Rafael Lozano-Hemmer in Conversation with Kevin Buist

Voice Bridge by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Photo: Bryan Esler Photo

This conversation — which took place at the Herman Miller Flagship on April 30, 2019 in New York, NY — is part of the Project 1 Catalogue. Edited for length and clarity.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer develops interactive installations that live at the intersection of architecture and performance art. His large-scale interactive works have been commissioned for exhibitions and events around the world. Voice Bridge is a new site-specific piece for Project 1 featuring a sound system and 400+ lights that traverse Grand Rapids’ iconic Blue Bridge.

KB

Start by telling me what you’re making for Project 1.

RLH

I am working on a new project called Voice Bridge. The project is going to be an intervention on the pedestrian Blue Bridge in Grand Rapids, a large scale interactive light and sound piece. It’s basically a treatment of LED light fixtures that are very columnated, very focused, which make an illuminated pedestrian walkthrough where the lights glimmer. This glimmer is not random. The glimmer is actually responding to the intensities, the frequency, and the volume of the messages people record on an intercom. So the project basically asks participants to come in and leave their thoughts into a system that then visualizes this voice in conjunction with the past 400 participants. So for everyone who leaves a message, their messages gets added to this archive, this kind of urban manifestation of these voices. As you cross the bridge, you hear the voices of the participants over time. As new recordings get generated, previous ones get pushed one position further along the bridge until they disappear. The whole project is a bit of a memento mori, like a little reminder that these recordings are only taking place for a little while. Ultimately, it is a project that is out of control: nobody’s telling you what to say or what not to say. It is based on a lot of different experiences that my studio and I have been developing over the past twenty years on how to activate a public site with crowdsourced content.

KB

Back up a little bit and tell me about your practice overall, what you’ve been doing the past couple decades. What draws you to participatory artwork? That’s a thread that runs through a lot of what you do.

RLH

I started as an artist working solely in public art. My contribution—or my obsession —has always been the idea of creating platforms for self-representation, where people take over a public space. I want to make a contribution to a situation that is basically happening everywhere: globalization and capitalism are resulting in homogenization. So today, in every city, new buildings in Grand Rapids or Mexico City or Singapore are bound to be very similar to each other because buildings are no longer representing citizens. They’re representing the solution that architects, planners, and developers find optimum to create a living or working environment— so there’s an enormous homogeneity. Churchill said, “We build buildings, and they build us.” But that’s no longer the case. Now these buildings represent the capital.

ARTISTS CAN INTERRUPT THIS HOMOGENIZING GLOBALIZED VISION OF WHAT THE CITY IS SUPPOSED TO BE.

Interactivity is a way to turn the tables a little bit on those kinds of established power narratives. It’s a way to create an interruption in those patterns. When you look at public space, there’s not just homogenization that is at stake. There are other problems, like the corporate takeover of a public space like a shopping mall, which has a code of conduct and it has all of these different technologies and architectures to ensure that this is a consumer-dedicated space. As someone that believes that art should underline a more critical aspect of being a citizen, I want art to create the space that interrupts that and allows people to speak freely. I’ve worked a lot with voice, and I’m fascinated by freedom of speech—that more and more is disappearing. Many countries have, for example, now passed gag laws where you cannot criticize politicians. This is the beginning of some very dire outcomes, I believe. It hasn’t happened yet in the U.S. but we’re getting close and we must stop it. We must allow for people to be able to express themselves freely.

Interactivity is also a way to create intimacy, and a way for people to relate to their city, to their buildings, and to each other. It’s an activity other than shopping to occupy space.

KB

You reminded me of something, yesterday I visited The Vessel. The new Thomas Heatherwick sculpture that resembles a huge basket made of staircases, it’s several stories tall, and it sits in the center of Hudson Yards, a development with a luxury shopping mall. They had rules posted on a sign, but they didn’t call them rules, they called them “vital behaviors.”

RLH

Vital behaviors.

KB

Vital behaviors. And I was like what’s a “vital behavior?” I read it and I thought, oh, this is just a list of rules. They’re things like don’t spit off the top, etc. But that’s a perfect example of a corporate public space, as you were saying.

RLH

I think Vital Behaviors is a great title for a show, you know. [Both laugh] I may steal that from you, it’s very good.

An early rendering of Voice Bridge.

I think that even at a time when we are seeing, for example, monumental interventions such as The Vessel in NYC, there is a blingy total message, it seems to say, “This is big and you are small, this costs a lot of money.” I think interactivity and specifically ephemeral public art, pieces that come and go, are instead exactly unmonumental. It does not send a message of intimidation. The message, instead, is of intimacy, it’s of relationships and I think that’s what makes it powerful— aesthetically, practically, politically.

