ARTIST INSIGHT: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer
How did you become involved with the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?
I’ve been doing light art installations for 20 years, and the pre-opening exhibition for the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi is touching on the subject of using lights for the material of the artwork. So they invited me to create a piece of public art for Abu Dhabi in conjunction with this exhibition.
Where did the idea for this particular piece work come?
I have a large number of artworks that connect with the pulse of participants. I did a piece of work back in 2006 – first in Mexico then at the Venice Biennale – which basically converted people’s heartbeats into flashes of light. I’ve also done it with theatrical spotlights, ripple tanks, water tanks and now for Pulse Corniche. Considering its scale, we decided to do it with powerful search lights which would basically amplify the pulses of people to a large, urban scale.
That is what you need for Abu Dhabi, something that will encompass the scale of the site. The project is not meant to be spectacular, despite the fact that we’re using 10 of the world’s brightest search lights. Anyone who approaches this piece looking for a Son et lumi’re show or some sort of fireworks display is going to be disappointed, because the piece is quite intimate, despite the fact that it takes over the plaza of the Corniche by creating a canopy of light. I’d compare this more to a water fountain or something that doesn’t have a beginning or an end. It’s far from a triumphant narrative; it’s more of a quiet, reflective and constantly changing display.
How exactly will it work?
The east plaza in the Corniche in Abu Dhabi is in the shape of a semi-circle with a diameter of 140 meters. We have placed our 10 robotic search lights in that semi-circle and each of them can be seen from 15 kilometres away. We’re going to put a sensor in the middle of that semi-circular plaza, which is very similar to what you find at the gym. They’re metallic cylinders that measure the electrical activity of your heart. As soon as the system detects your heartbeat, it measures eight different variable activities in your heart and we automatically interpret that data to create shapes in the sky and glimmers of light which matches you heart rate. It’s a unique signature made using your bio-metric data, which creates different light sculptures in the air.
If no one is participating then we record the data from the last five participants and show that. As more participants leave their recording behind, we push older participants away. So at any given time you might be watching the biometrical data of the past five participants. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually quite easy once you try it!
Illuminating the Corniche will give a positive message and it feels like a good time and place to do it…
It is a positive message. The fact is that these search lights have a very ominous history. They were used in anti-aircraft surveillance, by the Nazis to create the spectacles during the Nuremburg Rally and, after the Second World War, they were associated with the victory parades. But when we look at them now, we think about celebration, a corporate event or the opening of a new shopping mall. As an artist I think it’s important to know that these were lights of intimidation. I’m a Mexican, so when I see these searchlights I think of Mexicans crossing the border and American police patrols using the search light to search for those immigrants. I come from a certain thought process where light has certain violence and not a spiritual or uplifting thing. I’m very aware of the predatory uses of this technology.
Likewise with bio-metric detection, we use sensors that detect the specifics of each human so much like fingerprints, iris scans or DNA tests, biometry seeks to establish our identity. The challenge for the contemporary artist is to use these art perverse technologies and create projects that are connective, more poetic or critical. We need to make use of technologies that are in military, corporate or national control, to create pieces that are more democratic, open, festive and connective where people can personalise the public space. I think that my work is always in between the seduction of participation and amplification, -you are controlling a lot of power, but at the same time you’re being policed, tracked and your biometry is captured by a computer. As Goethe said “The brighter the light, the darker the shadow”.
What else can we expect at the show?
Working with light, often artists are compared with some of the masters of light-art. At the Guggenheim show in New York recently they had James Turrell who’s an incredible artist. He makes beautifully ambient and immersive installations of light. The show in Abu Dhabi includes a lot of work by other artists such as Robert Irwin. Many of those artists work with light from a very spiritual backdrop. Turrell is a Quaker so he has this idea of an inner light. While I completely admire all of his work I come from a very different tradition. My parents were nightclub owners so for me light is artificiality, something to confuse and divert the public and far from the lofty and beautiful usage that somebody like Turrell has.
