What You Give is What You Get: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer


Mexican-born electronics artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer creates installations that could not exist without the participation of the public. His art, fueled by human energy, ranges from one-room displays to city-square-scale manifestations. Commissions for his work have included the Millennium Celebrations in Mexico City (1999), the UN World Summit of Cities in Lyon (2003), the 50th Anniversary of the Guggenheim in NYC (2009) and the Vancouver Winter Olympics (2010). In 2007, he was the first artist to officially represent Mexico at the Venice Biennale. He has been awarded two BAFTA British Academy Awards for Interactive Art, as well as a Golden Nica at the Prix Ars Elextronica in Austria. I met with the internationally exhibiting artist at his busy office in Montreal where he works with a team who helps bring his concepts to life.

Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin: Tell me about your work.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: After working for twenty years at the intersection of performance, architecture, and critical studies, I’m very curious about creating platforms for self-representation and participation. My work is incomplete and experimental in nature. The platforms require people to participate, they require people to be aware of the events and then take the piece in a direction that suits them. I have two types of work, one that is more ephemeral – interventions in public space – and one that is more for galleries, museums, and collections. In the gallery-based work, we use technology, surveillance, biometric sensors, all sorts of robotics networks and projections to create environments where the content itself is crowd-sourced, where it is people who in fact are leaving behind a memory of the event. To alter Frank Stella’s minimalist quip “What you see is what you get,” we believe “what you give is what you get.”


For the show I have upcoming in Manchester, called Recorders, all eight of the installations could not exist without the public’s presence. Microphones, one of the installations, is basically ten modified microphones that not only listen to you and record your voice but also automatically trigger a playback of a memory from the past. The piece has some 600,000 memories recorded from past participation and they come back to you as an echo directly from the microphone head which has been re-engineered to also contain a loudspeaker and a processor.

We also have a project called Pulse Room (being shown at Pulse Show at the Beall Center at UC Irvine starting September 30), which is a large array of incandescent light bulbs which flash according to the vital signs of the people who hold onto a sensor, not unlike what you might find at a gym. Again, the idea is that all of these flashing sequences come directly from data that has been recovered or obtained during the exhibition. If no one participates, the lights are off. So that’s a humbling effect of this kind of interactive artwork.

From the perspective of the more public art pieces, I am politically very interested in the idea of a certain kind of crisis of representation of public space. Faced with a kind of homogenizing globalization experience, I think that artists have a great challenge to disturb patterns of consumption and create interruptions of the narrative of corporate takeover. The way art does that varies. In my case, it’s about taking these corporate technologies, appropriating their use and perverting them. So when people can amplify their presence on an urban scale, they can feel a certain sense of entitlement, public takeover, absurd, ironic distance. And the projects are oftentimes without a beginning or an end; they are more like a public fountain, they are continuous.


SZ-R: You studied science in school. How did you start creating art?

RL-H: My parents were nightclub owners in Mexico City and I studied chemistry and worked for a multinational [company] for a few months after graduating. I really disliked it. I felt that although one can be very creative in science, it takes a lot more education than I had to really reach that moment. So I hung out with composers, choreographers, and engineers, and we would make performance art. It was a very festive, very anarchic kind of environment. And despite the fact that I did graduate in chemistry, right after that I immediately started doing performance art, radio art, and a bit of visual art.

SZ-R: Much of your work seems to be a translation of the human into the visual sphere. Could you elaborate on the motivations behind such a translation?

RL-H: There is the idea of sensor, processor, and effector. So it’s a really nerdy cybernetic connection there. Critically, I find it very useful to do that kind of translation, because they are the ones that allow you to find those interstitial spaces, full of ambiguities. All those things that art people would look for can be found in the layers that connect the disparate realities of poetry and science. Often, I’m trying to connect realities that are co-present: sound and electromagnetic signals, voices and lights… and create wormholes between them or overlap them or create tension between them.


SZ-R: What are your sources of inspiration?

RL-H: I studied a lot of philosophy. Here in Montreal, there is Brian Massumi, a really excellent theorist at the Université de Montreal with a post-Deleuzian approach to architecture, aesthetics… He’s a good friend and I try to learn as much as I can from him. It is true that most of my inspiration comes from science. It is an intensely interesting field of study that is full of weirdness; I read about everything from wave theory to entanglement. Working with light, for instance, just the fact that there is this duality of it being a particle or a wave, I love that. I love that kind of schizophrenia. And scientists are a real inspiration. Other than that, it’s the usual suspects: love, betrayal, hormones, nightmares, chance, etc. I don’t see electronic art as being different from any other types of art.

SZ-R: Obviously you are playing and experimenting with new technologies, but do you feel that tradition has a lot to do with your work?

RL-H: Sure! As a Latin American, there is an intense tradition of technological experimentation which, sadly, hasn’t been reported enough. Usually, the mention of Latin American art stirs up thoughts of pre-idealistic, romantic, and ideological muralism, or thinking of magical realism and so on. But, say, if you ask a Brazilian, she will tell you that photography was invented in Brazil before Daguerre and Talbot with a guy named Hercules Florence. Or the theory of cybernetics was first postulated at the National Institute of Cardiology in Mexico City. Or that the Mexican Estridentista futurists had manifestos for radio art in the 1920s. This is really interesting because there are traditions of experimentation that connect me with these types of backgrounds. It is very useful today because as a Latin American in Canada, I often need to work against the stereotypes. Tradition is very important in that sense. If you think of contemporary Mexican artists — Francis Alÿs from Belgium, Santiago Sierra from Spain, Melanie Smith from England — they’ve come to Mexico and now they’re Mexican since they live there. And then you have Carlos Amorales who’s in Amsterdam, I’m here in Montreal, Guillermo Gomez-Peña in San Francisco, Felipe Ehrenberg in Brasilia, Orozco’s in Paris and New York, and you have these flows and displacements, which I really like about Mexico. And that’s been its tradition forever.


SZ-R: Have you shown any of your work in Montreal?

RL-H: I’ve only done a few small pieces as part of music festivals. I did a piece for Elektra (a festival presenting artist works combining “electronic music and creative imagery derived from new technologies”) and for Mutek (another festival presenting “digital creativity in sound, music, and audio-visual art”). Interestingly both [are] in the realm of music, which I find very different than the realm of visual art. I do believe Montreal has one of the best music scenes. Contemporary dance here is also very mature and world-class. We’re just missing visual art as a real contribution and I’m not seeing it yet.

SZ-R: What then brought you to Montreal?

RL-H: One is completely practical, I married a Montrealer, have 3 kids, and its great to have grandparents close by. Secondly, the truth is, especially on the side of production, Montreal is really privileged. Montreal is very, very strong when it comes to computer graphics, computer hardware, programming. It always has been. What I get here in terms of facilities and personnel to actually develop a project would not be possible anywhere else. Or even just the cost of a space. From the perspective of production, I find it really difficult to find a better city than Montreal. This is really the place to be to get things done, but then you need to take them elsewhere, or else you’ll never be able to support yourself.

Stay tuned for a discussion on the Montreal art scene tomorrow, the conclusion of this series. Rafael has much more to say…