Published  16/09/2014

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: interview

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer interview: ‘An artwork is like a nightclub – only when the public come in do you know if it’s going to be a good party’

Famous for his interactive installations for public spaces, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer talks about his unusual path from physical chemistry graduate to artist, and the growing relationship between technology and artistic practice


When talking about contemporary art and technology, it is impossible not to mention Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (b1967). The Mexican artist, who now lives in Canada, has already experimented with almost all known types of novelties in this area, including visual or sound trackers and recorders, internet databases and networks, robotics and computer-generative systems. Recently, he innovated again and conceived the series Sphere Packing (2014), in which he uses 3D printers to design a sort of disco-ball that plays a compilation of the entire musical production of a specific composer.

Lozano-Hemmer has been exploring the potential of working with electronic devices in visual arts since the 1990s, a primary example being Surface Tension (1992), a large full-screen video installation of a giant eye that follows the viewer wherever he or she goes. He is a pioneer in the creation of artwork for the app format, such as the mobile application Pulse Phone (2009), which detects the person’s heart rate, an intimate and unique work of art. He is also famous for exploring what is called “relational architecture”, interactive installations for public space. He has conceived large-scale participative projects for the outdoors, such as Under Scan (2005), in which he played with the notion of surveillance. Among other places, Under Scan was displayed in London’s busy Trafalgar Square. There, a pedestrian’s movements triggered a video projection on the ground of another person. The figure in the video, who is on the same scale as the pedestrian and appears within their shadow, stops whatever he or she is doing and attempts to make eye contact with the passerby, who is taken by surprise.

Video: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Under Scan, Brayford University Campus, Lincoln, UK, 2005.

For the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, Lozano-Hemmer hung hundreds of light bulbs in the installation Pulse Room (2006). A sensor plugged into a computer records the heartbeat of the volunteer participant and sends it to the first light bulb, which then flashes with exactly the same rhythm. When someone else touches the sensor, the initial pattern is sent to the next bulb, and the new heartbeat dictates the flashing cadence of the first bulb. Subsequently, the entire room will be filled with light bulbs all flashing at different rates. This installation is one of his most popular artworks and is being shown this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal, Canada, and the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Australia. Lozano-Hemmer forged something similar with the recent piece, Voice Array (2013), exhibited from November 2013 to March of this year at Casa Daros in Rio de Janeiro, but in that project, instead of heartbeats, it was the public’s voices that were recorded, activating both flashing lights and sounds. It was in Rio, during premiere of Voice Array, that I met him and started this dialogue, an edited version of which can be read here.

Our conversation began with a chat about a common interest, our love for London. We talked about his 2008 solo show Frequency and Volume – in which the visitor’s body functioned as an antenna capturing signals – held at the Curve at the Barbican Centre, a place he really appreciates because: “It’s a mixture of performing and digital art, dance and orchestra.” The exhibition Digital Revolution (see our review here), currently at the Barbican Centre, displays his The Year's Midnight (2011) a disturbing interactive artwork in which you look at a screen that, in a similar way to a mirror shows your image, but with your eyes on fire. Next, we talked about his unusual trajectory as an artist and his thoughts and opinions on the inevitable relationship between technology and artistic practice.

Video: Performance with the piece Voice Array (Matriz de Voz), featuring beatboxer LK, Casa Daros Rio, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2013.

Caroline Menezes: You have a degree in physical chemistry, right? I know other artists working with new media who did not go to art school either and are originally from fields such as IT, or are mathematicians or engineers. However, an artist from the field of chemistry is unique. How did you leap from chemistry to art?

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: We were always very artistic in my family. Everybody somehow was connected to art, mostly to music. My parents were nightclub owners in Mexico. Musicians, especially salsa musicians, surrounded us – people such Celia Cruz and Pérez Prado. When I went to university, I wanted to study chemistry and I did. However, I also started hanging out with composers, choreographers, writers and artists. So, this was really a case of me just being exposed to the wrong crowd. (Laughs). We started doing performance art; at least we had a lot of experiences with it. I once set myself on fire – I was 19 years old and you do these things when you are young, to map out a space for yourself. We were a group of 10 people, and it was fun, but there was no direction. Artwork needs to have a direction, a backbone. Then I started doing visual art because it is still performative, but the public is the main actor.

CM: And what about physical chemistry? How do you see the relationship between art and science?

RLH: Nowadays, I have basically forgotten all that I learned in chemistry, but I am still very inspired by contemporary science. Our understanding of science still comes from the 19th century. It is very positivistic. In fact, science is an immensely eccentric place, with things such as uncertainty and chaos theory, and all these different kinds of maths that have come out now that are not deterministic. It inspires a lot of what I do. People can say that we are living a new renaissance, art and science together. I do not agree with that at all: science seeks to simplify, to get to the essence of natural phenomena, and to be able to predict them, to create equations to understand them. On the other hand, art tries to complexify things, to create ambiguity. Poetry is by definition something that has multiple readings. Different people will read it differently; that is what we look for in art. We look for interruptions and frustrations. We look for questions rather than answers. These are very different fields, and I am sure they inspire each other, but the objectives are completely opposite. Certain art forms and certain sciences are based on a radically empirical approach. I am interested in that, the idea that there are experiments, both in art and in science. We are working with reactions, we are establishing the initial conditions, and then we are seeing what emerges. That is true in science and it is true in art.

CM: From science to technology, how do you see the intrinsic relation between contemporary art and technology?