There is a work that I’ve always been fascinated with by the artists Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz called The Monument Against Fascism (1986).[1] They were invited to do a memorial for the Holocaust in Hamburg. It consisted of an enormous phallic, black monolith, that protruded from the plaza in Hamburg. And people scribbled and graffitied it and over time it was designed to descend into the ground. And if you visit the memorial now you just see the footprint of the monolith which is now underground. There’s only a plaque that tells you what happened there. I’ve always thought the disappearance of that monument is a gesture that really allows us to scale up the dread of the Holocaust, you know, because how do you represent that? You represent that with disappearance. I thought that was so elegant. So my work is really about not creating a permanent statement but rather about an anti-monumental approach, something that’s unstable, something that’s ephemeral, people understand it as a performance, there’s an artificiality to the whole thing that I really embrace.

KB

Part of the design of Voice Bridge includes an element that both records voices and forgets, or deletes them. Talk about the importance of that.

Photos of Blue Bridge Amplified by Teddylogan Creatives

RLH

We live in a society of metrics where everything is measured and analyzed and classified. I’m complicit with that society; I mean my artworks basically observe people, listen to them, feel them, and then react to the presence of people. It’s very important that you think about that collection. So you’re collecting, you’re detecting, you’re recording. In my case it’s not about the amassing of an archive that then can be studied or used, —new recordings erase older ones. So we underline that fleeting moment where your voice will disappear, and how interesting it can be to listen to your voice in relation to the voices of others.

In projects such as this one, platforms where people can participate freely, if somebody says, “Will you marry me,” and the partner says “yes”, all of a sudden this recording has an enormous personal interest. Or maybe a participant starts beat-boxing, and then someone else sings over the beat-boxing and now they’ve created something else altogether. These creations are all part of being present in the space. It’s not about

memorializing those interactions. The disappearance is fundamental because it’s a reminder that this collection is taking place, and that it can be critical and poetic, and that it should not remain. This is all about being in the now.

KB

Unlike some other works in Project 1, you came to me with the idea for the location to do this installation. Why did you select the Blue Bridge as the location of Voice Bridge?

RLH

When we first started studying Grand Rapids, and especially in the context of the theme of Project 1—the idea of borders, of lines, of connections, pedestrian walking, of how to reconnect the citizen with their city—it seemed obvious to me that the bridge is one of the most salient infrastructures for that to happen. It connects two parts of the city, it’s pedestrian only, which is something that I think is already very majestic, when people feel an ownership of a place, they’re not concerned that someone’s going to run them over. It also has this idea of flow, the bridge not only connects but when you’re on it, you’re overlooking and hearing the flowing water of the Grand River. Streaming water is the metaphor of life itself, it’s the metaphor of dialogue, it’s the metaphor of time passing. It’s a perfect place to do this kind of project because it already has a message. The site is a civic infrastructure, nobody’s bringing you there because you can buy some stuff. I think that civic infrastructure’s fundamental, because—being a democratic socialist— I believe in the commons. Taxes are at work to provide tangible outcomes, that are required to create civility and to create a sense of public space.

KB

I learned in the documentary film about you, Megalodemocrat: The Public Art of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, that your parents owned nightclubs in Mexico City. Can you talk about that a little bit?

RLH

They were also pioneers in drag shows. In a time where Mexico was very homophobic, they were doing some quite pioneering work. I grew up around these artists and singers, and sort of cabaret style nightclubs and of course, this affected my practice.

I THINK THAT AN ARTWORK NEEDS TO BE LIKE A GOOD CLUB: YOU HAVE TO PREPARE THE LIGHTS, YOU HAVE TO GET GOOD MUSIC, THE DRINKS, THE AMBIENCE—

and I think with art it’s the same. But it is the people that really create the party. An artwork that exists outside of criticism, that exists outside of people viewing it and activating it intellectually, or aesthetically, or politically, is an artwork that is dead. As artists, we need to create a context that will invite the public to participate, and I think that’s really coming from that club culture. Marcel Duchamp said that, “an artist is a creator of context,” and I think that’s the case, too.

KB

You don’t work alone; you’ve got a sizable team. Tell me about the importance of the collaborative nature of your work and how you think about running your studio.

RLH

Oftentimes in the visual arts, we are still in this 19th Century romantic idea of the artist as this talented, inspired person in front of a canvas all by himself and that’s of course not true. At least not of many of the artists that I admire.

Photo: Bryan Esler

My job is to be interstitial and connect these different media that my collaborators bring, and I wear that with pride. Some people might say, well, “Where is the hand of the artist?” Well if you’re looking for the hand of the artist in my work, you’re looking for the wrong thing. This is not the kind of work I do.

Working in teams is also interesting because I think one of the aspects that nobody’s really talking about is the management of those teams. It is my job to look for ways for the team to maintain a sustainable practice and that means being able to pay people well and have perks and job security. I try to practice what I preach, and create a platform that is fair, that is just. For example my team has gender parity: it’s 50/50 from management all the way to programming and I’m proud of that because I think that we need to be more representative of what society actually is. I’m Mexican-Canadian and our team includes fifteen people from eight countries. Half of us are scientists or engineers or programmers, and the other half are artists or designers or composers. And so it makes for a really privileged brew of people to work with, and I’m so thankful for that.

[1] Monument Against Fascism descended slowly over seven years. Visitors were invited to scratch their names into the lead surface as a commitment to remain vigilant against the return of fascism. Once it fully descended into the ground a plaque was added that read, “In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.”