geert lovink on 26 Jun 2000 14:50:42 -0000

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<nettime> Interview with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Interview with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer
By Geert Lovink

Light, the symbol of physics, rationalism, the spectacle, of heaven and
eternity, is a funny substance to play with. It is abstract yet visible,
bringing clarity while retaining its religious dimensions. Mexican-Canadian
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is a media artist who chose to use light as a material
and topic in his interactive installations of relational architecture,
technological theatre, installation and performance art. His latest
achievement was a project at one of the world's largest and most lively
squares, the Zócalo in Mexico City. Via the Internet, participants were able
to direct searchlight beams installed on the roofs of buildings around the
square, thereby orchestrating and creating their own light patterns and
movements. "Vectorial Elevation", set in this grandiose urban space, took
place during nothing less than the symbolic weeks of the Millennium
celebrations. The response of both Mexico City citizens and Internet users
was overwhelming. The installation won the Austrian Ars Electronica Golden
Nica award. "Vectorial Elevation" was also shortlisted for this year's Webby
Awards. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, who holds a B.Sc. in Physical Chemistry and a
minor in Art History from Concordia University in Montréal and whose work
has been shown in over a dozen countries, has curated shows and organised
the 5CyberConf (Madrid, 1996) where I met him for the first time. I got
infected by his energizing enthusiasm for a technology which is never
sterile, never authoritarian, always open, playful, almost grotesque: a
magnificent blend of Latin popular festivity and Western techno perfection.

GL: Rafael, you are working with light. Can you tell us something about the
relation between 'light' and the artistic discipline of interactive works?
My first association would be Albert Speer and Pink Floyd light shows. Who
are your colleagues in this field? What are the latest developments,

RLH: It is an interesting exercise to review the history of visual art in
relation to different dominant scientific perceptions of the nature of
"light." For example, Barbara Stafford's excellent book "Body Criticism"
does this for the 18th century when she examines the impact that Newton's
view of light as a stream of corpuscles had on the Enlightenment. Other art
critics have done this for Romanticism making a parallel to the
Young/Fresnel demonstrations of the wave nature of light, or for Modernism
with Chevreul's research into chromatic composition and perception. Today,
quantum physics is comfortable with a flexible understanding of the
phenomenon of light: interpreting its behavior as both waves and particles
in relation to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, under which the
instrumentation or experimental methodology used for observation is
complicit with what is observed. This acknowledgement of the performative
role of the observer, which Duchamp nailed with his maxim "le regard fait le
tableau," has been the basis for most explicitly interactive art, electronic
or otherwise.

An alternate operation to contextualize the visual arts with regards to
"light" might be to trace technological developments rather than scientific
models. Many texts have already done this, going from the magic lanterns of
Della Porta and Kircher to the HIT and Lapis labs' display devices that
bypass the eye in favor of direct stimulation of optic nerves, what William
Gibson called "Virtual light." But, of course, the latest, and perhaps the
final, technological development is that light is no longer fast enough, as
described by Jean Baudrillard, Martin Jay and other theorists who have noted
the cultural consequences of being bound by a physical threshold with no
event horizon. The wait for light to arrive is now a major consideration in
most telecommunications events as well as a major design problem for the
next generations of computer processors which want to run at a faster
clockrate than light can travel through their millions of transistors. It is
ironic that living in a fully electromagnetic culture will mean adapting to
permanent delay, to light-lag, perhaps by developing an "asynchronous body"
which can process in parallel the different speeds of tele-perceptive
senses, as distant data packets arrive. (Tech note: it takes light 67
milliseconds to go half way around the world, which would allow an
off-the-shelf 300 MHz microprocessor to execute twenty million cycles, -more
or less enough for two million calculations. Our telepresent culture will
always be two million calculations behind itself).

Historically, Thomas Wilfred is regarded as one of the key pioneers in the
explicit use of light for creating artworks, in a new discipline which he
termed "lumia". His first performance is thought to have taken place in
Greenwich Village in 1922. Wilfred invented the "Clavilux", which was an
organ-like console that allowed real time or pre-recorded control of light
parameters such as intensity, color, movement and focus, and which he used
extensively in performance and exhibition settings. As early as 1929 Wilfred
patented lumia projectors to be used on the top of skyscrapers, -years later
he created lumia "Opuses" for General Electric's and Clairol's buildings in
New York City. Other lumia artists that followed Wilfred include Tom Douglas
Jones (inventor of the Symphochrome in 1938), Jackie Cassen, Rudi Stern,
Robert Fisher and Christian Sidenius (who in the early sixties built a
"Theatre of Light" in Connecticut with several lumia projectors).

