How Technology Feels: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer Interviewed

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Call on Water, 2016. Installation view, Unstable Presence, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2021. Courtesy the artist and bitforms, Max Estrella, Wilde, and Pace galleries. © Rafael Lozano-Hemmer / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Spain. Photo: Mariana Yañez.

Cold January, quietly buzzing on a weed gummy, coming in from the cold and into the damp and over-warm museum, I am dizzy from my N95 mask impeding my breath as I climb the stairs to the media galleries tucked up so high on the seventh floor. Recent Omicron worry increases hot feelings, it all feels of a part with the sound of machines at the top of the stairs landing. Warm ears and gut receive an inaudible/audible presence.

In Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s exhibition Unstable Presence at SFMOMA, the work Cardinal Directions (2010) exhorts me to spin around it to read the text on its little screen—the kind people watch baseball games on when fishing off a city pier. A choreography for a public, it is like spinning with your forehead on the bat ahead of hitting the piñata.

I walk in, still-warm, dizzy. I “do” Call on Water (2016) and Sphere Packing; Bach (2018) but mostly I am arrested by the experience I am having within myself and with the other masked people cramped in line with me, figuring out our way through more than this experience of an “exhibition in a museum.” The questions ahead came from within that disorientation. —Sofía Córdova 

This interview was conducted over the phone in both English and Spanish. Italics below denote a translation. 2 minutes were allowed per question. The text has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Sofía Córdova ¿Qué te atrae de las posibilidades físicas de la tecnología, algo que solemos pensar como invisible?

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer O sea, me preguntas por la fisicalidad. Yo llevo trabajando como unos trienta años, la idea de que la tecnología no es algo que sucede detrás de una pantalla, sino que ocupa nuestro propio espacio corporal, nuestro espacio social—aparte de, obviamente, nuestro espacio económico, emocional, mental. Entonces, en esta exposición en particular, los curadores querían mostrar obras mías que tenían una una materialidad hacer tangible estos tipos de tecnologías de control, de vigilancia y de generación de elementos de una forma física.

Yo creo que al final lo físico es lo que nos permite relacionarnos de una forma perceptiva, no corpórea, completa. Y eso contrasta, por ejemplo, con esta visión del ciberespacio como algo que visitas con un casco de realidad virtual y que te separa de tu cuerpo.

SC We usually think of technology as something invisible, what interests you about its physical possibilities?

RLH In other words, you’re asking me about physicality. For about thirty years, I’ve worked with the idea that technology doesn’t just happen behind a screen, but rather occupies our own bodily space, our social space—aside from, of course, our economic, emotional, and mental space. So in this particular exhibition, the curators wanted to show works of mine with a certain materiality, that make technologies of control, surveillance, and content creation tangible in a physical way.

I think that in the end, physical space is what allows us to relate to each other perceptively, not just bodily, but completely. And that’s in contrast to, for example, this vision of cyberspace as something you enter with a virtual reality helmet that separates you from your body.

SC Hay algo de tu tratamiento del lenguaje a través de estas máquinas “frías” que me hace pensar en la lógica absurda que se posibilita dentro de la inteligencia artificial, la que va a traer, o trae ya,  su propia lógica. ¿Qué piensas es la lógica de la inteligencia artificial? ¿Es definible en este momento? ¿Es compartida con nosotros o es ya algo propiamente independiente?

RLH Cuando nosotros pensamos en lógica, pensamos en algo que es muy programable, algo que es computarizado. Entonces la lógica es, digamos, el lenguaje de las computadoras, pues por defecto, es decir, su capacidad inherente de seguir instrucciones, es justamente lo que hace a las computadoras muy poderosas. Pero a mí, desde el punto de vista de las artes, justamente lo que me interesa son los momentos en que las máquinas y nosotros mismos podemos estar fuera de control, podemos improvisar, podemos tener un momento aleatorio. Justamente, una de las cosas más fascinantes de la computación actual, incluida la inteligencia artificial, es la incapacidad de un algoritmo para crear un número aleatorio. Hay toda una sección de matemáticas que se llama random number generators, que es justamente la idea que si quieres que una máquina genere algo aleatoriamente, necesitas utilizar un programa. Y si utilizas un programa lo puedes volver a utilizar y eso te va a dar la misma respuesta. Luego, por definición, no es aleatorio. En cambio, quizá una de las cosas que yo tengo en mente como algo esperanzador para la humanidad es el hecho de que podemos justamente improvisar y que podemos crear excentricidades que están fuera de esa lógica, no de esa programación.

