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Lucy McRae’s Body Architecture

October 18, 2011

The work of artist and former architect Lucy McRae straddles the fields of fashion, film and fantasy. She talks to Simon Sellars about the inspirations behind her career.

Simon Sellars: You’ve been working with design students at RMIT. What did that entail?
Lucy McRae: Originally, I gave some lectures at Hyper Island, this amazing design school in Stockholm with no teachers – it’s all about the students teaching each other, and working directly with clients. I approached Leon van Schaik at RMIT and suggested I bring a similar model to Melbourne. The idea is that in a student’s portfolio they have a job they’ve worked on, and a connection to the industry they want to work in, bridging the gap between when you graduate and when you get a job.

SS What sort of design solutions did you initiate?
LM We did a music video, working with a real band, a real record label, a real director of photography, a producer, a technical director. The class broke down into groups, and each group interacted with one another, just like a real scenario. It was very successful, because we had a really nice mix of students from architecture, interior design, fashion and media. Students don’t usually get to straddle four different disciplines like that.

SS You call yourself a ‘body architect’. What exactly does that mean? To me, it suggests designing technological exoskeletons for the body.
LM I do build structures on the body, and I redefine the silhouette of the body in many different ways. I’m interested in the space between body and clothes, and the body and the near environment. I come from predominately architectural and classical ballet backgrounds, and both lend themselves to each other.

SS I’m generally intrigued by the way in which the profession of architecture is redefining itself, and, related to that, the ways in which ‘design thinking’ is used outside of design professions to solve problems and provide solutions. How does your architectural background define your artistic process?
LM Well, I think that what I do is very instinctive and primal, so anything I make or design is purely coming from this desire to build or to make something from an artistic point of view. I’m not trying to make any political statements about the future of the body or how we’re going to evolve as humans. I think it’s more of an unconscious connection.

SS But you have worked as an architect.
LM Yes, I have. When I was studying interior design, Tom Kovac was a big figure in my education, and he was always saying, “You should study architecture”. When I graduated, I got a scholarship to study at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles. I moved to London for a while, and then intended to move to LA, but I started working with two small architecture practices on very experimental projects and eventually ditched SCI-Arc. I designed a playground and a toy store in Soho, and I worked on the Magma bookshops.

SS Do you still think about architectural matters in any kind of practical, or perhaps even philosophical way?
LM In the past two years, it’s been more about the dancing background coming into my work, but I think now the architecture influence is returning. What I’m interested in creating now are alternate worlds that my body silhouettes can exist in. I’ve been building these ‘body architectures’ on the human body, and now I’m interested in creating the world that these bodies exist in.

SS You often refer to future science and future possibilities for the body. Are you influenced by science fiction?
LM It’s more about pure science than science fiction. My dad’s a mathematician, and while I was never really a bright maths student, I really loved graphs and pie charts and mathematical connections between things, plus I’m fascinated by science and mutations of liquids and physics. When I worked at Philips Design, we explored elective plastic surgery and the trend towards a mono aesthetic, and the idea that one day, everyone could be walking around looking exactly the same. The work that Bart Hess and I were doing [as Lucyandbart, a collaborative art project] chrystallised some of those ideas.

SS The ‘mono aesthetic’ is something that crops up a lot in discourse around new technologies, for example, when it’s suggested that social media and digital connectivity breeds a kind of anonymous, vicious mob behaviour.
LM How we communicate is interesting, and I think it’s more and more important to be unique. I’m not on Facebook and I’m not on Twitter, and, in a way, that’s a deliberate decision because we’re overloaded with so much information. It’s become ever more important to say, “This is who I am. I’m not hiding behind anything”. At Philips, we discussed communication through smell and how we’re losing this as we evolve, becoming ever more alienated from human instinctual processes. We did lots of research around the relationship between sweating and the immune system. I started to think about this, and then I was watching this doco about Ray Kurzweil…

SS …the self-styled ‘transhumanist’. I was going to ask you about him. He crossed my mind when I was researching your work.
LM Yes. Ray was saying that in 25 years, computers are going to become faster than human beings, and chips are going to be the size of blood cells. I was thinking about this when I was introduced to Sheref Mansy, a synthetic biologist in Italy. He’s a Harvard graduate who’s stripping life back to a single cell, actually trying to rebuild life from a single cell. I said to him, “I want to make a perfume that is digestible, a perfume that we swallow, like a pill, and it infuses your immune system so that when you sweat, you sweat your own biologically enhanced scent”. Sheref was excited – he started jumping around like a maniac!

SS So, people would choose their own scent? Is this idea a reaction against the ‘mono aesthetic’ you were talking about?
LM Yes. Perfume is made up of different notes, so you would digest your base note and then you could add ‘top’, or ‘high’ notes, as a spray and they would fuse together – that’s like the secondary form. So, we started talking about this, and I told Sheref I had a real interest in the future of makeup, and how our skin is this platform for technology, and how the role of skin is being redefined. So then I was busy creating the campaign around this swallowable perfume, when Sheref wrote back to me and said, “OK, this is how we’re going to do it. The body already has enzymes that break down molecules from glycerol. That’s like a natural process, so this pill will be made up of olfactory molecules connected to a glycerol. When you digest it through this natural process, it will separate the olfactories from the glycerol, so that when you sweat, you will sweat your own biologically enhanced fragrance.” No smell would be the same to anybody else, except for identical twins because they have the same DNA.

