Mexico, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s homeland, made its debut at the 52nd edition of the Venice Biennale with the artist’s work exhibition. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is well-known for his big installations used by the most various media and for his custom-made interfaces. In other words this artist loves the active interaction of the public. Robot installations, computers, video projections, sensors, lights (and shadows) and sounds, these are the means used for the creation of works. His works are famous because all around the world they can temporarily change space perceptions and their relations with people living there. Or they can draw attention to important issues such as the continuous control we are subjected.
‘It is wide the range of interests and means inspiring Lozano-Hemmer’s creativity during the years’ said Marco Mancuso, lover of Lozano-Hemmer‘s works and interested in the new frontiers of urban architecture ‘and his approach to design has always been topical. Indeed, his theories are very closet o the newest manifestations of media architecture, intervention in public spaces and design interaction. More precisely, the design proposed by the Mexican artist is a kind of midway, pretty rare in the international panorama, between the interaction modern design, already consolidated thanks to digital technologies and sensors, and the new opportunities offered by interactive and audio-visual technologies toward architecture, especially in the city space.’ Mr. Mancuso goes further reminding us the Relational Architecture or works such as Vectorial Elevation and Body Movies , the interventions at the CAMM (Atlantic Centre for Modern Art), the Homographies and Pulse Room installations The purpose is the change of the spaces we live, the creation of new human and sensorial relations inside reassessed contexts, the improvement of our perception of the surrounding context, the modification of the usual and predictable theories governing our relation with the surrounding environment. Without forgetting the relationship with the Web and its possible networking dynamics, highlighting the possible interrelation between real and virtual space, as in the works The Trace or the already mentioned and remarkable- Vectorial Elevation .
When Mr. Lazano-Hemmer talks about his works, he prefers to use words such as ‘alien memory’ rather than ‘new media’ or ‘interactivity’. I could have a chat with him during a meeting in New York.
Monica Ponzini: Do you want to talk about the experience at the Venice Biennale?
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: It was the first time Mexico participated and we’ve done it in record time four/five months-, we rented a beautiful “palazzo” in Cannaregio and I brought six installations, some robotics, some projections, some lighting, one new, specifically for the space, although most of the pieces have not really been show in the way that I showed them, so I felt that the show was quite fresh. There was a work from 1992, it’s called Surface Tension , basically an eye that follows you wherever you move, and a lot of the pieces were using computer vision, surveillance. I’m interested especially now, in a time of homeland security and patriot act and invasion of public space, to utilize this kind of technology in a way that is more playful, in a way to make them visually tangible, so you could get a sense of the observation. In my work, the artwork observes the public, there’s a certain kind of policing the public, which sets the stage for potential performance.
It was the first time Mexico participated, the whole event was sadly affected by the accident a curator ( Príamo Lozada, NdR ) had seven days before the opening of the event. He went on a coma and the sad thing is that he had organized incredible parties for the opening and when the parties and the opening came the doctors had already done all kinds of surgical interventions and they actually told us there was a 70% chance that he would be ok. We were lying to ourselves saying he would make it through, yet one week after the opening he actually passed away.
The exhibition has a catalogue that I’m quite happy with, it’s got texts by Victor Stoichita, an art historian that talks about “new media” but not electronic new media, rather XVII or XIX century new media, and this is interesting to me because elements of phantasmagoria, elements of prospective representation, elements of shadow place make it very much into my work, so to have somebody like him was important. We have Cuauhtémoc Medina, a Mexican critic, we have Manuel DeLanda, who’s a theorist of the non-linear, he’s based in New York but he’s Mexican. He was approaching the work in a way that I really liked to look at, he comes from a tradition of deleuzian materialism and my work benefits very much from his approach. I think that all the new media artists and critics are very aware of non-linear dynamics and of chaotic systems and recursive algorithms, but the full cultural impact of that revolution of mathematics is really not evident in the humanities and there’s really no commentator that I think is more eloquent than Manuel for that. Reading a book by Manuel on the subject of complexity is really a different way of approaching this issue. In his books he often talks about economics and history or technological development, but this time he focuses on the art and that was cool. We also have Barbara London, José Luis Barrios, the book is an integral part of it, it’s what remains .
It’s doing quite well, the exhibition is getting 500 people a day, which is to my understanding- double what other pavilions outside the Giardini are getting, and also it’s gotten very good reviews, so I’m very pleased with all of that.
Monica Ponzini: Your interventions focus on public spaces, but also on buildings that are not exactly part of the real “life” of a place
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: I work a lot in public spaces and that’s a great challenge because, among other things, you don’t have all the intermediaries and a normal production context, people approach the work with a lot of spontaneity. The works that I do are mostly large scale, there are projections, there are lights, there are sensors, and typically what I’m looking for is to generate eccentric readings of the city. I get commissions to transform some urban location and most of the times where politicians talk about urban “renewal”, what they mean is put XIX century lampposts and Starbucks, and they have the big problem of global homogenization. All of these buildings are not representing people, but rather they’re representing corporate and international interests I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just what it is.
