Melbourne’s Lucy McRae explores the relationship between the body and technology with Biometric Mirror, a digital installation work destined for MIT and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Lucy McRae started calling herself a ‘body architect’ to get a job she wasn’t qualified for. To be fair, no one else was qualified, either. Long before Google had its Labs, consumer electronics company Philips wanted someone to head an innovation hub that would visualise the future. With a background in classical ballet, interior design and architecture, Lucy was already working with Philips on wearable technology projects. But she wasn’t offered the big job until she came up with that catch-all phrase.
“They couldn't hire me because I couldn't say what I was, I didn't fit into any category,” Lucy says. “I went back the following week and said to the human resources leader, ‘I'm a body architect’. And that was what he wanted to hear; he wanted to hear a label, as opposed to a hybrid.”
The department went on to create things like electronic tattoos, and won Time Magazine’s fashion award for a dress that blushed with light. Four years at Philips inspired Lucy’s love of melding art with technology, and since then she’s worked with collaborators as diverse as Swedish pop star Robyn and NASA.
And from September to November this year, Lucy is the poster child for the new Science Gallery at the University of Melbourne. Officially launching in 2020, Science Gallery Melbourne is hosting annual pop-up exhibitions until its permanent site opens. This year’s exhibition, PERFECTION, examines our obsession with optimising everything - particularly the human body - through the lens of science and art. Lucy directed and starred in the exhibition's trailer, and her face, wrapped in an alarming flesh-toned harness, is the hero image used in the advertising.
Lucy’s new work, Biometric Mirror, is also featured in the exhibition. Created in collaboration with researchers Dr Niels Wouters and Nick Smith from the University of Melbourne’s Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces (SocialNUI), Biometric Mirror is a futuristic day spa where guests can have their personalities analysed from a single photograph.
Upon stepping behind a curtain housed with in a perspex booth, participants are asked to look at a screen while a camera analyses their face. The screen then displays a series of statistics about the person’s age, gender, and personality traits such as introversion, kindness, and responsibility. The camera then takes a photo and morphs the image into a ‘perfect’ version of the person’s face, based on the mathematical principles developed by Hollywood plastic surgeon Dr Stephen Marquardt. The results are usually alien-like and unnerving.
The data used in the facial analysis comes from the SocialNUI team. The scan compares each face with a database of 10,000 photos of people that have been rated on various personality traits to create an algorithm. The installation raises questions of the accuracy of AI and the inherent human bias that exists in technology.
“The point of the work is to discuss the flaws of artificial intelligence and also to ask who is designing these algorithms?” Lucy says. “And what happens [in the photo morph] is that everybody looks the same. Everybody has a tucked-in chin, pinched nose, alien, uncanny valley appearance. If we think about artificial intelligence or plastic surgery, we're moving towards this sort of mono-aesthetic.”
The work came about after Lucy was invited to speak on a round table discussion with Science Gallery Melbourne’s Dr Niels Wouters and found his idea of a biometric mirror intriguing.
“I was like, this is frightening. Yes, I’d love to collaborate,” she says. Lucy’s idea of a sci-fi beauty salon was a way to bring the abstract nature of the database into a form that would help members of the public understand the scientific ideas - and ethical implications - behind the research.
“I think this is why it's really critical at this time to bring art and science together, because scientists are generally fantastic at discovering and being curious and solving problems, but they're not renowned for creating stories or memorable experiences in terms of communicating their complex science,” she says. “I’m really interested in creating an opportunity through artistic platforms like the Science Gallery where visitors become a character in a world.”
As many of Lucy’s works are ephemeral or site-specific combinations of performance, installation and technology, she generally turns to filmmaking in order to preserve the work for posterity. Creative Victoria recently granted Lucy funding to cover the costs of producing a film of Biometric Mirror after she was invited to present the work at the Centre Pompidou in France and the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology in the US.
“[The work] becomes like an ambassador to the world of what we’re doing in Victoria,” she says. “This conversation around AI and perfection is being discussed on a global level and I think art has a really interesting and intuitive way of picking up on these signals. These ideas are kind of airborne.”
In her own future, Lucy is working towards a big goal - space. Thrilled by the announcement that SpaceX’s inaugural space tourist, Japanese billionaire and art collector Yusaku Maezawa, will be taking half a dozen artists, architects and designers with him on the first moon excursion, Lucy is crossing her fingers that she might be on the list.
“I visited SpaceX and saw spaceships being craned over my head and the friction welding and I asked, when are we going to to Mars? 2024 - it rolled off his tongue. And when you walk in there you understand that it’s going to happen. Innovation needs to keep pointing far, far, far.”