RLH: Technology is inevitable. We live in a globalised society where technology is the language of globalisation. If your public watches eight hours of screen time a day, whether in Brazil or in Canada, it is the same. If you watch TV, are on the internet or on a mobile phone many hours a day, even if you are a painter, you can’t help it but your experience is already technological. If you are in a very remote area of Brazil and you have never seen a phone, you are still a technological being because the economy of your country is based on virtual capital that is being exchanged through networks. I have a very Canadian approach, something like Marshall McLuhan’s idea that technology is a second skin and not a tool: it is not optional. What was thought like before language? We don’t know. We need language. It is the same problem. What was it like before technology? Working with technology is inevitable and it is normal, it is natural.

CM: Computer code is a kind of language, and experts are saying that the new generation is going to be somewhat illiterate, because as you said, we are dealing with technology all the time, but only a few people know how to write a programme, how to create using computer code and what is behind the computer interface.

RLH: But it’s changing. I started coding when I did my science degree. I learned to program but I programmed badly. It is the same with music. I love music, but I play badly. So, I take this position that it is important to know how to code, but you also need to work in collaboration with people who are specialists and are able to leverage their knowledge in dialogue. But in terms of coding today, what I’m noticing is the arrival of processing, openFrameworks, a variety of pure data or platforms that is making it easier for visual artists, musicians, creative people to approach coding. It means that literacy in code no longer requires this enormous investment of time. I have seen a lot of artists getting lost in code because it changes over time. You need to be able to read code, but you also need to read Jorge Luis Borges or whatever. The situation is improving because code is becoming something more and more approachable for visual artists. I see generations of young artists who are adopting code like just one more kind of medium in their arsenal. I like that a lot. 

CM: If we look back to the beginning of computer art, in the 1960s or 70s, we see that in their early attempts to combine computer coding and artistic practice, some of the pioneers aimed to programme a computer to replicate human gestures, to create paintings, for example. Nowadays, the contemporary generation who deal with art and technology draws much of their inspiration from the human condition. They do not try to make machines to create artworks, but instead try to put human beings in contact with others through technology. Examples from you work would be Under Scan and Pulse Room. How do you perceive this change of approach in art and technology? From being more related to what the machine can do, to now being filled with the human essence, technology is used to improve the participation that will actually produce the artwork. How do you comprehend the structure of your work regarding this?

RLH: What you are saying is true, there are different approaches to how you use technology. I am not sure if it is time-based because, even from early on, the use of the computer was aimed at connecting people. Even today, artists including myself are doing both. These things are not mutually exclusive. They can all exist, even within the same artist. We are doing generative artworks that emerge from algorithms and create something that you did not anticipate. The other two types of artwork that I make are trackers or recorders. Trackers detect your presence and react to your behaviour. Recorders record and keep a memory of your participation. Sometimes we are given a commission and then we develop the technology for it. But most of the time we do it from the bottom up. We test things, try things out in the lab, and then we develop a work that comes out of the emergent properties of whatever we are investigating. I like the freedom to do both, because in one you are given a goal and so you work within those constraints, and the other one is more organic, you don’t know what the objective is, and you just keep working at something until you get a product that you think is worth showing. The structure of my work is very similar to performing arts where you have a director, but then you also have an actor, a composer, a programmer or a lighting designer. On my website, every piece has credits, but we are following somebody’s bias, in this case, mine. On other occasions, I have done the visuals for an architect and I like that he decides what to do. I don’t think the art of consensus is very interesting. We must work with improvisation, nightmares, biases and stubborn sorts of ideas, but also follow someone’s vision, because it is good for the public, so there is a backbone. Computers make the idea of collaboration even more important, not only taking into consideration the programmers and designers, but also the tools used. I am very aware that if you are working with Photoshop, you are not doing this alone. You are doing this with hundreds of people who have designed constraints into the system. You are creating in relation to an entire tradition of code. Again, it makes it more theatrical. This idea of the artist by himself, inspired, this 19th-century thing is gone. Now, we have much more dialogue, relationships, and people curating experiences or engineering platforms. Ultimately, I remember my parents with their nightclubs. A good artwork is like a good nightclub – you create the music, the ambience and whatever, but it’s only when the public comes in that you know if it’s going to be a good party or not. The public brings the energy and the content, and the artist just creates the conditions for an experiment to take place over time.

CM: From this, we can develop the idea of public participation. How important is public participation to your artwork to keep it existing, for it to be alive, to grow in a way? It is not merely a case of a person going there, visiting the installation and having an experience, but instead the participant, the public of your artwork, contributes to the continuation of your artwork. They need to lend something, don’t they?

RLH: If minimalists such as Donald Judd said that what you see is what you get, we say that what you give is what you get. This type of artwork has a sort of immediacy. In Under Scan, for instance, people were completely free to record themselves however they wanted. The only thing we asked of them was to look straight at the camera at one point. I’m looking for artworks that are out of my control. It is people who will in the end complete them, through their interpretation, their views, their memories, their uses. As Marcel Duchamp said: “Ce sont les regardeurs qui font les tableaux”  – It is the onlookers who make the paintings. 


Rafael Lozano-Hemmer forthcoming shows:

Obra Sonora (Sound Work)
25 September – 1 November 2014
Carroll/Fletcher Gallery
London, UK

Fiducial Voice Beacons
Permanent installation at the Science Museum
Opens on 24 October 2014
London, UK

25 October – 20 December 2014
Bogotá, Colombia

A Draft of Shadows
2 November 2014 – 3 May 2015
Bildmuseet Contemporary Art Centre
Umeä, Sweden

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