The Rafael Lozano-Hemmer Interview
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer was born in Mexico City and currently resides in Montreal, Canada. He is an electronic artist and works across any number of mediums and media and employs a dazzling array of technology. He describes his works as only an extension of other people’s ideas yet they have won awards and acclaim around the globe. illumni had the pleasure of speaking with Rafael by phone just as his mega installation ‘Open Air’ was about to launch in Philadelphia. The conversation went something like this ……..
Hello Rafael, Australia calling again have you seen the questions we sent?
I specifically didn’t read your questions because when I find I read questions and compose answers I feel like a robot.
Ok. First of all I really appreciate your time, thank you so very much.
It is my pleasure.
Now I’ll sound like a bit of a robot reading the questions off my notes.
Okay, you be the robot.
Ok. First up, one of your most recent works is for the DesignPhiladelphia Festival, for which you’ve created the stunning “Open Air” installation, using amongst other things 24 robotic searchlights. Is this a milestone installation, something you’ve been working towards for a long time?
The Open Air project’ is a milestone in several ways. It’s definitely the largest I’ve ever done utilizing 24 searchlights that can be seen from fifteen kilometres away. I often say that my work is as big as my insecurities, so I must be at my most insecure right now.
It is also a milestone in so much as it has satisfied my desire to take something really large and make it very personal. I’m trying to give people the same intimate experience they have everyday with their smartphones but on an urban scale. I have always been interested in the relationship of scale, of how we can use technology in a more intimate way so the stories we tell are about the people participating in the event as opposed to it being just some kind of giant show.
illumni is always looking at the creative side of things, where ideas come from and how and how you get them. With this particular installation, because it is so large, what was the journey like from the point of having the idea in your head to putting it on paper and then turning it into reality? Was it an easy journey, was it fraught with obstacles, or did it turn out smoothly, just the way you planned it?
It was a dialogue from the beginning, and it had many different types of challenges and obstacles along the way. The Association for Public Art in Philadelphia commissioned the installation. They typically look after large sculptures, memorials, fountains and such. Actually it’s the oldest public art organization in the United States. They were great. They invited me to Philly and showed me the city. I did a lot of scouting and I met with historians, with stakeholders, with architects, and all sorts of people from the town and in conversations with them, what came out was a real pride in the city for free speech, for a very democratic type of approach to citizenship. Philadelphia is a town which is very aware of it’s historical backdrop, they see themselves as a place of dialogue, exchange and diversity, all of the platitudes that you hear from most cities, but they really come through in terms of their background and their contemporary approach. So we wanted to say let’s take that free speech, let us take that capability for people to express themselves and make it visible and create some kind of voice messaging system, but instead of it being something that is private let’s make something that takes place in the sky made visible by light.
Then we discovered all sorts of challenges. One of which was obviously financial. The logistics and equipment rental were extremely expensive along with other bits and pieces and we had some technological issues. For example, when I first decided to make this project I wanted all of the communications to be live from people’s smartphones direct into the light but we found quite a bit of delay and lag in the communication networks. This meant that instead of going into a live mic situation we went into a messaging system like voicemail. But in the end I was happy because people could be a little more thoughtful in what they said and they could review it before they submitted it. So the message could be previewed and edited as opposed to it being a bunch of shouting and people on their phones just improvising. The messaging system that was developed to overcome these technical limitations is something I’m now very happy about.
You were describing a little earlier how you talked with all the people from Philadelphia before you started this project to ensure it was the right fit.
That’s right and it’s the fun part of doing a project like this because ultimately you want to make sure that whatever you’re doing resonates with the people that are going to be experiencing it.
To that point you have previously described your work as ‘platforms for public participation’
Exactly, I come from Mexico City, which as you know is one of the biggest cities in the world. I find that it’s really important in contemporary cities to have projects where people can self represent. So many times I hear politicians say “we want to have art reactivate our city centre” or something along those lines. But universally what politicians want to do is to put in 19th century lampposts, cobblestones and GAP stores, and Starbucks, so what they’re doing is making the city centres all around the world look the same. What we need to do instead is create eccentric interruptions, moments of singularity where something intensely strange takes place that makes people want to go back into public space and take it over and feel a sense of entitlement as opposed to just making cities all look homogeneous.
Reading through a lot of the articles that you’ve written and ones that have been written about you, I get the impression that you like to think of your installations as having lives of their own. Do they?
Yeah, they totally do. Once a piece goes live, I become just one more spectator or participant. The project is completely out of my control, and that’s a really important part of what I do. I make sure that nobody tells you what to do or not to do so people can self-moderate or self organize and say what they want to say. In that sense the pieces do have lives of their own. A good project is one where the outcome is not something I anticipated, it is something that can be surprising, where people end up doing something that you did not plan.