Yo creo que los artistas que a mí más me interesan son aquellos que están improvisando más, son los que están más cerca del riesgo de la incertidumbre, de buscar cosas que no son computarizadas. 

SC There’s something about your use of language through these oft-considered “cold” machines that makes me think of the “absurd” logic that is made possible through artificial intelligence, which will introduce, or is already introducing, its own internal reasoning. What do you think is the logic of artificial intelligence? Can we define it yet? Is it something shared with us or is it already properly independent?

RLH When we think of logic, we think of something that is very programmable, something on the computer. So we could say that logic is the language of computers, because by definition, what makes computers so powerful is their inherent ability to follow instructions. However, from the point of view of the arts, what interests me are precisely those moments when the machines and ourselves can be out of control, can improvise, when we can have a moment of randomness. One of the most fascinating things about contemporary computation, including artificial intelligence, is precisely the fact that algorithms are incapable of creating a random number. There’s a whole branch of mathematics called random number generators, which consists of the idea that if you want a machine to make something randomly, you need to use a program. And if you use a program, you can reuse it and get the same result. Therefore, by definition, it isn’t random. So on the other hand, one of the things I’m thinking might be hopeful for humanity is the fact that we can actually improvise and that we can create eccentric things outside of this logic, this programming.

I think the artists that interest me most are those that are improvising the most, the ones that draw closer to the risk of uncertainty, that seek things that aren’t computerized.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Cardinal Directions, 2010. Installation view, Unstable Presence, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2021. Courtesy the artist and bitforms, Max Estrella, Wilde, and Pace galleries. © Rafael Lozano-Hemmer / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Spain. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Cardinal Directions, 2010. Installation view, Unstable Presence, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2021. Courtesy the artist and bitforms, Max Estrella, Wilde, and Pace galleries. © Rafael Lozano-Hemmer / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Spain. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel.

SC Esta pregunta no la tenía puesta, pero me viene a la mente aquí hablando contigo así más casual y entonces pensando en la idea de la improvisación, esto a lo mejor demasiado “on the nose” [obvio], como dicen por ahí, pero también pensando en tu tratamiento del sonido y la música: nómbrame si tienes, algún artista de jazz u otra cosa cuyo trabajo improvisatorio te inspire o te interese.

RLH Hay muchísimos, o sea el trabajo de improvisación ha sido algo que ha sido, digamos, de mi educación. Desde Zeena Parkins a René Lussier, hay un gran número de artistas. Yo creo que los pintores están constantemente improvisando, los escritores igual, los poetas. 

En realidad pienso que la idea del vocabulario artístico está muy “overestimated.” Creo que la capacidad que tenemos de saltar de una realidad a otra es lo que hace a los artistas útiles.

Los artistas que me interesan justamente buscan esa capacidad de que la obra les sorprenda a ellos mismos. Estoy pensando, por ejemplo, en el compositor americano, Charles Ives que era una persona que le gustaba mucho la simultaneidad, que dos cosas sucedieran al mismo tiempo y que justamente tu percepción de la obra oscilara entre una de las de las melodías, digamos, y la otra, el contrapunto. Sí creo que en que se aplica para todas las artes escénicas y visuales e incluso literarias. La improvisación es una parte fundamental del ser humano.