Today, almost all media artists are working with light by using presentation
technologies such as LCDs, CRTs, LEDs or DLPs found in displays and
projectors. A smaller group of electronic artists are using light beams and
effects explicitly, in a less representational role, for example James
Turrell, Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn, Axel Morgenthaler, Knowbotic
Research, Daniel Canogar, Christian Moeller, Simon Biggs, Michel Iorio,
Stadtwerkstatt from Linz, Masaki Fujiyata, and Friedrich Foerster. While it
is not very productive to group people who have very different agendas and
techniques simply because they work explicitly with light, it is interesting
that these artists are mostly active at the intersection between performance
art and architecture, which is also where I like to situate my artistic

Albert Speer and Pink Floyd shows are definitely important precedents to a
performative architectural utilization of light. In both cases, however, the
main operation was one of "cathartic intimidation": the message was "this is
big, you are small." Even my favorite projection artist, Krzysztof Wodiczko,
used that strategy to deconstruct the master narratives of power-affirming
buildings. One could argue that the contribution of personal interactivity
is precisely the transformation of intimidation into "intimacy". The
possibility for people to constitute new relationships to the urban
landscape and therefore to re-establish a context for a building's social

GL: You are speaking about light in a very playful way. Is it so flexible?
The way you use it is very high tech. For me it is almost abstract category.
Very metaphysical, holy, it is the sphere of the gods. You seem to be able
to use it in very different ways, to make historical and political
references, like you did in your installation in Linz (Ars Electronica 97)
and for the media and architecture festival in Graz. This was about
projection, colonialism and interaction. Both technically and from the
narrative point of view complex installations. And funny too. How do you put
these stories together and what is the role of the light as a VR element in

RLH: My installation projects, done in collaboration with Will Bauer, are
within a field that I call "Relational Architecture", which can be defined
as "the technological actualization of buildings with alien memory". Here
alien memory refers to something that does not belong, that is out of place,
while technological actualization means the use of hyperlinks, aliasing,
special effects and telepresence.

In relational architecture, buildings are activated so that the input of the
people in the street can provide narrative implications apart from those
envisioned by the architects, developers or dwellers. The pieces use
sensors, networks and audiovisual technologies to transform the buildings.
In particular, light projections are used since they can achieve the desired
monumental scale, can be changed in real time, and their immateriality makes
their deployment more logistically feasible.

I like to make a clear distinction between work in relational architecture
and virtual reality pieces. For me, virtual architecture could be
differentiated from relational architecture in that the former is based on
simulation while the latter is based on dissimulation. Virtual buildings are
data constructs that strive for realism, asking the participant to "suspend
disbelief" and "play along" with the environment; relational buildings, on
the other hand, are real buildings pretending to be something other than
themselves, masquerading as that which they might become, asking
participants to "suspend faith" and probe, interact and experiment with the
false construct. Virtual architecture tends to miniaturize buildings to the
participant's scale, for example through VR peripherals such as HMDs or
CAVEs, while relational architecture amplifies the participant to the
building's scale, or emphasizes the relationship between urban and personal
scale. In this sense, virtual architecture tends to dematerialize the
_body_, while relational architecture tends to dematerialize the
_environment. This is not to say that virtual and relational architectures
are opposing practices, or that they are mutually exclusive.

Cicero, Churchill and a dozen others have been quoted as saying "we make
buildings and buildings make us". This is far from the current urban
situation; buildings no longer represent a city's inhabitants. As Koolhaas
and others have noted, most new architecture consists of generic,
de-featured buildings that reflect market forces and not local specificity
(I call these "default buildings"). A housing project in Kuala Lumpur is
bound to be quite similar to one in Mexico, Cleveland or Athens. On the
other hand, we have what the Spanish architect Emilio Lopez-Galiacho calls
"vampire buildings" which are emblematic buildings that are not allowed to
have a natural death, that are kept alive artificially through restoration,
citation and virtual simulation. Vampire buildings are forced to be immortal
due to "architectural correctness" a cultural, political and economic
conservative tendency to assign a representative role upon a select number
of buildings. Vampire buildings, while culturally incestuous and necrophilic
(or perhaps because of it), will always remain protected from erosion,
gravity, war, crawling vines, graffiti and the like.

