Fellows Friday

Biohacker meets Willy Wonka: Lucy McRae on the making of the incredible edible music video for Architecture in Helsinki

TED Fellow Lucy McRae (watch her TED Talk) is a body architect — an artist who explores how technology and the body may someday meet and merge. Her latest project is a fantastical and frothy music video for “Dream a Little Crazy” by Australian band Architecture in Helsinki. Watch the mouth-watering video above, and then read all about how McRae and her collaborators wove futuristic ideas about synthetic biology, food-as-sculpture and 3D printing technology into a mad lab full of flying gloop and powder.

How do you describe to people what you do?

I do speculative story-telling. I create parallel, alternate worlds — underpinned by science fiction. The idea is to render possibilities to how technology will change, thinking about how people will embody the future in technology. But I do it in playful ways. In a way, I’m designing the connective tissue between science and imagination. I’m not a technologist, I’m not a scientist. I’m an artist inspired by scientific thinking, and I use that to steer the narratives of my films and concepts.

How did you come to collaborate on the video with Architecture in Helsinki?

A lot of my projects begin with serendipitous encounters, and this project was no different. I got an email from the band at a completely random time when I was at the LimeWharf, a cultural innovation hub in London where I’m now doing a residency. I’d been a Architecture in Helsinki fan for years, while the band’s lead singer, Cameron Bird, had seen my work, but had no idea who was making it. Then he investigated and saw that I was Australian, too, and was like, “Huh? Why haven’t we ever contacted her before?”

So he wrote to me and said I’d love for you to interpret the song. They had no brief, except that they wanted a surreal, infectious, absurd clip, and to have a strong synergy between the album artwork, made by this Finnish illustrator Santtu Mustonen, who hand-crafts analog, globby, dripping illustrations over sharp 3D geometries.

How did this lead to the concept of the biological bakery?

Our concept was to explore how synthetic biology might enter the home, but in a humorous way — using music as a superhighway to illustrate quite a complex idea. My collaborator Rachel Wingfield and I were interested in synthetic biology and the way food is industrially mass-produced, the way balloons or candies are made. We looked at how we could merge these industrial machines with the representation of the body. We started experimenting with the concept of printing the band’s faces with multicolored bacterial strands — using different-colored edible liquids composed of flour and water to symbolize this.

Everything in the film was edible. The band were scanned in Australia with a medical-grade 3D scanner, all the files were sent over to us in London, 3D printed and made into miniature versions in pop-confectionery.

There’s a scene where Cameron’s face-planting the band’s faces into corn flour. This is the way that candies are molded in factories: they create huge, big trays of corn flour, and they emboss, for example, Haribo shapes into the corn flour, and then the liquid is poured in. We piggybacked some of these confectionary techniques and made them for an installation gallery setting.

Two days after the music video, we re-created and built the whole set for a live event. We invited the audience to enter into this world, and we performed the scenes from the music video, exploding the liquid and painting this sort of fantastical tattoo skin over the body. In the end we were merging film and experiential art into the gallery setting.

Did the audience actually get to eat the props from the film? What were they made of?

Yeah, we worked with a chef at the LimeWharf and used the 3D-printed molds to make edible faces with a Prosecco, pear and thyme jelly. The audience members were eating the band. We made chocolate versions of the band as well. Everyone was asked to wear white, so it was kind of like this Willy Wonka–esque experience. Cameron was playing music, it was sort of like this chamber where this liquid was overflowing and spilling everywhere, and people were eating the props.

Now, back in Australia, the band has collaborated with a confectionery company, so the molds we made are being turned into lollipops, which they’re launching as part of their album release. It’s interesting how the evolution of this project started as a conversation, became a music video, then an experiential installation, and now a real-life biological bakery!

I’m interested in transforming materials, and food is a great material to sculpt. By representing the anatomy through food, it’s a way of experiencing sculpture in a different way. You can touch it — eat the contents of a gallery — breaking down the barrier of just being a viewer.

And you’re ingesting into your anatomy the anatomy that was represented by the food.

Exactly. And this points to the bigger picture of whether, in the future, we actually will clone ourselves, or eat ourselves in order to enhance our senses. So it’s kind of tapping into those different areas of research, but in a playful way.