Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s technologically advanced installations are unusual in their ability to arouse curiosity and to quickly transport viewers into their field of engagement. For this exhibition—the U.S. debut of the piece Frequency and Volume, Relational Architecture 9 (2003)—the artist made it possible for visitors to physically interact with radio frequencies. This participatory work is a continuation of his “Relational Architecture” series, begun in 1997, which explores the relationships between architecture, cities, the body and technology, and expresses his desire to amplify human gestures to transform people’s experiences of public spaces.
Upon entering the first room of Frequency and Volume, viewers encountered radio equipment whose function was not initially clear. Once in the main gallery, they found their shadows cast onto a gallery wall by a row of projectors, and here the fun began. A computerized tracking system, designed by Lozano-Hemmer with a computer programmer, enabled the shadows to scan radio waves between 150 kHz and 1.5 GHz transmitted by the anteroom equipment and a sculptural antenna tower installed on an adjoining terrace.
As participants moved through the space, the volume and frequency of the radio waves changed in response to the size and position of the shadows. The aural experience was somewhat magical, as the collage of sounds ranged from AM talk shows and jazz radio to traffic control and satellite transmissions. The effect oddly evoked Christian Marclay’s Video Quartet (2002).
Lozano-Hemmer’s installation Homographies (2006) was concurrently on view at SFMOMA in the group exhibition “Field Conditions.” In a blindingly bright, stripped-down room with a charcoal-and-white-tiled floor (Tauba Auerbach’s contribution to the show), visitors quickly noticed that the 52 overhead fluorescent tubes changed angles in relation to their movements. This prompted the desire to test the responsiveness of the lights and created a play space of sorts. However, since Lozano-Hemmer again used a custom-designed tracking system to detect visitors’ presence and position, ominous overtones of surveillance also came to mind.
The motion sensors Lozano-Hemmer employs have an underlying political agenda. Born in Mexico City in 1967, the artist developed Frequency and Volume at a time when the Mexican government was shutting down pirate radio stations in indigenous communities in the states of Chiapas and Guerrero. This history raises questions about community, artistic censorship and access to information. By making us aware of the transmission of radio waves through direct engagement with our bodies, Lozano-Hemmer powerfully suggests that the politics of public communication are inherently personal.
Photo: View of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s installation Frequency and Volume, Relational Architecture 9, 2003, mixed mediums; at SFMOMA.
Data is not information; information is not knowledge. This is the message one ultimately took away from Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s extremely tech-savvy exhibition. The Mexican-Canadian artist uses technology ranging from robotics and ultrasonic sensors to computerized surveillance systems and infrared illuminators, creating interactive installations that have a large gee-whiz factor but leave little intellectual or esthetic residue.
In this show, one could handle a sensor that translated heartbeats into light flashes emitted from an elaborate chandelier overhead, or stand in front of an electronic display while a camera and motion detector broke one’s image into a pattern of color swatches taken from video-game and browser palettes. The show contained a seismograph that used local vibrations to create endless drawings of the 17th-century skeptic Francisco Sanches, whose best-known work is titled Quod nihil scitur (That Nothing is Known). There were also non-interactive works, among them a set of large C-prints composed of grids of small stills of broadcast news anchors and reporters, arranged according to certain arbitrary schemata—for instance, alternating images in which eyes are closed or open, or alternating images of men and women.
The artist’s website says such works are meant as “temporary antimonuments for alien agency,” by which he seems to suggest that they offer platforms for the disruption of official systems of distributing information and exerting control. Only one work here really seems to fill that bill: Voz Alta Video and Prototype (2008), a public megaphone created for the 40th anniversary of a still notorious massacre that followed a 1968 student protest in Mexico City. Originally installed in the plaza where the demonstration took place, this work involves four microphones that translated speakers’ voices into light pulses, which crisscrossed the city’s nighttime sky. During its first run, the speakers’ words could also be heard on local radio. Voz Alta was presented here with a documentary video of this event and one of the microphones, into which viewers were invited to speak. The video makes clear the work’s cathartic effect on the Mexican participants.
Other projects indicate an earnest though much less effective effort to comment on various social or political scenarios. An infrared satellite image of the Tijuana-San Diego border erupts periodically with a plume of light that visually breaks through the contested boundary. Gender politics underlie a work in which the viewer can activate an electronic grid of images of heterosexual and same-sex couples, causing them to kiss.
In the end, one came away unsatisfied. Lozano-Hemmer’s ambitious efforts to integrate new technologies into art are admirable, but so far the products of this enterprise are longer on spectacle than substance.
Photo: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Seismoscope 1: Francisco Sanches. Portuguese (1550-1623), author of “That Nothing is Known” (Prototype), 2009, mixed mediums; at Haunch of Venison.