Rafael Lozanon-Hemmer at ARS Electronica

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By Randy Gladman

Body Movies: A Linz Ars Electronica Festival award winner on the State of Interactive Art

Interview with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Installing large scale interactive artworks in heavily trafficked and populated zones of cities around the world, Canadian/Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer explores the intersection between new technologies, public space, active participation and ‘alien memory.’ As part of this year’s ARS Electronica festival of new media art in Linz, Austria, the artist transformed the Main Square of the city for six nights, inviting viewers to take part in an interactive interface on a grand scale.

Body Movies entails over 1,000 square metres of projections on the Old City Hall building, all of which is activated by the participation of passers-by. Thousands of portraits taken on the streets of Linz, Rotterdam, Madrid, Mexico and Montreal are projected on giant screens, using robotically controlled projectors located on towers around the square. The portraits are completely washed out by powerful xenon light sources placed at ground level. When people cross the square, their shadows appear on the screen and the portraits are revealed to them. When the shadows of the participants match the scale and shape of the projected images, an automatic command is issued and a new set of portraits is revealed. As the process of the work is discovered by those in the audience, play between the viewers becomes more sophisticated. The result is an artwork which invites participants to retake the public urban space by expressing their own identities in a huge and public forum.

Mexican born and Canadian educated, Lozano-Hemmer, who received his second Prix ARS Electronica Award for Distinction in Interactive Art for Body Movies this year in Linz, has been exhibiting his large scale interactive artworks around the world for 12 years. He is one of a few highly influential Canadian artists working in the new media field who have received many impressive accolades for their interactive artworks. Though relatively unknown in Canada, this group, which also includes Prix ARS Electronica 2002 award winners David Rokeby and Luc Courchesne, has become widely recognized in Europe for their contributions to the development of interactive technologies and how they can be used in artistic practice.

I met with Lozano-Hemmer in the airy and energetic Skyloft atop the ARS Electronica Center on the bank of the Danube where we discussed the fusing of electronic and public art, Canada’s contributions to and acceptance of the new media art field, spectacle versus intimacy, and the importance of interface.

I am interested in your relationship to David Rokeby and Luc Courchesne, the other Canadian interactive artists receiving awards at this year’s Prix ARS Electronica. Is there a Canadian movement in interactive art happening?

R: I’ve followed Rokeby’s and Courchesne’s work for quite a while and my work is definitely informed by them. What Canada does is very interesting in that it expends a lot of effort on electronic media art because it likes to think of its culture as McLuhanesque extensions of media. For a very long time, Canada has been relatively pioneering in supporting artists to develop new ways of bringing technology into the cultural realm. Rokeby and Courchesne are two of the key figures in that movement. But on the other hand, their work is better known in Europe and Japan than it is in Canada itself. So, one of the commentaries I have in relation to the situation for Canadian artists is that there are extremely good creators there and support, but when it comes to showing the work, when it comes to audiences and the public, it seems to me that the most effort needs to be developed.

How does that relate to the support for art, or more specifically, new media art in other countries?

R: For instance, at ARS Electronica, you get the feeling that because it has been happening for so many years there is a network that sees how the work extends beyond just the machine. Electronic art has finally reached a level where there is a vocabulary beyond the interface, beyond the initial steps. Cinematography went through the whole whiz-bang of the machine, and then eventually a language and a criticism was developed. Electronic art is finally starting to register within contemporary art. Media artists are beginning to enter the established contemporary art scenes, and also many contemporary artists who had been using video or installation are now starting to use electronic media. The collapse of the boundary is healthy for everybody.

Has new media art changed recently? What institutions do you see as setting an example for the way this art should be supported?

R: One of the really important precedents is the Banff center. It still is. Their arts and virtual environments residencies were crucial at a time when virtual reality was still very much just hype. But right now is a very moment time because all that hype is over. With a video card for $200 and a G4 anyone can get that power. Now is a good time to do VR work because the hype is over, nobody anymore believes this is cutting edge, the technologies are a lot more distributed and easier to access. In terms of the Canadian scene, what would be really fabulous is for the distribution of these works to be seen inherently with their creation. I have done pieces for the past 12 years and presented only one project in Canada (Body Movies) in Montreal and that was in the context of a Mexican show. I am a Mexican-Canadian, a Chicanadian, a Mexicanuck. The project I am showing here in Linz was funded by the Canada Council for the Arts and though I’ve shown it in Rotterdam and Lisbon, I’d love to show it back in Montreal or Vancouver or whatever. It will soon be in England at the Liverpool Biennial.