So, one important aspect of Relational Architecture is to produce a
performative context where default buildings may take on temporary
specificity and vampire buildings may decline their role in their
established, prevailing identification.

Having said this, I am interested in distancing my practice from the notion
of the "site-specific", particularly from the postmodern attempts to find
and deconstruct essential constituent characteristics of a particular space:
I am very committed to the idea that a site consists of an indeterminate
number of intersecting imaginary, socio-political, physical and tele-present
spaces. Therefore, I like to use the term "relationship-specific" to
describe the uniqueness of a discreet interaction between participants,
different planes of experience and the relational building(s). What is
specific is the new behaviours that might emerge during interaction.

GL: Yes, let's go to the messy reality, of Mexico City in this case where
you have just finished a pearly piece of relational architecture. Do you see
the high tech equipment you have been using there clashing with rampant
poverty, a low intensity civil war in Chips, in general the huge social
divides in Mexico, or this is just another Western cliché? I suppose you
have just intensively enjoyed doing it, overcoming all sorts of difficulties
connected with such a complicated set-up. Tell us all about the everyday
contradictions you have encountered, compared to the Spanish or Austrian
bureaucracies and formalities.

RLH: The piece in Mexico City was commissioned by the National Council for
Culture and the Arts for the Millennium celebrations. The President of the
Council saw my work in Austria, which questioned the notion of heritage and
"cultural property," and asked me to use Mexican history as a departure
point for a spectacular installation in the Zócalo Square. Now, most Mexican
Art this century has had a very didactic, historicist bent that is clearly
evident in the Neue Sachlichkeit work of the muralists. Modern masters
adopted a "revolutionary" aesthetic that was characterized by a problematic
romantisation of indigenous peoples, a militant patriotism, and a
fascination with linear models of history. Perhaps what could have been
expected is to have a new kind of virtual muralism, consisting of
projections of parading national heroes. The last thing I wanted to do is to
repeat these monologic mantras. Fortunately, contemporary Mexican art has
departed long ago from this vision, starting with Octavio Paz who challenged
the concept of "progress" almost forty years ago and José Luis Cuevas who
denounced muralism as a "cactus curtain" that was blocking the transit of
ideas in and out of Mexico.

In any case, the problem of large-scale monologic representation is not only
a Mexican phenomenon. Most Millennium shows throughout the world consisted
of son et lumiere spectacles that defined a linear historicist narrative of
"representative" moments or actors in history. Each of those narratives must
be analyzed in terms of their exclusions of so called "minor" histories,
because there can never be a comprehensive, exhaustive nor neutral
representation and what is shown is always a profile of the current elite.
There is a very close connection between representation and repression,
particularly when it is applied to what Edward Said calls "identitarian"
narratives. Elites have always used such narratives to homogenize and
control what are otherwise complex, dynamic social fabrics. The Millennium
was the first chance to see the widespread impact of new technologies of
representation on the scale and insidiousness of identitarian power
affirmation (although it could be argued that they were already evident, for
instance, in pokemon consumerism or in the "special effects" capitalism of
dot com corporations).

>From the very beginning of the design process I knew that the piece had to
incorporate interactivity as a way of avoiding historical representation and
Lurçat- and Speer-like spectacles. I wanted the main protagonist of the
piece to be the participants themselves. Since the minister had asked me to
look at Mexican history to find a departure point for the piece I
investigated the largely undocumented history of Mexican technological
culture. I found several useful precedents, which serve as a legitimate
backdrop for electronic art projects, from the research of Gonzalez Camarena
on color TV to the popularization of electronic music by Luis Pérez
Esquivel. One discovery was incredibly useful: the theory of Cybernetics was
postulated by Norbert Wiener and Arturo Rosenbleuth at the Mexican Institute
of Cardiology to explain self-regulation in the heart. Since I became aware
of this, I have joked that cyber art is a native Mexican practice!

