As evolution goes on, the human body is evolving too. What does it mean to be human in times of advanced biotechnology and genetic engineering? Are our bodies ready for our technologized lifestyle? We spoke with science fiction artist and body architect Lucy McRae, who is exploring the future of our body, beauty and the self.
As former ballet dancer and architect, Lucy effectively blurs the boundaries between design, art, architecture and science. She is well-known for her Swallowable Parfume and the photographic collaboration with Bart Hess, with whom she explored how the human silhouette might evolve. We spoke to Lucy about her recent projects, the future of our bodies and the importance of a feminine perspective on technology.
Crisis of touch
Lucy’s most recent project is the Compression Cradle, which she exhibited at the Design Triennale in Milan. The Compression Cradle is a machine that affectionately hugs you. Every hour, audience members were able to get underneath the Compression Cradle and aerated volumes would hold them tight. Is this the way to prepare our bodies for a future that lacks human affection?
“Last year, The Guardian released an interesting article that said we are in a crisis of touch,” Lucy tells. “When you hug someone, you release the hormone oxytocin, a hormone that is responsible for building trust and desire amongst humans.” Unfortunately, in our world of virtual connection human touch becomes scarce.
Instead of perceiving technology as the alienating factor in human connections, Lucy is interested in its possibilities. “Perhaps in the future, technology will be able to fill those needs. Will we have machines that repair the broken bonds with ourselves and the people around us? Compression Cradle is part of my inquiry into design as something that is restorative. Can design become a restorative mechanism?”
Break down barriers
The concept of restorative design and technology originates from an earlier project: The Future Day Spa. This futuristic spa is a personalised, guided experience, offering treatments that evoke states of love, trust and relaxation. “The Future Day Spa is also a project around a machine that hugs you, but it is shown in a different way; more like a film where the audience are characters in the future scenario,” Lucy explains.
“During the ten-minute treatment at the Future Day Spa, one of the audience members said that he suffered from haptophobia, which is a fear of touch. He never had physical contact with any other person. Yet after the treatment, he said this felt like an embrace; he knew that this felt like a hug. There was this very sincere emotional connection going on, and when he got up out of the bed, he reached out and he hugged me. I realized that even somebody who silences his release of oxytocin and deprives himself off touch, still has this craving for it.”
This experience triggered Lucy to look at technology differently. “In this case, technology was the bridge between his fear of touch and his desire to be touched, which resulted in him breaking that barrier and then interacting with me again by giving me a hug. For me, it’s not about technology being in the spotlight; technology is being a harbinger to break down barriers. So that we get in touch with ourselves again.”
We are the protagonists
Lucy’s focus on bodily experience, touch and beauty is - up until now - quite unusual in the field of science fiction. She wants to give science fiction the sex change that is long overdue. “I am pleading for a future that is fleshy, visceral, messy and far away from anything related to the masculine sci-fi stereotype.”
“I think that it is necessary to bring a feminine perspective on technology and treat it more like an elastic membrane that is draped over something else, as opposed to it being the protagonist. I feel like our bodies, our minds and our personalities are the protagonist and technology exists just to support what we are trying to achieve.”
Lucy emphasizes that the exploration of subjects such as beauty and identity is essential to science fiction. “We are testing our future by imagining life off earth. In a way, beauty and identity are testing the waters of the future. Perhaps leaving earth and going to space is so alienating, that we are exploring alienating beauty as a way of testing what it might be like to live off earth. Beauty and fashion almost become symbols of where we are going.”
The Biometric Mirror utilizes the concept of beauty to reflect on artificial intelligence. “Biometric Mirror is a beauty salon that invites the general public to come in and be analyzed,” Lucy elaborates. “You're told how weird you are, whether you’re an introvert and extrovert, your gender, your age; it's this clean sweep of biometrics. Next, it morphs your face into what is considered to be bio-statistically beautiful.” It’s definition of beauty is based on an equation of Hollywood’s plastic surgery, the Marquardt’s mask, that is still used in most plastic surgeries to date.
“The result is that, if we all follow the kind of perfected beauty portals that the Marquardt’s mask draws up, we are all going to look the same. Will artificial intelligence end up with a dull mono aesthetic without variation? Biometric Mirror is a way to engage the public and ask questions around the ethics of artificial intelligence. We need to be able to make accidents and there needs to be serendipity. How do we make sure that we keep that serendipity in artificial intelligence?”
Generally, science seems to be on a mission to achieve perfection and suppress serendipity. “If we look for example at genetic engineering, its’ aim is to remove any disease, any imperfections. We can delete it; we can cut it out and replace it.” This is both a danger and a chance. “In a way, science is design. And that excites me, because then we may deliberately design the human body,” Lucy states.
After all, she remains an optimist. “I think the most important thing is that we ask the right questions, that the questions we’re asking are relevant and provocative and disruptive. We have to make sure that we are asking everybody, not just the experts. And that's why art is so important; you can't quantify art, you can't measure experimentation, and that's what makes it so valuable. Art and design can ask questions that science and technology may not. Ideally, someone experiences my work and is inspired to ask a question that they never have thought of before.”
Lucy McRae is currently preparing for a solo show at NGV in Melbourne, Australia. You can also experience her work at San Fransisco MOMA as part of the show Far Out until January 2020, and during the first Rabat Biennale starting in September 2019.