So even though you have a clear vision when you start a project, in the process it can become something else again?
Exactly, or that it is used completely differently to what you thought it could be. For instance I made a project a long time ago at the Havana Biennale where people could type any kind of message into a keyboard and it would go onto the internet. Cubans can’t usually do this because the government forbids it. My system prevented censorship because the authorities couldn’t distinguish between a message created by a computer program or one submitted on my keyboard. So people had the opportunity to say what they wanted. What I thought would happen was that we would get a lot of political messages out there or something about the delicate situations that a lot of Cubans find themselves in. What we found however was that a lot of people were just writing erotic content. And we thought that was really great because ultimately that’s what they wanted to do. It’s not up to me to tell people what to use these platforms for.
Lighting creativity has progressed enormously in a very short space of time because of advances in technology and because the people building these installations such as yourself are seeing more and more opportunities to push limits and explore new ground?
There are many things at work here. One of the things that is happening is new technology is becoming more affordable. And you don’t need enormous amounts of gear to build prototypes. This used to be extremely costly for people such as myself who don’t have corporate affiliations. So now you can actually create very strange experiences in your studio or in your garage or in your home and then gear them up once you get access to budget. And the interactivity and the concept and the design and all that can actually happen with just a personal computer. Then that very same experience, when you finally get a chance to do it on a big scale, has already been tried out. I think this is a really positive development as it allows more and more voices to be heard and more experiences to be developed at the same time. I have to say that what happens with lighting today is that often it’s too predictable. For example, there is an entire field of illumination called architainment, which for a start is a really horrible word. With architainment what we see is people illuminating buildings just for the sake of doing it, often just for colour changes. For example if you just tell me what kind of lighting fixture is being used to illuminate a building, say a mac exterior 600 for instance, which is the Danish lighting fixture, I can actually tell you the sequence of colours we are going to see. We’re going to see magenta, we’re going to see cyan, we will see a little bit of amber. I could literally tell you what the gobos are in these fixtures and I can predict what type of light show we are going to get when you’re illuminating the building and I find that is really problematic because ultimately the buildings are going to look a certain way and I don’t see that animating them with colours is worth it. I think we need to be a little bit more elegant, a little more subdued in the way that we choose our effects and also there has to be a reason to do it in the first place. Like how exactly is this lighting scheme adding to a particular building, or how is it telling a story or how does it have compelling content. We all need to be a bit critical of ourselves to make sure we are not just doing things for the sake of it. There has to be a reason or a message or an effect or a context for a project to have any merit.
You work with light as an artist but you also work across many other mediums so what comes first, the desire to work with a particular medium or an idea and then you find the best way of expressing it.
We find in the studio is we go fifty/fifty. Fifty percent of the time we work almost like parasites. We’re given a situation or context or a site for an event or a memorial or a biennale and then we are asked to make an intervention into it. Then we work backwards and we take all of the constraints and we try and come up with something that would be worthwhile for that context. And 50% of the time it’s the other way around its more to do with tools, or strategies, or ideas that we come up with and then we want to implement them out there in the public space. So it’s fifty/fifty.
(“Open Air”, 2012. Philadelphia, USA)
It’s unusual to find someone who can envision a large installation such as Open Air but who can also be bothered with the tiny little things that help make it all work. But that’s what you do?
I think of a lot of my kind of work as almost performing arts. I find that even though a lot of it is in museums, galleries or in collections, the kind of approach I have is much closer to theatre or performing arts in general. Because ultimately in the theatre you have a director and you also have musicians and a composer and writers, and actors, etc. We have engineers and people that do illumination and people that do logistics and so on so there’s a big team of people working on a project and the director is only one member of this team. It is true though that it is important to have a director so there is a vision that everyone can follow and pursue along with all the nightmares, or obsessions or passions that director may have. Now it’s true that I haven’t always been the director. For instance I did a project in Spain with an architect named Emilio López-Galiacho and he was the director and I was just doing the visuals and I like that. I like having clearly defined roles for each of the team members but ultimately we need to have a backbone and there needs to be a bias and some idiosyncrasies, some kind of stubborn stressed out person to push an eccentric vision through. When I’m the director I like to be able to ensure that everybody in the team helps achieve the vision. I find that in the performing arts it’s really clear, there’s always credits, and there’s always a sense of teamwork.
If you’re the conductor and there’s an orchestra then everything’s perfectly scripted, every note, and everyone knows exactly where each note goes and how it all comes together but I suppose it’s different with Open Air as you’re experimenting on some things as you go?
You’re right but on the other hand musicians also have a lot of creative input and mastery of their instruments and so there is the possibility for free expression and even improvisation in an orchestra. Everybody’s ‘colour’ comes through in a performance.