But seriously, to answer your question regarding the potential clash between
high tech equipment and the appalling economic situation of many Mexicans, I
have to say that Mexico is a very complex, heterogeneous society that is
full of contradictions. There is an almost feudal society in regions of
Chiapas that continues to systematically impoverish indigenous people; at
the same time, Subcomandante Marcos is a networked revolutionary leader who
understands and uses the subversive power of "high technology". This is not
to say that social inequality and technology do not clash, of course they
do, for example in the high tech maquiladora factories in the border towns
where management and technology come from the US and the underpaid work
force, raw materials and space come from Mexico. My position is that
technology is an inevitable aspect of society and it is a key challenge for
the media artist to develop it or misuse it to break the stereotypes and
create new technological languages. One of the reasons I like to quote the
precedents of Mexican technological culture is precisely because I like to
think that technological development is not necessarily exclusive to
"developed" countries. Think of the software industry in India or the Nortec
electronic music movement in Tijuana.

The piece was done in the Zócalo Plaza, which is the World's third largest
square, measuring 240 by 220 metres and holding over 200,000 people. The
Zócalo's monumental size makes the human scale seem insignificant, a fact
that some Mexican scholars consider an emblem of a monolithic political
legacy; there are almost one thousand protests a year in this site and yet
its scale drowns most of them. In order to have an impact on this square it
was necessary to deploy very powerful equipment: we placed 18 robotic
searchlights with a total of 126,000 watts of power on the rooftops of
surrounding buildings like the National Palace, the City Government
headquarters and the hotels. On a clear night the searchlight beams could be
seen from a 20Km radius and covered the entire historic center of the city,
including landmarks such as the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Supreme Court of
Justice and the Templo Mayor Aztec ruins. Despite the power of the
installation my intention was not to do a cathartic millennium show but a
quiet, slowly fluctuating space for reflection. The concept for the piece
was for people on the internet to design light sculptures using a 3D
interface, submit them to Mexico where they would be queued, rendered by the
searchlights in the plaza and finally documented in a digital archive. We
connected the searchlights with hundreds of metres of data cable and
measured their location with GPS trackers. Custom software was written to
interface a VRML simulation of the Zócalo to the servers that could control
the searchlights. Three webcams placed in the National Palace, a hotel and a
skyscraper would document participants' designs and also stream live video
feeds. As with any event that I have ever done in public space, the
logistics were intense: we filed several reports to the department of
National Security, obtained permits from air traffic control, installed
coaxial internet feeds through the hotel's bathroom ventilation, stopped
street traffic while cranes lifted the searchlights and so on.

GL: I have seen the video you produced which documents the Zócalo
installation. It is truly amazing. You have just won the Prix Ars
Electronica price in the category of interactive installations.
Congratulations. What struck me in the video was the poetry of the
searchlights, which are usually only set up to mimic military searchlights,
scanning the night sky for suspicious objects. The movements of the
ever-changing grids seemed so elastic. This must be a visual trick because
the hardware and software you managed to bring together looked so massive.
The scale of works you are doing really has transcended from the museum and
gallery into large-scale urban spaces. Did you run this art project as a
military operation, or rather like a business, a theatre show? Does the
virtual spectacle you staged resemble some elements of the big, orchestrated
fireworks, pop concerts, rave parties?

RLH: The elasticity that you are referring to is in fact the effect that I
was looking for the most when designing this project. The smooth morphing
between different submitted designs was crucial to evoke a sense of constant
transformation and flow. The transitions between positions were as important
as the positions themselves.

My original notion was for the searchlights to render a new design every
second, both to fit as many participants as possible and to match the tempo
of a slow heart beat. In the end 6 to 8 seconds were needed per design to
allow the searchlights to position themselves and for the three webcams to
take pictures. In retrospect I am very glad that we used this slower pace
because it invited contemplation and anything faster would have been too
aggressive in a city that does not need any more aggression.

