“In five years’ time, we’ll see no difference between what is digital and what is biological,” says Lucy McRae, self-described body architect and science-fiction artist. “We have absolutely no idea how this is going to change our lives. Moving forward, we have to be okay with uncertainty.”
I’m standing with McRae at the National Gallery of Victoria, in the middle of her bizarre, imaginative and often unsettling new show that looks at the human body and technology. That quote about the digital and biological reaching a blurry apex in five years paraphrases Klaus Schwab, German economist and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. In his 2016 book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, he forecasts a future in which our clothes will be connected to the internet, AI machines will sit on corporate boards, and our bodies will be augmented with 3D-printed organs. The five-year timeframe is McRae’s own addendum, adding urgency to her work.
There are 13 years of work from McRae here, from digital images that resemble the more alien end of fashion photography to thought-provoking films. As our lives become more and more tech-enhanced, McRae asks the big questions. What will genetic engineering and mapping the human genome do to our sense of identity? If we’re going into space, and we’ll be spending future lifetimes there, what impact will that have on our minds?
“I’m not interested in problem solving,” says McRae. “The point of my work is to ask impossible questions and swim upstream. For me, the takeaway is, ‘What aren’t we asking?’”
The result of this line of questioning is a series of striking, colourful images and wild flights of biological fancy. Some ideas are realised with simple means such as digital photography. Cardboard, balloons and pantyhose are strapped across faces, obscuring identity. Bodies are covered in rubber balloons that create hanging sacs of colour. Cotton swabs dripping with paint look like feathers. A man wears an unwieldy outfit made of pantyhose stuffed with soil and grass seeds. One image shows a woman in a cloud of blue soap foam, with no context or explanation as to what this might be.
Before long the show moves onto video and interactive work. Many are collaborations, from music videos and artwork for pop artists – including Architecture In Helsinki (The Biological Bakery, 2014, the video for the track Dream a Little Crazy) and Robyn (the cover of her 2010 album Body Talk) – to a branded short film for Aesop (Morphe, 2012), which features a swallowable perfume. There’s also an intriguing and mesmerising group of short films, culminating in the 10-minute The Institute of Isolation (2016) that adapts the technology and processes used to prepare astronauts’ bodies for space travel into something more human and emotional.
“The gap between sci-fi and sci-fact is shrinking,” says McRae. “I’m interested in challenging the tropes of science fiction, which is very masculine, mechanical and dark. I’m interested in the fleshy, the visceral, the familiar and the messy. We’re ready for a complete redefinition of science fiction and what it means.”
As we talk, I stand in front of a webcam and have my face mapped and “perfected” by an algorithm (designed by University of Melbourne academic Dr Niels Wouters), then realised into an interactive video called Biometric Mirror (2018). It’s all based on the Marquardt Mask, a standard of perfection used by plastic surgeons.
My face is scanned and the results are played back to me on a screen. The digital analysis tells me my age (which it gets more or less right), my level of happiness (45 per cent, vastly underestimated), aggressiveness (zero per cent, likewise), and kindness (20 per cent, hmm) along with other metrics. It determines my face as 80 per cent “weird”. There’s quite a lot of work to be done. I wait while the algorithm processes my face into perfection. The result is a bizarre, inhuman distortion of my features, my eyes enlarged, my chin pointed. The algorithm would have me believe this is what perfection looks like.
The gallery describes McRae as a science-fiction artist, but a lot of the ideas presented in the show sit on the border of fiction and fact. The technologies she discusses are daunting, but McRae never loses sight of the human factors: emotion, beauty and the bit you can’t quite put your finger on; the indefinable.
Lucy McRae: Body Architect is at NGV Australia, Federation Square until February 9, 2020.