My work and the work of colleagues of mine brings a certain eccentricity and I think that those moments of interruption of the pattern are healthy, because make people question what is going on with homogeneity and the relationship to each other and the city. The other kind of intervention is more on “vampire” buildings, emblematic buildings that are forced to live with restorations, and they also form this kind of monolithic canon Venice it’s all like that. Especially because of the homogeneity and the globalization that is taking rampant stage, there is so much conservatism with that architecture, precisely because people fear the loss of identity. But we must also exorcize that, we must also transform those buildings, those buildings want to rest, they also want to be transformed. In the case of art, you can provide the context for that to happen: to pull out minor histories, minor elements, minor tales, minor narratives, buildings are bored to be represented always in the same way, they want to be part of a different performance, and with art you can do that, you can recontextualize elements and make them funny or perverse or make them disappear. Whatever it is that you’re doing, in public space people will engage with this kind of architecture in different ways. I’ve been doing that for 15 years and I’ll continue doing it. Now my work is going into collections museums, galleries, and one has to be very careful to be sure that that doesn’t take over what you’re doing. I’ve seen colleagues of mine that were beginning to sell on the “market” and they got completely sucked by it. You have to make sure that you’re also doing stuff that is going to be for the wider public.
Monica Ponzini: You operate with different media and create complex installations intended for the “real world”, not for galleries: how would you define yourself as an artist?
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: I’m a person who’s in between disciplines, a connective person, I think of my work not so much as visual art, but as performing art. The model that I work with is a model of collaboration, I usually work with a lot of people, there’s a director, which is me, then there’s a composer, an actor, a programmer a photographer.. whoever is necessary to work on a specific project. We follow a very clear path, a very clear obsession or nightmare that’s mine. Often I’ve collaborated not like that, for instance I did a project with an architect and it was his concept -I was just doing the visuals, that’s good too, but it’s always important to have a backbone.
It’s typically work that has a technological support, but not in the sense of “new”, I’m very against the word “new media”: the more you study art history, the more you realize that a lot of what we’re all doing is just progressions or transformations or new versions of stuff that has been done for a really long time. I’m not into the originality thing, I’ve studied post-structuralism, I know that’s no longer possible. I work with technology because it’s inevitable, it’s in every aspect of our global economy and whatever it’s gonna happen to your life it’s part of a technological culture. So if technology is inevitable, you realize that this term “new media” and the idea of grouping the artists because they use technology is ridiculous. I think that “new media” art is becoming “normal” art and subsumed into different other categories depending on what you’re doing. So, I’m a media artist, yes, but I don’t necessarily want to be classified by that, because I also do other kinds of work.
Monica Ponzini: Talking about technologies, what about team work? The tendency now is to work more in a team, to use the everyone’s specific skills. Do you agree?
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Absolutely. And on different levels: team work on a creative level, for example Although I met a Canadian artist, David Rockeby, who told me he has no assistants, he programs everything, he sets up everything, and I admire that very much, it’s very romantic and amazing, but most of my other colleagues liaise, work in groups, collaborate. And there’s a good reason for that: it’s very difficult to be like David, to be able to keep a really solid track and control of theory and technology and also be able to practice your work. It’s nice because in a way it makes the whole process of production a little bit more humbling. On a level of presentation, the collaboration happens too, it depends on the public. You require their collaboration and their input and they’re in fact the ones who are making the artwork, and that’s humbling again. You’re not doing this just for yourself, you’re doing something that in the end, once it’s out there as a platform your just one of the participants, you see people taking it over and if you’re successful, in my opinion, people will end up doing something really different from what you originally anticipated. If a project is good, in my opinion that means you’re not imposing a single view of things; successful projects are those that have enough poetry that people can read them in different ways. The capability for the artist to pull him or herself out of that and allow people to make their own decisions is crucial and their collaboration is fundamenta.
Monica Ponzini: So it’s not only you or your team, for you the role of the public is fundamental: do you expect to have something unexpected from them?
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Not give me, but give themselves or give each other. For example, with the shadow projects, connections are established between very disparate individuals. In England there was this moment where a group of young evangelicals was chanting and playing around with the shadows and they were coexisting in the same space with these punks, that were also having a good time and I thought that was cool, the capability for a project to connect extremely disparate realities. The platform is out of control and that’s a very important aspect of my work. The platform cannot be scripted, you have to set the limits for what people can or can’t do, but once you’ve set the platform, it’s not yours any more and you should just back off and relax to the possibility that it may go terribly wrong for instance .
Monica Ponzini: Also, you prefer to call your interventions relational rather than interactive: why such distinction?
