Posted by on May 13, 2014 in News | 0 comments

From today until 12th October, the Espacio Fundación Telefónica in Madrid will be hosting Abstracción Biométrica, a solo exhibition by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, artist and co-creator of VIDA. International Art and Artificial Life Contest.This exhibition was previously presented in the Borusan Contemporary space in Istanbul . This time around it has been curated by Kathleen Forde, who has selected a collection of ten pieces that establish various forms of interaction with the public.

Surface Tension (1992) confronts viewers with a large eye that observes them and follows their movements. The piece, originally developed at the Complutense University of Madrid as a stage for a play, refers to the way in which we are constantly subjected to automated surveillance using an oddly human presence.Conversely, it is the viewer’s eyes that are the star of The Year’s Midnight (2011), an installation that acts as a mirror in which everyone can see smoke emanating from their own eyes as those eyes are placed on the ground, in reference to the representations of St. Lucia.

Bifurcation (2012), the only piece in the exhibition that does not establish a direct relationship with the viewer, shows a suspended branch and the shadow of the tree it came from. When the branch is moved, the shadow moves in the same direction, creating a shadow play in which presence and absence are complementary, as Octavio Paz and Bioy Casares affirm. Shadow plays are also present in the series Shadow Box, which includes Close-up (2006), a screen showing the observer’s silhouette formed by tiny videos of other viewers who have observed the piece.


In Voice Array (2011), it is not the silhouette but rather the voice of the viewer that activates an installation made up of hundreds of flashing lights. Each recording joins the earlier ones in a choir of 288 voices that are given form by the pulsating lights. The relationship between viewer and artwork is more intimate here, as it is in the series called Pulse, which brings together a number of projects in which it is the viewer’s pulse that gives form to each piece. In this exhibition it is possible to experience Pulse Room (2006), an installation in which hundreds of bulbs pulsate to the rhythm of the visitor’s heartbeat, Pulse Index (2010), a work in which each participant’s pulse and fingerprint of each participant are recorded in a visible file, and finally Pulse Tank (2008), which converts the rhythm of the pulses into waves of water that generate a lightshow with their reflections. The biometric relationship between viewer and artwork is completed with Vicious Circular Breathing (2013), a glass-covered room with a system of bellows, valves and cardboard bags that sustains its particular activity through the public’s breathing.


Technology is inevitable

 Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has stated on several occasions that we cannot avoid or ignore the influence of new technologies. There is no doubt that they form an inseparable part of his work, which is nevertheless not focused on glorifying the advances of the digital age, but rather uses a number of tools to establish a new relationship between the work and the public. This relationship is made possible through cameras, computer vision, sensors, heart rate monitors, lighting systems and, of course, computers, but none of these elements are the main subject of his work. Instead they subtly create a connection between viewers and the installation that, in principle, they are observing. So inevitable is the intervention of technology that often mere presence, or simple physical contact, can activate the piece. The technical complexity of the work vanishes in the simplicity with which a data exchange begins between the person and the machine, becoming an intuitive dialogue. A game of narcissistic contemplation seduces the viewer, who becomes immersed in the piece in unexpected ways, not just a reflection, but also a pulse, a light or a wave. The artist’s work is thus translated, not into a set of devices, but into a unique and personal relationship. 


Relational Art

Lozano-Hemmer applied the term “relational” to his work a year before it was popularised in the book by Nicolas Bourriaud called Estética Relacional (Relational Aesthetics) (1998).   The projects The Able Skin (La Piel Capaz) and, in particular, Displaced Emperors (Emperadores Desplazados) inaugurated his well-known series Arquitectura Relacional (Relational Architecture) in 1997. Today it includes 21 interactive installations in which the artist transforms the public space into a performative environment that allows passers-by to hold a dialogue with the space around them and usually determines their actions. Paradoxically, Bourriaud defines relational art as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space” [1], and he refers to new technologies and interactive systems in his work. Nonetheless, he ignores the contributions being made at that time by Lozano-Hemmer and other artists when they put into practice precisely what the French critic was considering as a possibility. The relational aspect in the work of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is evident in the need for interaction between the viewer and the work, without which the work is not possible. The pieces included in this exhibition are systems that remain dormant until one or more people stand in front of them and are captured by their cameras, have their tone of voice recorded by them upon speaking, respond to their actions, or even more intimately, alter them through their pulse or breathing. As the artist says, “the work is done by the public” [2] quite literally, since the artist creates a set of conditions that then allow viewers to establish their own personal relationship, dialogue or encounter with the piece. This dialogue is always unique, since the work constantly reshapes its contents in response to stimuli received from the public, and therefore we cannot speak of a single “form” for the piece but rather the ever-changing result of a series of behaviours.It is interesting to point out that, as Lozano-Hemmer says, this condition of the work returns its “aura”, that unique existence that Walter Benjamin described as “the here and now of the work of art” [3].As indicated by the artist, his interactive installations focus on the evolution of the work, that is, on what it is going to become and not on what it is: certainly the work exists in a “here and now” in a way that does not allow us “to consider it seen” with the mere observation of a photograph or video document, but that it needs to be experienced.

From the body of the viewer to the body of the work

The audience is led, therefore, to abandon its merely contemplative role, a comfort zone for some, and is forced to adopt an active and present role. The interaction with the work turns the spectator into an actor, a performer, freely executing a series of actions while seeking a dialogue with the installation (understanding “how it works”, what happens when you do this or that).  The performance that is put on by the viewer also has its own audience among the bystanders who are observing the operation of the piece or waiting their turn to interact with it. This puts the interactive art of Lozano-Hemmer into a position closer to the field of performing arts, and indeed, as the artist asserts: “the fundamental misunderstanding is to think that media art is visual art, and it is not. Media art is performance art.  That is, it is art based on the event, art which is more like a performance or the theatre or music than visual art.”  This means there are two aspects to emphasise in his work: firstly, the fact that it is a piece based on the event, that is, the existence of the piece (as already mentioned) and its significance are based on the moment when the interaction occurs. The piece responds to an emergent type of behaviour, an improvisation that, while starting from a set series of parameters, remains open. Moreover, the staging that the work often involves refers to this theatricality and to a particular shadow play, a phantasmagoria (in the positive sense of the term) that leads to the fascination with magic, which is also a performing art. Lozano-Hemmer says that “artists have always been con artists” in the sense that they create fictions and illusionary effects (bulbs that pulsate to the rhythm of the heartbeat, the shadow of an invisible tree) in order to establish a relationship between the viewer and the work.

This relationship is not without a somewhat dark and disturbing aspect in that the work observes the viewer as much as it is observed by him/her. As biometric machines, the installations detect the people before them and extract information from them, whether it is their fingerprints, pulse, respiration, facial patterns or their mere presence in the room. The body of the viewer is analysed by the work, which makes it part of its contents and creates a reflection of each person in multiple ways and at different levels of intimacy, from their silhouette to the beating of their heart. The biometric abstraction is thus complete in every sense of the word and particularly in relation to its Latin root abstractio:  “to take out of”. The works of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer seduce the viewer and “extract” from his/her body a series of data that, in some sense, give them life and also memory, since the data obtained from the public in each exhibition are stored to feed the latent behaviour of the piece. The feedback loop which is closed in this way encourages a reflection on our relationship with technology: What do we get from it, and what do we give it in return?


[1] Nicolas Bourriaud, Esthétique relationelle.  Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 1998.

[2] The quotations by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer in this article are drawn from an interview with the author on 10th February 2014.

[3] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction [Urtext]

Translation: Andrés E.Weikert. Ed. Itaca, Mexico City, 2003.