SC I didn’t prepare this question ahead of time, but it’s coming to mind now that we’re talking more casually like this and thinking about the idea of improvisation. This might be too “on the nose,” as they say, but I’m also thinking about your treatment of sound and music. Could you name for me, if you have one, a jazz—or any other medium really—artist whose improvisational work inspires or interests you?

RLH There are many. I mean, improvisational work is something that, let’s say, has been my education. From Zeena Parkins to René Lussier—there are many artists. I think that painters are constantly improvising, as are writers and poets.

In truth, I think that the idea of the artistic vocabulary is very overestimated. I think that the ability we have to jump from one reality to another is what makes artists useful. 

The artists that interest me search for that something in their work that surprises even them. I’m thinking, for example, of the US composer Charles Ives, who really liked simultaneity, when two things happen at the same time, so that your perception of a piece oscillates between one melody and another, the counterpoint. I do think that improvisation is used in all of the performing and visual arts, and even in literature. Improvisation is a fundamental part of being human.

SC ¿Qué hace que algo tecnológico se sienta viejo? 

RLH Cuando yo empecé a hacer lo que llamaba teatro tecnológico hace treinta años hice un tour por México y conocí a la gran dramaturga Jesusa Rodríguez, y Jesusa se reunió conmigo y con mis colegas y me dijo “Rafael, ¿cómo te atreves a poner algo tan sofisticado y rico como es el teatro, con algo tan infantil y primitivo como es la tecnología?” Y a mí me gustó mucho esa visión porque pensamos en la tecnología como algo nuevo. Cuando tenemos que pensar en algo sofisticado, en algo milenario, en estrategias de drama, de crítica, de poesía, de humor, pues tenemos que pensar en cosas como el teatro que son disciplinas milenarias. La tecnología tiende a la novedad y tiende a esta idea de originalidad, de que hagamos algo que nunca se ha hecho. Pero en mi opinión, eso no es interesante. Yo creo que la gente que piensa que las tecnologías son algo nuevo es gente que no ha estudiado a las artes en los últimos 200 años.

Hay una tradición de experimentación con tecnología y algo que a mí me gusta mucho es pensar, no es en cómo lo que yo estoy haciendo es novedoso, sino en cómo se conecta con tradiciones como puede ser el estridentismo en México, que fueron los pioneros de la radiodifusión en mi país, o cómo se conecta, por ejemplo, con los trabajos de Gyula Kosice en Argentina, pionero de la de la luz neón. Hay tantos hitos—algunos son de hace 100 años, otros de cincuenta años—que entre más conexiones se haga con eso “viejo,” a mí me parece mucho más importante y le da a la pieza más capacidad y rigor estético y crítico. Mientras más viejas se vean las tecnologías, mejor.

SC What makes a piece of technology feel old?

RLH When I began making what I called technological theater thirty years ago, I toured Mexico and met the great dramaturg Jesusa Rodríguez. Jesusa met up with me and my colleagues and she said, “Rafael, how dare you put something as sophisticated and rich as theater together with something as young and primitive as technology?” And I really liked that view, because we think of technology as a new thing. When we think of something sophisticated, of something ancient, of dramatic strategies, of criticism, of poetry, of humor, then we think of things like theater, disciplines which are thousands of years old. Technology tends towards novelty and this idea of innovation, of making something that’s never been made before. But in my opinion, that’s not interesting. I think that the people who think technology is something new haven’t studied the art of the last 200 years.

There’s a tradition of experimenting with technology, and something I often like to think about is not how what I’m doing is groundbreaking, but rather, how it connects to tradition. For example, the Estridentismo movement in Mexico, who were the pioneers of radio broadcasting in my country; or how my work is connected with that of Gyula Kosice in Argentina, pioneering neon lights. There are so many milestones—some 100 years ago, others fifty years ago—that I think the more connections I can make with the “old,” the better, more important, and rigorous and critical a piece is. The older the technologies look, the better.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Sphere Packing: Bach, 2018. Installation view, Unstable Presence, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2021. © Rafael Lozano-Hemmer / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Spain. Photo: Katherine Du Tie.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Sphere Packing: Bach, 2018. Installation view, Unstable Presence, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2021. © Rafael Lozano-Hemmer / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Spain. Photo: Katherine Du Tie.