One of things that inspires me is thinking that a good piece of artwork is like a good party. You can have music, lights and drinks, but ultimately the party is the people who come for it. Without people there’s no party. It’s the same thing with interactive art because it’s incomplete, unfinished and doesn’t exist unless someone comes to participate and leaves their heart behind. This makes artwork unique because the light display you see at any point is a function from the five people who just participated. As people keep participating the work reacts differently and that’s what makes it special.
What sorts of people do you think will get involved in these kinds of installations?
It depends on the project, but what I think will most likely happen here is there will be a sense of intimacy because there’s nothing more personal than the electronic activity of your heart. If that all of a sudden gets this massive amplification over the city it gives you a sense of awe and ownership of your city because you’re personalising it in a sense. There’s also a sense of takeover of the public space and the media where the people control the media and not the other way around. When these lights are used, it’s often for the Olympics or the opening of a new museum and it’s always the story being told you as a consumer who’s just watching it. In this case, it’s the other way around because it’s you who’s activating it and it’s your data that’s actually creating the piece. That creates a sense of complicity and I would love to see a wide variety of people participating in this piece. One thing that I insist upon is to make these works open for free participation so that anybody can come in and hold onto the sensors to see their data in light. As a Mexican, this is very important because Mexico is a place of intense economic violence, class difference and racial distinction. The possibility for people of different religions, classes and economic statuses to participate is a signal for hope and disruption to the normal ways in which we carry ourselves. I’ve never been to Abu Dhabi or even the Middle East, so I’m very curious to see how that might play out over there.
“The talk around Guggenheim has been about making it relevant to the region it’s in by taking the art pieces out of the museum and onto the streets for everyone’s participation. It sounds like the right way to go for the city”
I’ll humbly try to make a contribution, although I don’t know if I’ll succeed. Our work is experimental so we don’t really know what the outcome is going to be. The motivation of having public art and extending the activities of the Guggenheim out onto the streets is a very powerful direction to take. I see the need for this everywhere. Arts can become a very elitist and closed language that can be quite alienating. Even my piece can be alienating but at least it’s alienating to a larger number of people. It’s visible, open and driven by the people, so hopefully that sends a message that culture can be more horizontal and connective.
I’ve read about the concerns surrounding the working conditions of the people building the museum and heard Richard Armstrong, Director of the Guggenheim, saying “I want everyone to know that we’ve not started building the museum, so it’s a bit premature to already criticize the working conditions of the workers”, but I certainly am sensitive to that as an immigrant. I think we should hold high standards when thinking about what we’re doing and how art can become a leveller by appealing to human fundamentals. Fundamentals as in we’re alive, we’ve got electricity inside of us and how can this electricity be made tangible?
Ultimately, it is in times of intense violence, discrepancy, historical, racial and religious tension when we need more art and more exchange instead of less. When I told people in North America that I’ll be coming to work in Abu Dhabi, they asked if I was going to speak out against the worker’s dire conditions. I said that I would certainly be mindful of it because I’m mindful of the fact that the United States has itself come from a system of slavery which existed until very recently. Some might argue that in my country Mexico the same thing is still at work. It’s very easy to point fingers but it’s difficult to do self-criticism. So I’m not going to be the guy with high moral grounds but at the same time I think we need to talk about these complex issues. I’m not naive about the way power works.
Right after I’m done with this show I’ll go back to the Emirates to do a piece in Art Dubai and the reality of the art world is that it’s run by these extremely powerful people. But it’s also true that when I started out as an artist 20 years ago I thought that collectors were just ostentatious speculators and are all about themselves. Now that I’ve met enough collectors I know that some do really interesting things with their money, not just artistically but also socially. So it’s not so clear cut, you need to be able to have relationships with these people and understand that they’re also agents of change. These things are not black and white.
When do you come here?
The exhibition will open on Jan 8th and go on for 10 nights. Then Art Dubai is held the second week of March, which is exciting because I’ve never gone for it so it’ll be an exploration.