This work, Body Movies, is all about how people interact with art in the public space. How have audiences responded differently in different cities?

R: Everytime we show this piece, the behaviors are totally different. Liverpool, for instance, will probably be quite different than in Linz. Liverpool is a very energized, somehow aggressive town and one of the things we see a lot with this installation is that people feel very uninhibited to participate. It ranges from very sexual or homoerotic behavior to playful or violent. It depends on the time of day and how long the piece has been on display. In Rotterdam, after the work had been showing for a few days, people started bringing props. Breakdancers appeared. More eccentric behaviors. It is a learning experience to see how people self-represent. This is what I am most interested in. How we use technology or, in this case, amplification to reactivate our city, to make it our own. The political or corporate takeover of the city takes place in such insidious ways. Everywhere we look there is advertising. Left outside of this system is us, the consumers. Short of graffiti or skateboarding, how else do we form part of the city?

What you are doing kind of is graffiti, but it is kind of like a government sanctioned graffiti. The government has given you the money to pull it off, it is not permanent, but yet people are invited to create their own logo, their own brand on the face of a government edifice.

R: Yeah, to me it is important that this takes place on the Old City Hall, because we are living in a crisis not only of urban space but also of presentation and people feel more and more distant from their so-called representatives in politics. Shadows are metaphors of otherness or fragility or ephemerality. When they are projected on the Old City Hall, the center of power, I hope that there is a connection made which shows the distance between the political situation of the people and their elected representatives. The crisis of representation is reactivated by these shadows in a kind of tangential way.

So is this civic art?

R: I see it as public art. Very much. I like to compare it more to a public fountain or a park bench than to a spectacle. I had some reservations about how ARS Electronica presented the piece as opening at a particular time and place. A lot of people then come up and expect a sun and mirror show, something with a preconceived narrative that goes from A to B. But it is not like that at all. But this work is weird, kind of humbling. If no one participates, then the piece does not exist. It is performed on a spectacular scale but it is not a spectacle. It is something that is out of control, and that is very important for me.

What is wrong with spectacle?

R: Nothing. To an extent it is inevitable. I make use of spectacle technologies. But I want to turn them around. My emphasis aims to avoid a preconceived outcome. I frankly don’t know what will happen when one of these pieces is turned on. I’ll give you an example. The first time I used shadows was at the architecture biennial in the city of Graz, Austria, in 1997. I intended to use shadows for the transformation of a military aresenal which defended Austria from the invasion of the Turks. But the Turks never actually arrived in Austria, so their presence was only ever felt as a shadow. So I made this piece called Repositioning Fear and I thought the shadow was going to be this dark and ominous and expressionistic interface and I was completely wrong. I thought it would be metaphoric of a scourge, and yet the moment we put it on people started playing. It was much more about their own relationships. Six year old kids were stepping on their teachers’ shadows, handicapped people were crushing everyone with their wheelchairs. The behaviors totally surprised me and taught a really interesting lesson. Body Movies reuses that interface to reposition this in a more playful way.

There is a lot of data that is generated while the piece is in action. The scenes change after a certain number of seconds, things like that. Are you collecting the data? Do you intend to use it?

R: I do collect it. For instance, in Rotterdam, I collected over 30 hours of video and here in Linz we are also recording. I think it would be an interesting exercise to sit down and look at what constitutes locality. In the end it is a performance. Identity, like locality, is a performance that we all take part in.

Are there plans to show the work in North America?

R: It is interesting for me to think of the context of North America. It has to be a space that is already high pedestrian traffic. Many American cities would be difficult. I mean, in LA, people drive to Santa Monica to walk there. I’d have to very carefully position this piece somewhere where people are not going to go there specifically or it’ll disappoint them. They have to just encounter it in their day to day space and then see themselves and relate that way. I’m talking to some people in New York and hopefully it can happen.

Body Movies takes place on such a large scale and in a public space, yet the work is intimate and examines the relationship between viewers and themselves and how they present themselves publicly. These are very intimate issues. Are you interested in intimacy as a theme?

R: The whole question of intimacy is a really important one for me. Not that I have any solutions for it or anything. But I think it is something that we have to look for in more theatrical kinds of interactivity. When we look at 90% of electronic art, including my own, there is usually the need for big explanations. I come from a performance art background and I am interested in more collective and connective experiences that several people partake in. The idea that you are sharing in the complicity of a performance and watching something with people you don’t know goes beyond computers. There is a communion. Robert LePage has said that computers are great for communicating. What they are not good at is communing. Commune understood as the acknowledgement of complicity.