SC Tell me more about the Babbage Nanopamphlets (2015), a piece where you printed microscopic text on miniscule gold leaflets that were dispersed into the museum’s ventilation system, how do you think about consent? Especially in the era of Covid where inhalation is so loaded?

RLH Well, precisely because inhalation was so loaded and even before Covid, the idea that the atmosphere tries to kill us is something that is very, very important to underline because we are living now in 418 parts per million of carbon dioxide. No human in the history of humankind has ever had to breathe that kind of concentration. And 99.99% of scientists are telling us that accumulation is leading to a catastrophic climate change and an extinction event. So the idea that we take for granted the neutrality and endlessness of our atmosphere is the question in the Babbage Nanopamphlets. We are having this kind of romantic attempt to bring the “Book of Memory,” of the idea that our speech is recorded by the atmosphere, we’re printing that book and tiny little atomic sized particles that then people can breathe. 

People talk a lot about consent and about their rights and about their individuality and so on. But the reality is that what we need to be looking after as a species is toward this kind of larger, more planetary scale problem, right? Buckminster Fuller used to say that planetary problems need planetary solutions and yet with Covid, for example, or with climate change, we’re seeing the governments just take on the nationalist agendas that absolutely do not have the best interests of the planet, you know, as a spaceship that can survive over time.

So the Babbage Nanopamphlet is a work that tries to underline the fact that we can’t take the atmosphere for granted, that it is already impregnated with everything that we have said before, and that the memory of development, for example, is this carbon dioxide concentration.

So not just Covid. Also, climate change.

SC ¿Cómo piensas sobre el cuerpo?

RLH Siempre he trabajado cerca de bailarines y coreógrafos. Tengo un enorme respeto por la gente que piensa con el cuerpo y que entiende la propiocepción y que entiende al cuerpo pensante. 

Creo que desgraciadamente la mayoría de los interfaces electrónicos desde el teléfono celular que nos encierra como una especie de ouroboros en donde no puedes mirar porque estás mirando a tu pantallita en un círculo cerrado, la laptop que tienes, tu teclado muy individual está todo como diseñado para este gatillo. Es como una visión muy occidental de qué hacer. Es todo muy trigger happy. Todo muy Pavloviano. Entonces, ¿cómo hacer para que el mundo de los datos—que sin duda es un mundo del que no podemos salir, cómo hacer para hacer del mundo de los datos una atmósfera que sea tangible, que podamos traer nuestro cuerpo al ciberespacio?

Ahorita hay en donde tú vives en San Francisco está frenesí sobre el metaverso, por ejemplo, que es absolutamente una visión muy limitada sobre qué es lo que significa ser un cuerpo. Entonces yo creo que aunque yo y muchas generaciones de artistas llevamos diciendo que tenemos que incorporar los datos, siguen aún las multinacionales pues vendiendonos esta historia de que vamos a poder dejar el cuerpo atrás. Entonces, esto es con lo que tenemos que lidiar. 

SC How do you think about the body?

RLH I’ve always worked closely with dancers and choreographers. I have tremendous respect for people who think with their bodies, who understand proprioception and the thinking body.

I think that unfortunately, most electronic interfaces—from the cellphone that locks us in a sort of ouroboros, where you can’t see because you’re looking at your little screen in a closed circle; your laptop; your individual keyboard—it’s all designed to be triggering. It’s a very Western view of what to do. It’s all very trigger happy, all very Pavlovian. How do we make the world of data—which is undoubtedly a world we can’t escape from—what can we do to make it a tangible atmosphere, how do we bring our body into cyberspace? 

For example, in San Francisco, where you live, there’s this frenzy right now about the metaverse, and it’s this absolutely limited vision of what it means to be a body. So even though I think several generations of artists and I have been saying that we have to incorporate data into our work, multinational corporations continue selling us this story of being able to leave the body behind. So that’s what we’re dealing with.