As you mention, historically searchlights have been used for military
anti-aircraft surveillance and their vocabulary of movements have been
limited to coordinated "sky scanning" patterns. These patterns have a very
different interpretation in Europe, where bombings wiped out entire cities,
than in America, where they became associated with celebration, thanks in
part to the use of searchlights in WWII victory parades. Once searchlights
were adopted by Hollywood-style events, the movements became largely
randomized. The searchlights were used to attract people to a single point
from which the light beams were originating. In Vectorial Elevation the
lightbeams were always in a coordinated state of mutation as they positioned
themselves to render participants' designs. The movement was "purposeful" in
that every six seconds a unique static pattern would emerge and then
dissolve into the next one. The theatrics of power used by Speer and others
was also avoided to an extent by the lack of linear narrative: the piece was
in operation from dusk to dawn for two weeks, becoming more of an urban
fixture than a time-based event. Although I am conscious that the scale was
"spectacular" I am happier to compare the work to a public fountain or to a
park bench than to a son et lumiere show.

The piece was developed by a large number of programmers, designers and
technicians in four countries. Even though I was commissioned to design the
project in March 1998, we only got to work a few months before the opening.
The Internet connection in the control room was installed four days before
going live! So it was a pretty tight development schedule. The physical
set-up was done by a Mexican company that normally presents large rock
concerts and musical theatre, so to them the scale was not a problem.
Logistically, I have always thought that my work is more akin to the
performing arts than to the visual arts. The installations tend to be
ephemeral interventions where the public becomes an actor through
interactivity, and they are closer to perpetration than to preservation. I
am also particularly interested in the fact that theatre, concerts and
performance art are direct, shared experiences where people actively assume
different roles, thanks to the "wideband" feedback that is possible with
collective closeness. Composer Frederic Rzewski called this essential
pleasure of the performing arts "coming together".

GL: Could you tell us about the special software which has been developed
for the Zócalo? Will there be any spin-offs, used in other installations?
Will the software, for example, be available as open source? If you work on
this level, what experiences do make concerning innovative and creative
further development of certain technologies? Are you optimistic about the
role that such kind of new media arts can play? Through your work within the
Spanish telecom giant Telefónica you would probably agree that "digital art
is the product of transnational corporate capitalism." (Lunenfeld) Could
this type of work possibly influence the direction technology is taking? Or
shall we, with Peter Lunenfeld, say that the Demo or Die essence of
electronic arts is to perform corporate technologies?

RLH: We had twenty computers in the control room running mostly custom-made
software: linux/apache servers, video reflectors, watermarking processors,
DMX control boxes, etc. The main design specification was that the interface
should be accessible across platforms, across browsers and without the need
for any plug-ins. We turned to Java as the solution but even it had to be
tweaked heavily to achieve this goal. Most of the software is too
specialized to be useful in other contexts but now it will be very easy to
make new versions of Vectorial Elevation for other cities. The only piece of
software that may find itself repurposed in some form is a video streaming
system that the programmers called "kyxpyx" and which is released as open
source. We wanted to have a cheap (free!) alternative to the current video
streaming solutions from Microsoft, Apple and Real, and that worked without

I agree that digital art is the product of transnational corporate
capitalism. So is the environment we live in and our identity itself. Many
years ago I wrote an essay for Leonardo magazine called "Perverting
Technological Correctness" where I outlined some strategies artists deploy
to corrupt the inevitability of corporate technologies. Among them, I
included the simulation of technology itself, the use of pain, ephemeral
intervention, misuse of technology, non-digital approaches to virtuality and
resistance to what I call the "effect" effect. I believe that artists have
been and can be at the forefront of technological development. For media
arts, the usual example that gets cited is the development of the data glove
by Dan Sandin, Tom DeFanti and Gary Sayers under a grant from the National
Endowment for the Arts in 1977. But there are many other examples. Will
Bauer, my collaborator for the past 12 years, has been developing a wireless
3D tracking system that we have incorporated into many of our pieces. This
integration has been very beneficial to both the artistic and technological
developments and we find it hard to distinguish what comes first, if
anything. Of course I am aware that most technology is developed for and by
the military-economic complex but I am enamoured by the romantic illusion
that if art had the military's budget we would create more jobs than they do
and develop more interesting technology (including great art bombs!).

Vectorial Elevation, relational architecture 4

Re:Positioning Fear, relational architecture 3

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