On a brisk September evening in Philadelphia, hundreds of people have gathered at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Many of them are on their phones, leaving personal messages to loved ones, calls to action, or general quips and nonsense, all the while gazing at the night sky where 24 powerful robotic searchlights are creating ghostly criss-cross patterns against the black expanse. The lights are being controlled by these anonymous voices, which together comprise the installation Open Air, the largest crowdsourced public art project Philadelphia has ever seen, created by Mexican-Canadian media artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.
Lozano-Hemmer has been exploring light, architecture and participant-driven interactive installations for over 20 years, making use and creative misuse of emerging technologies such as robotics, computerized surveillance and telematic networks. He’s one of the most prominent media artists working today and, unlike most of his colleagues working with new media, has been one of the few that’s crossed over and been embraced by the contemporary art world proper.
Much of that no doubt has to do with the elegance and simplicity of his ideas. Working primarily with light and shadow, many of Lozano-Hemmer’s pieces are really just platforms for participation—inviting visitors to lend their voice, heartbeat, breath, or fingerprint to construct the spectacle—while at the same time highlighting both uniquely modern issues, such as surveillance and privacy, as well as timeless, humanistic ones, such as mortality and interconnectedness.
We selected several of our favorite works from Lozano-Hemmer’s vast catalogue and asked him to provide a bit more context for each one. Read the artist’s own explanation of the pieces below and watch our behind-the-scenes documentary on Open Air above.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: This was my very first searchlight project. We wanted to amplify people’s participation to a colossal scale, as it is hard to transform the Zocalo square [in Mexico], which fits 300,000 people. Contrary to most millennium spectacles, this project was specifically designed to not be a cathartic narrative. It had no score or VIP viewing area, it had no beginning or end. The idea was to create personalization of the space instead of a passive show.
Photo by James Ewing.
In this project participants’ heart rates transform an entire park. Every person is represented by a single flickering light and as people participate, the recordings get pushed one position down the line so that the readings are constantly being recycled. As you walk on the park, you are surrounded by the vital signs of the past 200 participants. The project creates a rhythmic pattern not unlike the music of Conlon Nancarrow, Glenn Branca or Steve Reich, where repetitive sequences create a larger effect. I often want my installations to exist only if people participate, so if no one holds on to the sensor, there is nothing to see.
Pulse Index (2010)
Photo by Antimodular Research.
Similar to the above but this time using a fingerprint scanner in addition to a pulse sensor. The project at the MCA in Sydney could simultaneously show the biometric info of the past 10,925 participants, creating a landscape of skin.
Photo by Antimodular Research.
A puppetry piece for Santa Monica beach. As people put their hands into a small sandbox their image gets projected on the beach in a huge scale. But at the same time, a surveillance system detects the people in the beach and projects them as tiny shadows in the sandbox. This is a game of representation that allows people to come up with their own ad-hoc narratives, which most often connect people that do not know each other. Intimidation often becomes intimacy. Despite it being expressive and playful, the piece is developed with extremely ominous surveillance technology typically used to track illegal migrants at the US-Mexico border or teenagers at the local mall. How can we misuse those technologies of control to create a platform that is specifically out of control?
Voice Array, Subsculpture 13 (2011)
Photo by Antimodular Research
I’ve done many pieces that visualize the voice, which is a big tradition in media art. This piece is a pretty straightforward “crowdsourced” work in that people’s recordings are added and layered and can be seen and heard simultaneously. Like in the pulse works, new recordings push away older ones, so these pieces could be seen as a “memento mori.” Ultimately, the content is out of my control, which is something I love. In this type of work, “what you GIVE is what you GET,” so the responsability is shared with the public.