SS Wouldn’t this cause a dangerous kind of ontological confusion? Don’t we need a certain sense of shared smell to be at ease with each other? Certain animals would eat one other if they didn’t recognise their shared smell!
LM Well, I think it goes back to technology, and control. If you’re emitting your own personal fragrance, then in a way you’re communicating through another primal language, which you’re not even controlling, in a way, but actually you really are.

SS The issue of control is crucial. Referring back to new technology, it’s almost a cliche? in its everyday banality that we like to think we have freedom, but allowing our private details to be owned by Facebook suggests otherwise.
LM Again at Philips, that was one of the major issues that came up: who controls information, and who is the driver of it? We created provocations that tried to answer the question: “Do people want this or not?”

SS You speak often and fondly of your time at Philips. What exactly did this thought laboratory do?
LM It’s called the Probes team, and it looks 15 to 20 years into the future; I was there right at the beginning. We designed everything from concept cars to artworks and marketing campaigns. We were working on the top floor, existing in the cracks, really. We weren’t producing televisions or kettles, standard Philips products, so everyone was kind of like, “Oh, it’s the airy fairy people, upstairs working away on their probes”.

SS Still, it seems quite progressive for a corporate design enterprise to incorporate such a team.
LM Yes. Because you’re making intangible products that don’t generate income, that’s often the sort of thing that gets chopped when it comes to saving money. But in order for a company to evolve, you need to innovate and you need to spend time and money to do it. That’s why Philips is great – they’re doing that, working on architectural projects, interior design, vehicles, robots.

SS Again, the futurist aspect of this research intersects with science fiction, or, perhaps, ‘speculative’ fiction.
LM Well, no, it wasn’t science fiction – it was real! We developed an electronic tattoo that could be implanted in the skin and changed by touch. It was based on a patent filed by Philips nine years ago. But we wanted to be provocative, too, like the dress we developed, which senses blushes and shivers and changes with light. If the wearer became aroused, it produces one kind of animation. If she gets scared, it produces another. With this, we were saying that technology should be sensitive rather than intelligent. When the dress was listed as one of Time magazine’s best inventions of 2007, suddenly Philips realised, “Hey, these guys aren’t just twiddling their thumbs upstairs making nothing”. That’s when it became a fully-fledged department, still operating today.

SS Aside from architecture and dance, do you think the core ideas underpinning what you do now were forged during that time?
LM Certainly, at that point in my life, Philips planted the seed, especially the way Clive van Heerden, the director, used to track and interpret trends, which he called “weak signals”, trends that aren’t going to hit for two or three years, although he could see them happening. That’s how the team started, from tracking these trends. I learnt a lot from him, from looking around and seeing and soaking up information, conscious or unconscious, and then from watching Ray Kurzweil. I think my inspiration is a combination of several different things, certainly from architecture and ballet.

SS Let’s return to architecture. What about the profession inspires or impresses you today?
LM One project that sticks in my head is Diller and Scofidio’s Blur building, which uses a kind of very intelligent ‘garden hose’ system to generate a dynamic, ‘moving’ building. For me, that’s very exciting. I’m also extremely excited by projection, and just recently I saw projections on a building that formed a kind of skin, becoming something else. It can be non-linear and you can change it over time; it’s constantly moving. I think that dynamic movement is magical, an illusion around something solid and built. The Blur building is an illusion, constantly shifting because of the wind. I get excited about how the environment affects things, and how they move, whether it’s from the wind or sunshine or whatever.

SS Have you seen AAMI Park here in Melbourne? It’s reconfigurable, with its outer LED system. They have four teams from four different football codes using the stadium, so they can reconfigure the lighting to reflect different leagues and different teams, depending on who’s playing and which season it is.
LM ‘Reconfigure’ is a good word, I think, a really important word for architecture. I did see one configuration of AAMI Park, although I was a bit disappointed. But I think the building’s great.

SS What excites you architecturally?
LM I went to Cologne and saw Peter Zumthor’s Kolumba Art Museum. That was an amazing experience. Also, I recently visited Rio and went into a church, which I thought was by Niemeyer, but it wasn’t. I almost started crying. You know when something gets to your belly and you have an emotional reaction? It was like this tall, religious spaceship. The church didn’t have doors. It was all open and there was this huge type of stained glass. It was an incredible, physical reaction. Maybe ‘emotional’ is what I really mean when I talk about ‘moving architecture’. Even though this church was completely static, that’s what gets me.

www.lucymcrae.net
www.swallowableparfum.com

Simon Sellars is the editor of Architectural Review Australia.

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