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Originally, when I was using the term “relational”, like when I called “Relational architecture” a series of interventions this was before Nicolas Bourriaud’ s “Relational Aesthetics”, because what he means it’s an extremely different thing I used “relational” as a word to replace “interactivity”, because I saw “interactivity” as a “predatorial”, “pus-button” aesthetics. Interactivity at the time where I started calling my things relational, was very much a little “fetish”, just like “virtuality” had been right before. I decided not to be included in the very utilitarian, predatorial use of this kind of vertical application of technology. To me “relational” meant something that was more lateral, something more networked, it was more about establishing relationship, interactivity never seem to be that way, it seem to me to be one way -you do something, the computer does something else and that’s the end of it. With “relational” work what I was hoping to refer to was this emergence of ad hoc connections that were not intended by the artist himself. I’m trying to move away from the term because sadly the dominating understanding of that term is now based on relational aesthetics and I want to think of my work as more political, more nonsensical than what Nicolas Bourriaud was trying to propose in his essay.
Monica Ponzini: Another interesting and original concept in your work is the idea of alien memory. Can you describe it?
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: I love alien memory. All of my early works were done in the context of Ars Electronica, V2, Transmediale, where everybody was concerned with the idea of what was “new”. I really thought we needed a new word that was not “new” and “alien” was it. Instead of new media, alien media. A new concept is an alien concept: alien is something that “doesn’t belong”, a displacement, and a good conceptional work in my opinion is always a displacement, a repositioning of something into some other context that makes you think differently about the context. Alien memory was a different notion from deconstructive architecture or deconstructive art, from site-specific interventions, something that was speaking about the narratives of power of that site. I want to do something else, which is this idea of temporary relationship, temporary memory, alien memory, that has nothing to do with the site. In fact, a lot of my work travels, it’s not site-specific , but relationship-specific . “Alien memory” comes from the desire to look not at the big Memory (the capital M memory), but these small comments that may come up from micropolitcs, people looking at the work, or complaining about it. It’s a very intimate level, little meaningful moments that make you change the way that you would relate to a place. Macropolitical and economical issues are not the subject of my direct work. And I think that it is “political” to deal with those “intimate” things, but I try to stay away from moralizing or trying to pretend I have any solutions for what’s going on.
Monica Ponzini: What is your background? I know you were exposed to a lot of musicians and artists because your family ran nightclubs; also than you moved to Spain and then Canada . Did these experiences impact you and your work?
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Absolutely. I have three passports, the Mexican is green, the Canadian one is blue and the Spanish is red I have RGB. I was very troubled by all this and once I met one of Fluxus’ pioneers, Dick Higgins, and I told him “I’m so screwed up, I don’t know my roots and where I’m from” and he just told me “Rafael, identity is for beginners”. I think each one should do a private investigation into their identity, but shouldn’t subject that to the general public In my case I think the confusion is evident in most of my work, I think I’m involved in a kind of “anthropological” investigation: as you present the same project in different cities, people behave extremely differently, you can’t make certain generalizations, maybe these generalizations can be classified as a certain identity. In Portugal I expected that people would play with the shadows and with each others, and not so in England , but it was exactly the opposite .
Monica Ponzini: In your work 33 Questions per Minute , language also is very important: virtually endless, virtually correct but mostly non-sensed questions is that cycle of questions a way you see communication now?
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: This project is not so much about communication, as much as the impossibility of communication. I think that communication in art is a very dangerous concept and for a long time I’ve had a “crusade” against the word “communication” within art. I don’t think art is there to communicate better, I don’t think there’s any problem with communication in general; any time there are claims about the Net or MySpace or a new kind of cell phone that has videoconference, I think that’s a fallacy. Specifically in art, communication has no place and all the art that I like is the one that assures us of poetry, which means ambiguity, the fleeting fancy of words that flow, concepts that are unclear, a slowing down of that communication. Anything that gives me pleasure is against communication, so maybe this project is like that.
It came originally from the frustration of it: my father was in the hospital whit a cancer and had a respirator, and I made him a little board with words I’ve chosen so he could put together sentences, but I got the wrong words, the wrong concepts The idea that someone chooses these words for you is really problematic. The notion of this computer that keeps on asking these nonsensical questions is a little bit about the frustrating rhythm of them, the incapability to reflect on them. We often look at computer to find answers and this installation frustrates that.
The genesis of this project was in Cuba : we connected the computer to the Internet as well the Internet is forbidden to Cubans, but not to Mexican-Canadians- so people could enter their own questions into the automatic flow and their questions would go to the Internet. The idea was it would be impossible to the authorities to look at the questions and know if it was asked by a person or the computer. I thought that Cubans would start making comments about their situation, maybe some politics would come out, but what it came out was a lot of erotic messages As an artist, you cant’ and shouldn’t overdetermine how people would see your work, it’s always great to see it take a life of its own.