In the opening scene of her new short film, Institute of Isolation, artist Lucy McRae, clad in a nude jumpsuit and cap, scales the interior parameters of an anti-gravity chamber of her own design. The faint pink, retro-futuristic chamber is meant to resemble the zero gravity simulators NASA used to train astronauts in the 1960s. “We can accurately measure the physiology of the body,” McRae says in a voiceover. “But the psychological responses to prolonged isolation are largely unpredictable.”
A fictional account filmed in the style of a documentary, Institute of Isolation is set inside of an institute called Le Fabrika in Barcelona, where McRae’s protagonist goes from one sensory deprivation chamber to another in an effort to “optimize” the human body for space. As her opening lines suggest, McRae is interested in exploring not just how the body handles the strenuous elements of space travel–an environment that, as she points out, we were never designed to be in–but also how the mind will adapt to these changes, too.
McRae is known for making artwork that exists within the realm of science fiction and examines the relationships between technology and the body. For her project, Future Day Spa, which premiered at the London Design Festival in 2014, McRae set up a futuristic “spa” that vacuum sealed participants in a metallic membrane. The device was an experiment in making people suffering from fear of being touched, depression, and anxiety feel enveloped, held and more relaxed.
While working on the project, McRae discovered that NASA had developed something similar decades earlier: a Lower Body Pressure Device that would pump blood to the astronaut’s lower extremities. For McRae, who has been fascinated by space travel for years, this connection felt incredibly serendipitous.
Institute of Isolation grew out off that project, as well as a period of isolation that McRae went through for three months in her home and studio on the outskirts of London. She had discovered Evolving Ourselves by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullens, a book that posits that evolution is now driven by human choices and technology that can change our own biology, rather than random mutation and natural selection. The book became the basis for the film–even the structure of the film roughly follows the chapter divisions–and McRae set out to talk to Gullans, a professor at Harvard Medical School. She ended up interviewing six scientists, including Enriquez, as research for the project. Others included a NASA astrobiologist, with whom she spoke about procreation in space, and an endocrinologist in Rome, who envisioned the possibility of future societies that don’t recognize gender.
Lynn Harper, the NASA astrobiologist, gave McRae a description of zero gravity that generated the idea of isolation for the show. “She told me when you’re in space the body is behaving like it’s under water, and functions drastically change compared with what it does on Earth,” she says. “In that way, anti-gravity can be very isolating.”
To create the film, McRae turned to her friend Lotje Sodderland, the cinematographer behind the 2014 documentary My Beautiful Broken Brain. Because Sodderland typically makes documentaries, she suggested that McRae create a fictional narrative about preparing for physical and mental isolation in space, and Sodderland would film it by following around her protagonist as if she was in a documentary. McRae and Sodderland found sites around Europe to film it: The final scene of McRae in a pool, for example, was shot in an Austrian bath house. The first scene, with McRae in an anti-gravity chamber, was shot in a gym of a Catholic high school in London.
McRae collaborated with sculptor Daniel Gower to built the anti-gravity chamber, and designed her own tan garment to mimic the film’s anechoic chamber, a completely soundless room designed to absorb reflections of sound waves. As for the aesthetics, “We’re massively inspired by Wes Anderson and his sumptuous symmetry,” says McRae. She’s touring the film, as well as select props, to 29 major science museums around Europe as a part of a group show called Beyond the Lab.
Beyond the Lab is currently on view at the London Science Museum through September 15, 2016.
[All Images: courtesy Lucy McRae]