“I went for a job interview and the human resources guy asked me “So…what are you?” I said, ‘Well I’m not really just one thing; I’m a hybrid designer with a background in dance, architecture and design.‘ I left without the job. I called my soon-to-be boss and said ‘Didn’t get the job, as I don’t know what I am.’ He said ‘Go back and tell them you are a body architect’. I returned to HR the following week, knocked on the door and said ‘I am a body architect’…‘Okay’, he said ‘Sign here, you start next week.’ So, the reason that I came up with body architecture was to get a job. Fake it till you make it. If you can convince someone, it takes you to the next step. That’s what I did back then.”
McRae worked in the Future Design Research Programme at Phillips looking at electronic tattoos, making dresses with light and electronic sensing jewellery. From there she has gone on to become a TED fellow and has worked with the likes of Nick Knight, Aesop, Johan Renck, Robyn, Bart Hess and American Vogue. Her idea to work with the human body came from wanting to use what was immediately around her.
I hate the idea of being labeled and if I have to book something six months in advance, it totally freaks me out
“I think it is an unconscious thing because I generally use what I have around me, it has always been a resourceful way of working,” she says. “Whatever I can get, I kind of transform it. I love this idea of having something familiar and turning it into something different. And if I only have myself in a room then that is how I start; it’s a natural starting point for me.
“My parents are teachers and told me how kids bring their iPads to swimming class; one student swimming, the other filming their stroke technique. I love how such a tool is enabling students to act like professional sports coaches, discussing real-time swimming techniques and then takin that footage to their media class and cutting their own short film. When I was growing up we were encouraged to specialise in one thing and for a long time I thought this was a bit of a wooden leg.”
Working out of Amsterdam McRae looks upon the human body as her canvas, utilising her background in architecture and dance to create truly unworldly creations. She is certainly not frightened of challenging design and embracing new technologies – something she learned at Phillips.
“My former boss at Philips once said I had a very short attention span and that I liked doing things that are on the edges of my capacity – outside of my comfort zone. I don’t know why. But scientists don’t really know what they’re doing either when they get started. Developing bacteria in a petri dish is observation and learning. I hate the idea of being labeled and if I have to book something six months in advance, it totally freaks me out.”
“I would like to improve that lack of commitment but I find it very difficult. Being a body architect – there’s no point of reference. I don’t know what I am doing in six months time, and even though that’s rather unsettling and unstructured, it works.”
Re-programming our bodies
McRae sees herself on the forefront of innovation, exploring the relationship between developing trends and the human body. One such idea saw taking the idea of the classic perfume and turning it on its head.
“I’m interested in how technology could evolve our skin; making it an accessory that can perform various functions. I was reading how we will be able to re-programme our biology away from aging and disease and it made me think about how products will change, adapt and take on new formats.
“I thought about ways to enhance or manipulate the way we communicate or find sexual partners? So I came up with the concept of a swallowable perfume; a cosmetic pill whose fragrance is released through the skin’s surface when you perspire. The skin is then transformed and the body becomes an atomizer.”
Will people start cutting off their feet to get attachments so they can go faster?
Her fascination with the body has led McRae to explore the relationship between sport and technology and she firmly believes in the future that paralympians will be able to outdo the able-bodied Olympians.
“I have been interested in genetic manipulation for a long time. For some reason I think technology and sport are really inspiring. There’s a vibrational technology so a gymnast can put on a suit with a sensor that detects an incorrect posture and it vibrates against the skin so the gymnast knows how to correct their posture.
“When I was young I wanted to run 100 meter hurdles in the Olympics, but of course it didn’t happen. I am still interested in the point at which people can’t naturally run faster than the person next to them, faster than Usain Bolt, for example. Then it’s going to be Paralympic athletes, who don’t have natural but modified limbs, who will be able to run faster than the people with all their limbs. Will people start cutting off their feet to get attachments so they can go faster? It almost turns into a bit of a sci-fi movie.”
McRae’s most recent project was making a short film for Australian beauty brand Aesop – one of her hero brands she has always wanted to work with.
My background in architecture helps me build worlds that I imagine in my head in a very 3D way
“It’s a three and half minute short film, my interpretation of what their laboratory looks like. It’s about creating super-sensory experiences, seeing the brand through my eyes. I started sticking my experiments on the wall, to see a story, but I had never written a script before. So I started to write a script based on the experiments I had made, I built a set, and then we did the shoot. My background in architecture helps me build worlds that I imagine in my head in a very 3D way. This film was the next layer – the swallowable perfume (an earlier work) was inside the body, then the project I did with Lucy and Bart was about “second skins”, and the Aesop film had to do with architecture. Maybe the next one is performance art.”
Quite simply there isn’t another human being on the planet who is pushing the boundaries of the relationship between the human body and technology, it’s just a shame she isn’t a scientist.