Frame 100

Lucy McRae’s work plays on the edges of the beauty industry, biotech and, more recently, space travel, as she invents worlds that suggest what the future holds in store.

Words Enya Moore

Every morning, I do this’ – Lucy McRae rises gracefully from her seat and stretches her hands towards the sky, completely oblivious to the other diners in the restaurant. ‘It gets the endorphins going. I imagine being on stage at the end-of-year ballet concerts when I was a kid. I feel the same when I am on set. Dress rehearsals happen in the studio, but the adrenaline really rushes in when the filming starts.’

Despite spending the majority of her time behind the camera, Lucy McRae certainly has a stage presence and an innate storytelling ability, embellishing each tale with an elegant wave of her hand. Lucy is a body architect, a title she conjured up with Clive van Heerden, the director of design-led innovation at Philips, in order to secure a job for her at the technology company’s far-future research lab. The label encompasses her hybrid nature, which includes an impressive 14 years of training in French classical ballet; an education in interior design; and an ongoing fascination with relationships between the body, technology and science.

Lucy’s work first appeared on the pages of Frame in 2009, when she was collaborating with Dutch designer Bart Hess. The two met while working at Philips. Their images of bizarre figures transformed by tights stuffed with grass seed and bodies sheathed in toothpicks instigated collaborations with the likes of photographer Nick Knight and exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou, Paris. Since then Lucy has skirted her way around the peripheries of art, biotechnology, beauty and science, producing a sensuous short film for Aēsop, album covers (and a dramatic outfit made from liquid, air and vapour) for Swedish pop star Robyn and, more recently, the Biological Bakery music video for Australian band Architecture in Helsinki.

I meet Lucy at Shoreditch House in East London, where she’s been working while preparing to move into her new studio at Fish Island Labs – a creative platform by the Barbican and The Trampery – in Hackney Wick. As she picks her way through a warren of back stairs and side entrances in the hotel – also a freelancing hub – I cannot shake the idea that Lucy has stepped straight out of the pages of Alice in Wonderland. The illusion likely emerges from Lucy’s shock of white blonde hair, her striking posture and her penchant for launching into complicated ideas about space travel or the future of beauty, expressed in a wildly curious fashion. Unlike Alice’s, Lucy’s thoughts are not rooted in fantasy but carefully drawn from interactions and discussions with experts in the fields of synthetic biology (she collaborated with synthetic biologist Sharef Mansy on the Swallowable Parfum project) and space travel (for which she has been conversing with NASA).

For her current research project, Babies in Space, Lucy has been investigating the possibility of human procreation in zero gravity. As a result, Lucy’s remarks frequently slip beyond the confines of planet Earth.

You’re training to go to outer space?
Training to go to outer space is connected with my background as a ballerina and an athlete, and it’s also about pushing boundaries. I imagine that what I’m doing is like that magnetic liquid that spikes – I add another element and it peaks somewhere else. I feel a strong connection between the edges or limits of the body and the act of training to go to space. It’s almost like describing what a body architect is – a series of research projects, one after another. I ask myself: what am I doing now, and how does it define who I am or what I call myself?

Are you training in the physical sense?
I’m following my own recipe. When I was working with Bart, we used our bodies to create an image. I’m using my body to experiment. This is essentially an art project. I’m working with a personal trainer, who says he’s trained members of the secret service. At the moment, I’m combining balletic moves – using my core – to balance on aerated surfaces that are slippery and round.

What do you hope to get out of the training?
I want to go to outer space.

Do you think that will happen?

I’m curious to know what you were like growing up.
I went to a school where my parents both taught. My mother was an art teacher; my father taught maths. On weekends we had athletics in the morning and ballet in the afternoon. I also dried flowers and made flower arrangements at home. I sewed fishnet fabric and Lycra tubes together to makes dresses – I was always transforming things.

Ballet was a big part of my life. I started basic ballet when I was four or five and got into hard-core training when I was 12. It was mostly about mimicking the movements and postures of others in the class until we were all exactly the same. It was really disciplined. I don’t think you ever lose that; it’s somehow embedded in your body. I was more of a rebel in ballet than I ever was at school. Making images is quite different to directing short films.

How have you translated your experiences into film-making?
At university I was always drawing a section, a plan or an elevation. I rarely made axonometric drawings, so whenever I shoot, I either shoot elevations, sections or bird’s-eye views – it’s like re-creating a technical drawing. What I found really challenging was telling a story. Films focus on the actors, whereas I make the architecture or the material my focus. The characters adapt to everything else. When I’m on set, I am the director, but I’m also the one moving the elements around, choreographing the movement of the materials. Although I’d never done it before, it came very naturally.