SC En una entrevista que leí en Studio International mencionas esta idea de “la tecnología como una segunda piel,” ¿seguimos de esa manera o existen ya las posibilidades de hacer real lo que tu vislumbras, o sea un mundo sin cuerpos? 

RLH Es posible esa posibilidad y esa posibilidad ya es real hasta cierto punto. Por ejemplo, en mi país la obesidad está justamente al límite. Con los americanos, somos los máximos representantes de cómo el capitalismo, el consumismo, la individualidad, el nacionalismo… todas estas cosas, pues nos engordan. Tenemos un enorme vacío y que el consumo es de alguna forma lo único que tenemos como respuesta a eso. Nuestros interfaces, nuestra forma de trabajar, la gente, incluido yo—obviamente yo estoy diez horas diarias pegado a una computadora, tengo problemas muy fuertes en la espalda, tengo problemas de carpal tunnel syndrome, mi vista, o sea, todo está ya afectado por cómo nos relacionamos. Pero no tiene por qué ser así. Hay otras opciones, hay otras formas para revalorizar el estar juntos.

Y justamente mis obras, quizás no las que están ahorita en el SFMOMA, sino las que he hecho en el espacio público, tienen que ver con este deseo de estar juntos en un espacio y de estar juntos, no nada más como avatares, sino compartir un espacio.

Por eso a mí me gusta mucho la consigna del compositor americano Frederic Rzewski, en el 71 dijo que el objetivo más importante del arte es “To get people to come together.” ¿Cómo hacemos para compartir una experiencia y crear pues diálogos, enlaces y reflexiones que tienen que ver con algo compartido?

SC In an interview I read in Studio International, you mention this idea of “technology as a second skin,” is the situation still the same, or does the possibility of making what you envision a reality exist already? That is, a world without bodies?

RLH It is possible, and that possibility is already real to a certain extent. For example, in my country, the level of obesity is right at the limit. Along with people in the US, we are the best example of how capitalism, consumerism, individualism, nationalism…all these things, well, they make us fat. We have this huge void, and in some ways, consumerism is our only answer. Our interfaces, our way of working, all of us, myself included—of course, I spend ten hours a day glued to the computer, I have awful back problems, problems from carpal tunnel syndrome, my vision—everything is already deeply affected by how we relate to each other. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are other options, other ways to value being together.

And that’s exactly what my pieces—maybe not those at SFMOMA right now, but the pieces I’ve made in public spaces—are about: this desire to be together in a space and to actually be together, not just as avatars, but sharing a space. That’s why I really like what North American composer Frederic Rzewski said in 1971, that the most important goal of art is “to get people to come together.” What can we do to share an experience and then create dialogues, links, and reflections about something in common?

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Call on Water, 2016. Installation view, Unstable Presence, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2021. Courtesy the artist and bitforms, Max Estrella, Wilde, and Pace galleries. © Rafael Lozano-Hemmer / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Spain. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel.

SC Standing in front of the work Call on Water people like the effect but wonder at the text. While I watched words appear in the vapor with other museum-goers, one man guessed that they were “the word magnets one keeps on the fridge.” They also realized that you “need a phone to see it.” The word “here” appears and melts fast, another man saw the word “bitch.”

How do you process this as someone who so deliberately chose a text? Does the fact that it is Octavio Paz equalize that? 

RLH Well, I mean, if somebody saw the word “bitch” that tells us more about him than about the artwork. The difficulty in reading this text is part of the attraction. Octavio Paz spoke about the moment where words from a poem were exclaimed and they would become part of the atmosphere and then they’re breathed by everybody who hears them. And I like the idea that the ephemeral and the capability to determine indeterminacy of the text is actually quite poetic. So if you think about ambiguity—why do poets write in a way that can be interpreted in many different ways? Well, they do so because ambiguity and this kind of fleeting sense that you can get from a poem is, in fact, the capability for freedom itself. It’s that capability to have multiple entry points into a whole universe that can be interpreted in many different ways by many different people.