Krzystof Wodiczko also does these large public projections, he is also half-Canadian, and he frequently incorporates the political sphere by careful selection of the public buildings used in the artworks. Is there an influence and how does it manifest in your work?

R: Krzystof Wodiczko is perhaps the artist that I most admire. Precisely for that reason I try to go out of my way to make work that is extremely different than his. I’d like to think that this difference is that his work comes from the deconstructive tradition of questioning the grand narratives of these buildings. He is always looking for the authority or essential qualities of a building to then turn upside-down and reveal. What he does is a very moralistic site-specific deconstruction. I’m not interested in that for my own work. I call my work relationship specific, not site specific. I don’t look for the inherent memories of a building to try to highlight. I try to establish environments where these buildings can decline the role that they are normally given so they can, for a little while, be something other than themselves and have new relationships. When we are thinking of the internet, the idea of site, in an era of non-location, is a problematic idea. We now live in multiple realities and work that use new technologies are somehow overlaying this electronic reality onto our everyday.

Having said that, what is the importance of interface to your work?

R: Most of my work has always been developing interfaces. Like Rokeby, most of the artists at ARS Electronica develop their own software and hardware and that is interesting because the boundaries become blurry. It is important when you are creating an interface to realize a couple things. When you are working with technology, you are always in a collaboration. You are always in a dialog. I like the idea that media arts are compared to performing arts. There are several roles. There is programming, writing, time, music, whatever roles you have. Even if you are alone with Photoshop, you are already collaborating with a bunch of programmers who made some rules. Normally the artist tries to break those rules. The second thing is that interfaces are most interesting when they are intuitive, not in the way. Media art allows us to approach reality but also allows us to keep away from it. For the first time in my work, for the shadows, the interface – the shadows – does not really need to be explained. We all already have a relatively sophisticated vocabulary of things we can do with our shadow. The interface is a language we have to question – poetically or critically.

Do you have interest in making work with discreet objects, things that can be framed or go into people’s homes, or are you solely interested in this kind of performative, time-based exploration?

R: My economic model is based on performing arts. I show a piece and I charge a certain amount per performance. Lately I have been making installations that are more for gallery or museum space. I’m beginning to explore that. As the art market or art community opens up to electronic art, issues of conservation or collection come in.

Are you dedicated to electronic art or is that simply the medium you have been working in mostly?

R: My work is not always electronic. I have made pieces that are not based on electronic media in the past. However, I think that we live in a technological culture. Even if you are not using a computer you are affected by this environment. Working with technology is inevitable. I don’t work with it because it is original. I always use the word alien instead of the word new. The precedents for new are so large. But if you say alien, it is simply something that does not belong there. You put together things that you have already seen before but the specificity is temporary and local.

Do you see your work as within the light of the increased utopian aspects of new media?

R: Well, no. Most utopian work speaks to me when it is realized. When it actually gets involved in the dirty world of micro-politics and logistics and misinterpretation and failure. A utopian model that is hypothetical or a beautiful construction is to me a little bit of a cop out, without dealing with the intricacies of our local immediate situation. I would distance myself from utopia.

How has Marshall McLuhan’s writing impacted your artistic practice?

R: I am informed by the idea that technology is not something that happens out there but it happens as part of our body and that we cannot observe it as if we can be objective. We are part of it. Those kind of very Canadian lessons are part of my work,

Was Michael Snow important to you?

R: Yeah. Snow is important to any contemporary artist. It is elegant and has an economy of means that I very much admire. I think eventually I will go towards the sophistication that he has. There are other people from his generation that have been influential and I feel a lot of allegiance to a lot of the Canadian artists. But again, I’ve usually seen their work in Europe and not so much in Canada.

How do you interpret the Canadian art audience? Why does this happen?

R: In Mexico, artists have a very defined role, almost too authoritarian. You know, you are an artist, so right away people call you maestro. You get used to it. (laughs) You are somehow to them a barometer of society. Whereas sometimes in Canada, and in the US as well, there is a feeling that the artist is not seen as contributing that much to society at large. I don’t want to come out as saying Mexico is better or anything like that. It is not that way. It’s just a question of emphasis. And in Mexico culture is about delimiting a difference to the United States. Mexicans have always been very proud. It’s like, well our culture goes back to 4000 BC. This is also a political and identity stand. Whereas in Canada, the emphasis is on technology. It is a country based on the fact that Graham Bell worked in Ontario. And there was railroad, without which you would not have had connectedness. The emphasis is different.

By Randy Gladman.  Originally published in Canadian Art Magazine, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 2002

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