Ultimately there is a sense of the unknown and uncertainty associated with a lot of my projects and I should say that even though these projects are intensely planned and projected and developed, we still have to deal with very unexpected occurrences. So we do have to improvise. A good example is when you’re working with a huge lighting set up such as Open Air in Philadelphia. We can simulate all that we like in our studio with some small fixtures, or we can do 3d simulations, which we do but it’s never the same thing. It’s not until you finally have access to the actual lights and gear and stuff, usually just days before the opening, that you get to rehearse for real. And that’s when the tough decisions get made about how the project is going to work and how it’s going to develop. It’s fun and it’s tense and it’s stressful and it produces a lot of sleepless nights before the opening.
That sounds like a lot of pressure. Do you ever run out of ideas or hit a dry spell?
No, not really. For me ideas are kind of like hairballs. If I were a cat I’d just spit them out. They kind of take you over and they’re inevitable. They just keep happening. But up to a point I believe no idea is truly original. And I don’t feel that any of my ideas are particularly ground breaking. They’re more like progressions on things other people have started. If you visit www.openairphilly.net you’ll see we’re working very hard to create a historical section where we talk about different precedents for what we’re doing. I want people to be aware of and humbled by the incredible pioneers in the fields of lighting and architecture and theatre and telecommunications whose efforts made what we’re doing today possible.
That’s not such an unusual approach. In song writing for example, a songwriter will take someone else’s chord progression. They’ll record that exact same progression, and then put another melody over the top. So art is continually borrowing and evolving and I think that somehow it’s this process that does help things continually get better?
I think in music or even visually or in writing, there’s a sense that artists are always somehow working off each other and the work is better for it. The problem with my field, the so called “New Media”, even by it’s very name, the idea of ‘the new’ is very annoying because it’s not like where doing this to seem futuristic or to seem unique. To me it’s much more useful to find these relationships to the past because they form who we are and make us richer.
You mentioned earlier that once your work is created, once it goes ‘out there’, you become, I think you said, ‘a bystander’ or ‘spectator’. But do you still get to connect with your audience?
Yeah, I guess. It’s always great to have a sense of complicity with the people who come to see my projects. And you get a lot of feedback. If people don’t participate the project does not exist. It’s a very humbling and creative collaboration. I get concerned if there is no connection with the audience because then I’m obviously not making enough effort.
Technology has developed at such a rate, to a stage where creatively you can do almost anything you like?
I work with technology because it is inevitable. Which is to say that it is the language of globalization. Whether it’s economics or politics, or culture, all of these transactions are taking place now through globalized networks that depend on technologies to exist. So even if you’re a person in a remote area in Mexico and you’ve never made a phone call, this globalised technology still affects you because for instance your language is about to disappear. The concentration of mainstream languages on the network means yours isn’t needed so it will just fade away and cease to exist. And your countries economy is created by a virtual system of value that does not have any tangible support. It’s transactional. The environment is being destroyed by systems of communication and transport that are depleting all of our resources. And so on.
So my position is that even if you’re a painter, you are working with a public that watches 8 hours of screen time a day. It might be television, the internet or phone or what not, but it is impossible to be outside of this technology. Which is why I work with it because I find it consistent and coherent with the moment that we live in. I would find it much more heroic and difficult to pretend to be outside of technology. Pol Pot tried that and it didn’t really work out for him.
Just one last question, I know you’re short for time but when are you coming back to Australia?
I would love to go back, specifically, I would love to do one of my Searchlight pieces in Circular Quay in Sydney because it’s absolutely the perfect location for something like Open Air or Articulated Intersect. But also what I love about Circular Quay is that it is a plaza, there is so much throughput, people coming and going that it’d be great to put some work in there. Hopefully one day we can make that happen.
Also I’ve had the luck to be able to do projects in both Sydney and Melbourne. I love both cities. I know that you guys have some rivalries, but they’re completely silly because they’re both awesome places. They’re both very different and I love that. It makes me feel like exploring other cities in Australia such as Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, or Perth. I would love to get more opportunity to be in your lovely country.
Hopefully that will happen sometime soon and illumni can take you out to lunch somewhere on the harbour.
That’d be great. That’d be awesome.
Rafael, thanks so much it’s been a pleasure talking to you
Year of creation — 2012
Technique — Xenon 10kW robotic searchlights, webcams, Linux servers, GPS, Google Earth 3D DMX interface, iPhones, custom-software, cloud computing and storage.
Dimensions — Interactive area 1 mile × 1 mile, visibility 10 mile radius depending on atmospheric conditions.
Commissioned by the Association for Public Art (aPA, formerly Fairmount Park Art Association). The project is funded in part by the inaugural round of the Philadelphia Knight Arts Challenge and presented in conjunction with the 2012 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and the 2012DesignPhiladelphia Festival.