If progress stays on track, NASA aims to send humans to Mars in the 2030s. Spacecraft construction and rocket systems aside, scientists have long been asking whether people are ready, both body and mind, for the three-year journey to the red planet. How will we adjust to a gravity field approximately one-third of Earth’s, handle harsh cosmic radiation, subsist on a freeze-dried diet and daily exercise regime to counter bone and muscle deterioration, and remain positive and focused on the task at hand, despite isolated and confined quarters?
It is these types of questions that Lucy McRae — a London-based sci-fi artist, director, and self-proclaimed “body architect” — explores in her film The Institute of Isolation. The short film is fictional but approached like a documentary and follows a character through a sort of intense astronaut training regime. The character begins by running in a microgravity trainer (a horizontal hamster wheel-like machine that allows one to walk in mid-air, inspired by early NASA training techniques). She enters into an anechoic chamber (a room designed to absorb sound) to experience the unnaturalness of almost absolute silence. She then endures a series of sensory environments, including a hyperbaric room releasing oxygen, a 100-metre towing tank filled with cold water, a lush and futuristic botanical garden, and a thermal spa bath.
Each exercise aims to test the physical and psychological challenges that one would encounter in space — an environment we’re not made for. The film is purposely open-ended, leaving the viewer to question the character’s continuous routine and whether she is the only one undergoing this testing, perhaps a guinea pig for something larger, or merely just a scientist studying her own body and future. The film was developed during McRae’s artist-in-residence at Ars Electronica and was filmed by cinematographer Lotje Sodderland.
I hope we continue telling stories about how we are evolving as a species in order to understand ways in which that might play out.
Inspired by her training in classical ballet and 100-metre hurdles, much of McRae’s work focuses on the body’s endurance and limitations. After studying design, she went on to spend four years at technology company Philips Design in their Far Future Design Lab, which offered her a foundation for interpreting the body and skin from a technological point of view. The film was partly inspired by one of McRae’s previous projects Future Day Spa, which examined the body’s physiological response to touch and the release of stress-reducing oxytocin through a vacuum bed installation.
Whether this film reflects the future of space travel preparation or not, McRae’s provocations push us to think about the future of human resilience and adaptability. While the conditions of deep space remain largely unknown, maybe there’s enough reason to start thinking about how humans will need to adjust. While we might not have the answers, maybe there’s something to learn from our imagined futures.
There’s a rich history of science fiction narratives that push our imagination to think about the future and what’s possible. “My point of view and many others is propagated by storytelling. I hope we continue telling stories about how we are evolving as a species in order to understand ways in which that might play out,” says McRae.