – and as he lay there in this very vulnerable horizontal position, and we’re measuring very basic bio-metrics, he disclosed he suffered from Haphephobia which is a fear of touch. He had no physical contact with any other person in his world and I gave him a nine minute treatment where this breathing membrane is creating a 360 degree cuddle that is breathing at the same time as your heart rate and when he got up out of the bed, you get up slowly because what it’s doing is increasing the circulation of the blood around your body so it has all of these beauty applications, and when he got up, out of the bed, he reached out and he hugged me.


Lucy McRae: Which was completely not expected at all, and so – why did I tell you that story? What was your question?

Redefining the body as we know it!

Lucy McRae: Yeah so I’m interested in creating physical immersive experiences that are able to move people out of any kind of expectation or habit of themselves. Clearly this client completely changed his behaviour in the world based on this physical experience so I think we can design physical experiences to change the way we behave in the world which essentially is sort of redefining your body and the way that you interact with the world around you.

Just because I’m curious - is that client more comfortable with touching other people now, since the treatment?

Lucy McRae: Alex I so wish I was in contact with him! Because I’m not, but from just being at this experience, I can only speculate that it has had an effect on him and his behaviour.

That’s amazing.

Lucy McRae: Yeah it’s crazy. So when you hug someone, or when you have sex or when you breastfeed or give birth, you release a hormone in your brain which is called Oxytocin and when you don’t have physical contact with someone you’re basically silencing the release of this hormone in your brain which they say is connected to trust. So when you hug someone you create this kind of pair-bonding trust with the other person. What I’ve been speculating is whether the Future Day Spa, as an immersive experience, is a way of naturally triggering the release of Oxytocin in the brain. I think this is completely related to the beauty market because as the beauty market leans so much closer to and expands into health and wellbeing then treatments like the Future Day Spa can be developed for social isolation and autism.

So on to your latest project, The Biometric Mirror, what was the inspiration behind it? What were you hoping to discover or achieve with the project?

Lucy McRae: I was contacted by Science Gallery Melbourne because they had been working with an engineer, Doctor Niels Wouters, who had developed this algorithm that does two things: it psycho-analyses you, so through facial recognition software it can tell you how old you are, your gender, how weird you are, how aggressive you are, how responsible you are. And the second thing the algorithm does is create a version of what is considered ‘perfect’ by a beauty canon called the Marquardt Mask which was developed by a Hollywood plastic surgeon [Stephen Marquardt].

So the Science Gallery showed me this algorithm and I thought ‘we need to create a beauty salon for this and give people digital facials.’ So I started working with the developers and eventually an artificial intelligence program and turned it into a sci-fi beauty salon. I think it’s really important that we use public spaces, galleries and immersive experiences, to begin to talk about how artificial intelligence will change our ideals of beauty and essentially will change culture.

How do you feel about people saying that beauty can be analysed and calculated by an algorithm or by a machine?

Lucy McRae: First of all “perfection” in my mind doesn’t even exist. Perfection is something that is unattainable and what makes us human are our weaknesses, the failures, the mistakes, the accidents that we make. If an algorithm is proposing that it knows the ideal symmetrical perfect face and we continue to feed artificial intelligence with these algorithms that are outdated, they aren’t diverse, they are only applicable to a white male space, then we are heading down a very unpleasant, mono-aesthetic Black Mirror outcome that will strip ourselves of our uniqueness and any kind of traits that I think make us human.

What technological advancements are you most excited for?

Lucy McRae: I think CRISPR technology, which is a genetic engineering tool developed five years ago, is really, really interesting when it comes to designing the human body. CRISPR technology is like a pair of molecular scissors where you can cut precisely, remove, replace, and delete any faulty DNA. So this technology gives us the real potential to design human biology, to create and design a baby. That for me is very exciting but also the ethics around it need to be discussed and I think that’s why art and design, architecture, and perfume, and ballet, need to express science through a creative lens in order for us to discuss the ethics of CRISPR technology. And I also think optogenetics, this way of being able to design human experience by treating the brain like a radio. Obviously the medical applications that has are very positive, but once that starts to be hacked you can imagine where that could go as well in terms of dystopian scenarios.

One last question: what do you think humans will look like in 100 years?

Lucy McRae: I really hope that our future in 100 years is fleshy, visceral, messy, accidental. Because now science and technology are really attempting to create perfection. If we can remove faulty DNA, trigger pleasure in the brain, then it’s heading us towards perfection in a non-perfect world. So I would really hope that we can maintain and retain our weaknesses because I think that’s what makes us human.

Do you think there will be a backlash against the sterile technological environment that we are moving towards now? Do you think people will go back to a more natural way of life?

Lucy McRae: Yeah hopefully it will be slimy and blobby and visceral and sticky. And I know that’s very abstract, but beauty and fashion is cyclical and, you know, so is the economy – we’re buoyant and then we’re in debt. So if everyone is heading towards perfection then you could imagine the rebellion of the ugly will come in because people will get bored. I’m running an architecture studio at the moment in LA called ‘Broke' and the studio is looking at how we are all broken because we’ve been striving for perfection and so... what can we imagine the next human era to look like?

Lucy’s exhibition at Science Gallery Melbourne runs until November 3.

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