So often when poetry or in this case, an ephemeral, vanishing set of words is frustrating people or they see something like, for example, this gentleman saying the word “bitch.” Yeah, it just reflects right back on to the viewer. There’s others who see the work and manage to read some of these lines and then take that as an opportunity to go into a different world. A world that may be more fantastic or that may be more atmospheric or may evoke memory from the past.

I mean, it really depends on the viewer. I think that if Octavio Paz were alive and he could see this fountain that generates as forms in the ephemeral water vapor mist, I think that he would appreciate it because there is something about the disappearance of a text that makes it more memorable.

SC Long line for Sphere Packing: Bach. Preceding me to enter the sphere is a grandfather and granddaughter. I feel weird watching them but they seem unbothered by having an audience. I hate when people ask this of a work that obviously isn’t but: is this performance?

RLH Yeah, I mean, the artwork is definitely performative because all compositions by Bach are playing back in a loop and they’re all at different times. The cacophonies that are generated are never repeated. And when you enter, even the tiniest movements of your head will tune different kinds of sounds from the piece. So there is that capability or that singularity, right? Walter Benjamin would call it an aura, a moment that is irrepeatable inside of the work and in that sense, is performative because it’s happening in real time. It’s happening right now and is never to be repeated. So I think that works like these, not just conceptual art on words or any kind of minimal work where the public is an integral part of the art work, are performative because they depend on that perception to exist. 

Someone was saying, “Oh, the lines for Sphere Packing are too long.” Well, you’re still experiencing the piece while you’re in the line. There’s the sphere itself in the middle of the room, but I would like it if people would line up around it. On the outside, as you said, you have the monitor, you have the eleven kilometers of cable that we use to control, and connect to the patch bay. So there is a level at which you can get part of the experience by being in this kind of interstitial space and of course, going in is a worthwhile experience because everything is focused on your brain and it creates a universe of sound.

SC Re: the application of Bach’s numerous output in Sphere Packing: Bach: What is the monument being built here? What is something you’ve learned/unlearned about Bach in spending time with such a compressed version of his time and work?  

RHL I mean, there’s many things that can be said, but the most important one, I guess, is that Bach was the master of counterpoint. The overlap of melody as a fundamental, almost mathematical approach to creating absolutely stunningly beautiful compositions comes through even when we’re caucaphonically mixing his entire life’s work. So as you stand inside of the sphere, there’s an overwhelming resonance that you hear of all of the counterpoint going on simultaneously, which then gets concentrated as these geometric eclipses that generate the movement in the speakers happen, you end up having just one single composition singled out. It’s always a different one, and it’s always a surprise. But there’s something about the individual compositions, which are almost holographically representing the totality of the works. And I think that that only came out of finding all of the recordings and playing them all simultaneously. I have a feeling that people who go and see the work are sort of interested in how it’s done and all of the cables and whatever, but the actual majesty of production that Bach had—which was a nightmare to find, by the way, recordings of each one of his over 1000 compositions—it’s that sense that there is a cacophony and that a cacophony is not a single sound. It’s a universe of sounds. There is a place in there with mountains and valleys and clouds and storms and lightning bolts.

Translation from Spanish to English: Nico Vela Page.


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Author: Sofía Córdova

Born in 1985 in Carolina, Puerto Rico and currently based in Oakland, California, Sofía Córdova makes work that considers sci-fi as alternative history, dance music's liberatory dimensions, colonial contamination, climate change and migration, and most recently, revolution - historical and imagined - within the matrix of class, gender, race, late capitalism and its technologies. She works in performance, video, sound, music, installation, photography, and sometimes taxidermy. She is one half of the music duo and experimental sound outfit XUXA SANTAMARIA; in addition to discrete projects, they collectively score all of Córdova’s video and performance work. Córdova is recipient of a Creative Work Fund grant, and her work is in the permanent collections of Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco, and KADIST.