Artist Lucy McRae Talks About Her Plan To Grow A Baby In Space With NASA
It’s more complicated than you can probably conceive.
"I’ve got this theory that when you travel long distances, your soul doesn’t travel as fast as your body—it gets caught somewhere. I can’t wait to be reunited with mine so I feel whole again," Lucy McRae muses down the line of our slightly delayed Skype connection. We’ve barely even exchanged pleasantries, and already I get the sense that Lucy is as otherworldly as her work suggests. A self-described body architect, Lucy’s practice oscillates somewhere between the morbid and the mind-bending, with the constant thread of a fascination with the future connecting her work. Bringing to life futuristic concepts with a lurking undercurrent of science fiction, Lucy traverses the potential intersection between the body and technology, predominately using the medium of film to realize her experiments. Thus far, those have included projects involving an invented fragrance Swallowable Parfum, an imagined Aesop laboratory, and exploration of the world of genetic manipulation through edible clones.
Currently in development, her latest project Babies in Space will explore the complications of growing a fetus in an altered gravitational state. Conceived after a chance conversation with a NASA economist, the idea will realize a potential future of procreation where babies are created in laboratories and gestated in artificial wombs. The plan is currently fairly abstract, and no one (McRae included) knows what exactly growing a baby in space as an art project could entail. Yet someone has to make the first step into something so literally out there. Maybe it will become another one of her surreal film experiments—or maybe she'll get into the life creation game, fully realizing her potential as a body architect.
Speaking form London (in body at least, her soul could still be drifting over the ocean somewhere), McRae spoke with The Creators Project about her fantastical art projects, almost missing a meeting with NASA, and the complicated endeavor of designing babies in space.
The Creators Project: I wanted to ask you about your upcoming project around the idea of growing a fetus in space. It’s completely out of the realms of my limited understanding. Can you tell me about it?
Lucy McRae: It is on the precipice of something that is so out of my realm and unchartered, and I like that. If I look back on my [creative] trajectory, some of the most pivotal moments for me have been at my most uncomfortable. I was on a bus traveling from Whistler to Vancouver, and I knew that Alexander MacDonald was on it too. He’s an economist from NASA, but also the Program Executive for the Emerging Space Office at NASA… I was gearing myself up for an hour to try to talk to him until I finally got the courage. I told him about my work, and he proceeded to tell me about NASA’s concerns related to the body in space, the complications of growing a fetus in altered gravity, and also the concerns of radiation and cosmic rays on the body. How did that conversation transform into this new project?
It happened very quickly after the conversation. Alex had said, “If you put some questions together for Lynn Harper [the space biologist at NASA], I’ll wave them underneath her eyes and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a meeting." She responded with three A4 sheets answering all my questions—it was phenomenal. Fast-forward three months, and I’m sitting in an Uber taxi in San Francisco on my way to NASA. I got to the front gate obviously so incredibly excited, and the guard asked me if I had my passport… It was ridiculous, I didn’t even think about that stuff! So we pulled into the car park, the taxi driver rang his friend who went around to my friend’s apartment to pick it up. The appointment was at two, and at five minutes to two he arrived, I got the passport, went in and had the most mind-bending conversation with Lynn Harper. She proceeded to tell me about how space is so important in terms of the development of medicine and surgery on earth. One of the most intriguing things she talked about was how the body adjusts minute-to-minute to the situation around us, responding to the dynamic process of living. When you go to space the body is completely and drastically altered, responding as though it’s underwater.
So how will that inform your work?
I’m developing this narrative about the future of humanity, and how we will exist whilst travelling between planets. It’s in a very scientific, challenging way, but then there’s the artistic interest in moving the body.
How on earth (mind the pun) will you realize that?
Honestly? I have no idea. But intuitively I have many different options, and I think that it’s a very different process to what I’m used to. I’m trying to get my head around how to tackle it. Do you always work intuitively, or is it with a specific technology in mind?
It’s all intuitive. It’s like tuning an instrument, like my body is a barometer and I am an antenna responding. Right now what I’m gravitating towards is this new subject of space.
At what point do you know what the project is going to look like?
When I start experimenting. In the last music video [for Architecture in Helsinki] that I did with Rachel Wingfield from Loop, we talked in the beginning about inspirations from synthetic biology, and how it’s going to hit the home. We made this test over a ceramic mask in the studio and…It was kind of like an epiphany. I think it’s those epiphanies or breakthroughs that give the sign you’re onto something. It’s like this weird science, or alchemy.
I’m interested in the way that you imagine your experiments. It’s like taking a part of our bodies – something that is intrinsically connected to our matter – and externalizing it, in a way disconnecting us from it. Do you feel like the concepts you’ve explored in future technologies, cloning for example, disconnects us from our physical bodies in a way?
I really hope it doesn’t… for me, it’s really important that it’s organic and un-alienating. I think it needs to be familiar, and I guess that’s the kind of low-tech approach that I have… It’s all mood-based, I feel like it’s an emotional experience or connection.
Maybe there’s the undertone of death [in my work] that I still haven’t pinpointed, and perhaps that’s the sense of where the body feels disconnected, or the viewer feels disconnected. I get the sense that your work is somewhat about the preservation and protection of the human body, yet at the same time is kind of makes me feel like we are disposable. Do you think your work is more about longevity or temporality?
So far in the films I’ve used a lot of food, and eventually it goes moldy. It’s not like the props can be put on the shelf, or hung on the wall. One of my friends said that I am immortalizing my work through the camera because in that way, it never dies. So I guess immortality comes in there.
What is your dream collaboration?
There’s an architect in Italy called Luigi Seraphinianus who wrote a book called the Codex Seraphinianus—I would love to do a project with him. Michel Gondry is on my radar, and I’d love to go up to Richard Branson and just sort of say, “Let’s do this! Take me up there!”
I love collaborations—they’re wild, energetic experiences. It’s a big part of my work, collaborating with people who come from different backgrounds. Right now I’m trying to think about whom I would collaborate with on this babies in space project, because it’s such a vast area. But those collaborations are really poignant, and the spiralling point of the project. No matter the skills or the talent, you’re entering into a partnership and relationship with this person. It’s got to feel right.
Visit Lucy McRae's website for more on her surreal and amazing work: http://www.lucymcrae.net/