Is the aim to provoke people to think in a different way?
Yes, and also to work with them – that’s the ideal outcome. For some reason I gravitate towards the biotech and beauty industries. I like thinking about how technology can transform what those sectors are producing. For example, collagen grows in a very different way in outer space; astronauts age slower. I would like to build on that knowledge.

Your processes seem to involve technology, but you often come up with a low-tech, hands-on, material-focused result. Why don’t you exploit new technologies?
I always work with what I’ve got. I know what’s accessible. I like mimicking technology in the same way I mimicked ballet, doing it myway, in my world. You can think of it as a form of evolution. Sometimes the body works like a machine – I am the body working the machine.

When you do projects for a brand with a strong identity, like Aēsop, does your client usually become involved in the project?
I love Aēsop, which I first saw at David Jones in Melbourne. Dennis Paphitis [Aēsop’s founder] had seen the Chlorophyll Skin video and the LucyandBart images, and he wanted a photographic image. When I suggested a film instead, he went for it. He was in Paris at the time, and I visited him there. I showed him scale models and a maquette of a doll and a bath. I animated the storyboard for him, using a scale model. It was similar to the way I worked when I studied interior design. I sent him images of experiments I did with the camera, using it like a microscope. If the scene worked within the frame, I documented and archived it. I sent Dennis a series of updates, and after our second meeting I got an email that said: ‘I trust you; you have carte blanche.’ So I just kept going.

Aēsop doesn’t advertise – the shops are a spatial means of communication. Morphē [the name of the film] was a way of showing the brand through my lens.

What do you think makes a successful collaboration?
High contrast. I like collaborating with people who don’t come to mind automatically. For the synthetic perfume project [culminating in a film, Swallowable Parfum], I worked with Sheref Mansy. Sheref is a synthetic biologist who is trying to re-create a human being from a single cell, so our joint effort was definitely high contrast.

Collaborations with Robyn, Rachel Wingfield and Bart revolved around a shared vision of the expression of beauty, genetic manipulation and synthetic biology. Not only are contrasting skills important; you should also be interested in similar outcomes. Collaborating is a very natural way of working for someone who grew up dancing in a group and training in a team. It’s dynamic and energetic, but you have to find the right person.

We featured your work in Frame in 2009. How do you feel now about what you were doing then?
In 2009 Bart Hess and I were working at Philips and doing the LucyandBartstuff only one day a week, but it really took off in the press and quickly gained momentum. The criticism was sharp, and I loved that. When people refer to LucyandBart now, I feel it’s old news. What’s interesting is the cultural and technological lag that marks trends. I often focus five years or more ahead in my work, so looking back feels weird. If clients commission I try to explain what I’m doing as it relates to where they’re coming from. My work is about designing the connective tissue between science and imagination, so I contort my ideas to make them understandable to the person in question. It’s quite spontaneous – I put myself on the spot.

Do designers who work with social ideas promise more than they can deliver?
People don’t always know what they want, or where to put me. When I walked into the HR office at Philips for the first time, I had to invent a nonexistent position to get a job – and I ended up working there for four years. Philips didn’t even know they needed a ‘body architect’ until I told them they did. With regards to promising more than I can deliver, I don’t say I can make a product such as Swallowable Parfum. When an idea gets put under the nose of someone who can make it happen, that’s what prompts an ideal outcome. There’s serious currency in provocation and in storytelling. Last year I did a workshop for Procter & Gamble based on my idea of beauty in 2024. We painted a picture of beauty ten years from now, using storytelling as a tool.

What is it about the reimagining of a brand or an industry that you like?
When I was growing up, I took the labels off my clothes and put them on other things to create my own brands. I couldn’t afford expensive items, so I made my own. Most of what I make today is temporary – it moulds, it needs to be refrigerated, it’s on film. I like the idea of making tangible objects. Why not have perfume you can eat? Why isn’t everyone training to go to outer space? There’s yoga and Pilates. What about astronaut aerobics?

What is your dream project?
Dream project or dream projects? Babies in Space is something I want to happen, and it will happen – I totally want to go to outer space. I also love the idea of directing and choreographing a stage performance, like a ballet. I would love to have my own edible perfume and to infect or affect the cosmetics industry from a creative point of view.