Anti-monuments for Alien Agency
Describes the relational architecture and biometric new media work of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer
Stacey DeWolfe - November 23, 2010
A high profile international artist with a low profile at home, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer may be one of the most prolific, technologically-innovative and internationally-respected artists that Montrealers have never heard of. It's a title he shares with the minimalist performance artist Jack Goldstein, who tragically took his own life in 2003 and whose cause Lozano-Hemmer is quick to trumpet, disappointed in how little Goldstein's contribution to electronic art has been recognized in his home town.
But this battle, though close to his heart, will have to wait for now. In fact, with concurrent solo shows in Manchester and Los Angeles, a half-dozen group shows in places as far-flung as Beijing and Cairo, and a dozen or so major commissions on the slate - including stagings of his 2010 performance Solar Equation in Ghent, Belgium and Washington, D.C. and a new collaboration with the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art for the 2012 Superbowl - Lozano-Hemmer and his creative team pretty much have their hands full.
Though sometimes described as a new media artist, this is a label that Lozano-Hemmer says he "really dislikes," because it comes with "this fetish of the new, of the original, of the avant-garde, of the frontiersman," and because, like many of his colleagues working in the digital and/or electronic arts, his projects are often drawn from ideas that are hundreds of years old. In fact, it is this conscious historicality, this grounding of the concepts in scientific, philosophical, socio-political and art-historical precedent (to name just a few), that allows Lozano-Hemmer to work against this obsession with the new. "We’re very energized whenever we make a project that we can connect to something that was being done in, say, the 1920s, for instance," says Lozano-Hemmer. "It makes the project richer."
A perfect example of this historicality is a work that was exhibited here at the Musée d'Art Contemporain in 2005 called Frequency and Volume. Comprised of various electronic and digital devices, the multimedia installation - which registers the shadows of participants, projects them onto the wall, and then uses them to scan and transmit radio waves - is very much of the new in terms of its technology, and its critique of the Mexican government's crackdown on the country's indigenous pirate radio stations. Yet, in discussing the origins of the project, Lozano-Hemmer cites the Mexican estridentista artists of the 1920s whose sound poetry experiments and "Manifesto for Antenna-Man" greatly informed the work.
An even greater example is a piece from his Relational Architecture series called Amodal Suspension, a massive interactive installation that opened at the Yamaguchi Center for Art and Media in 2003. For this project, twenty robotic spotlights were used to create a visual manifestation of what was basically a virtual switchboard; a public spectacle, animated by the personal text messages of individuals on-site in Japan and at centers around the globe.
Yet here too, in a work that investigates the possibilities and social impacts of innovations in GPS tracking and telecommunications, the referents are decidedly pre-technological. Inspired first by the Tanabata tradition in Japan, where people hung messages from trees to maintain contact with each other, Lozano-Hemmer provides an overview of his team's research into areas as diverse as early twentieth-century signaling devices, the function and symbolism of Japanese fireflies, and early social experiments with GPS technology.
"It's a way to place yourself in relation to people that you admire," says Lozano-Hemmer. "We’re proud of that, because without that gravitas you’re just fooling yourself in the world of fetishism, corporate justification and commodification; you're just reacting. Not that I’m outside of that, I’m not pretending... but it makes you a little bit more humble, [because] it sort of puts you in relation to a dialogue that has been going on for a really long time."
Still, at a time when "technological correctness" at the institutional level, and a continued emphasis on new media, at least semantically, in terms of funding policies and exhibition, Lozano-Hemmer's efforts to combat the new through strategies of variation and repetition have been sometimes been derided.
"One of the things I am very criticized for is locking onto a particular interface device, like biometrics. So I made a project called Pulse Room - a room hung with 300 hundred light bulbs that pulse to the rhythm of the participants' heart beats - and then I made a project called Pulse Tank and Pulse Spiral . And to a lot of people, they say 'well, what... is there going to be a Pulse Park?' And I’m like 'yeah, there is going to be a Pulse Park.' As artists, it is our challenge to develop a language. In new media, because of the fetish of the new, it is not seen as interesting that you’re still working and reworking through that particular interface over and over again. Whereas I’m completely comfortable with that."
However, the desire, and perhaps to some degree, need to be cutting-edge remains a major motivator and a simple reality. "At the studio, we're eight people. We're all tinkerers. We're all extremely curious, and [we have] attention-deficit disorder," laughs Lozano-Hemmer. "We're interested in gadgets, [and] new materials; approaches in technology will suggest a piece that can then be realized, and so we work in that direction."
A case in point is the series Seismoscopes from 2009, a collection of devices that register vibrations and record them randomly onto graph paper. But here, the printer has been modified, so that in the end, the graphs produce images of skeptical philosophers. In the studio, my passage from the entrance to Lozano-Hemmer's office triggered one of these seismoscopes, allowing me to witness the profile of Baruch Spinoza taking shape before my eyes. If you want to see Hume or Sextus Empiricus, you'll have to look elsewhere, as this piece is only capable of producing Spinoza.
Though radically different from the large-scale interventions that Lozano-Hemmer is perhaps most famous for, these smaller works speak to the complexity that is his project, because they embody the humour, the passion for ideas, the conscience, and the love of invention that is apparent in everything he produces.
He was born in Mexico and raised in a household where music and performance were a part of everyday life, but while his parents embraced that passion by running a nightclub, Lozano-Hemmer was drawn to the sciences, obtaining a chemistry degree at Concordia University in 1989. However, it was during this time that his interest in post-structuralist theory was born. "When I came out of university, I started hanging out with composers and writers and theorists. And for a little while, I really tried to keep current with theory and make a contribution. But as you mature, you realize, you can’t. The idea that theory and matter and expression and hormones and all of that actually create a useful tension is fascinating to me. Theory per se is inspiring but it is only when you mix it with all these other media, and you materialize it, that it has more meaning for me."
This idea of mixing things up is actually an extremely apt term for how Lozano-Hemmer works. Though he’s comfortable with the labels electronic artist or performance artist, and even the more limiting interactive artist, what really seems to describe his approach best is experimental artist. For as he explains, although the term sounds "enormously pretentious" and unfocused, the idea that the creator of the work can never be fully in control of the outcome is appealing.
"A good work needs to be like a good party," explains Lozano-Hemmer. "You put up the lights, you put on the music, you have good ambiance, but ultimately it is the public that make it. So, there is this sense of being a good host. You’re going to offer something and it needs to have sufficient depth, but it also needs to be intuitive, [and] it needs to contribute something to the language. So when, you think you know how it is going to be received but in fact you… are not predetermining all the outcomes... that is when I feel happy."
The project that Lozano-Hemmer describes as is his most successful in this regard is Voz Alta (2008), the large-scale interactive memorial he created to commemorate the 1968 student massacre in Tlatelolco, Mexico. Like Amodal Suspension before it, Voz Alta - which is Number 15 in the Relational Architecture series - consists of a group of robotic searchlights, but here the animating source is a megaphone through which the people of Mexico City can voice their thoughts on the massacre, offer their prayers to the dead, or share any of the struggles or joys they are experiencing in their lives.
"There is a very big portion of the population in Mexico that does not have a platform for self-expression," says Lozano-Hemmer, "and [my] happiness came from the sense of that connection, and the sense of belonging and agency that this particular piece gave to the survivors, and to the neighborhood, and to the people who used the interface. If I had to single out one moment, that is the happiest."
Stacey DeWolfe is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Montreal. She has written for C Magazine and is an arts writer for the Montreal Mirror and Akimbo. She is also the author of Sound Affects: Sado-Masochism and Sensation in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark.