REMAIN IN THE LIGHT: An Exit Interview With Artist And Open Air Creator Rafael Lozano-Hemmer


BY BRANDON LAFVING ARTS CORRESPONDENT Open Air, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s synchronous, bat signal-esque ballet of light has been illuminating the Philly nightscape since September 20th and will continue to do so until October 14th. Open Air is interactive in the best sense of the word. The installation’s 24 dancing searchlights are choreographed by the voices of participants who submit messages via the Open Air web site or iPhone app. It’s kind of like those dancing flowers we all thought were so funny and cute back in the 90s, but with light sabers. In the midst of all the stress and chaos of prepping for opening night, Lozano-Hemmer took time out to talk to Phawker about Nazis, Buckminster Fuller, Sun Ra, The Roots, David Lynch, Google Earth, Post-Structuralism, and the intersections of art and science.

PHAWKER: You are proof that someone can be both technical and artistic at the same time.

RAFAEL LOZANO-HEMMER: I often think of technology as something that’s inevitable. So I don’t work with tech because I think it’s new or original. I work with it because every facet of our life is mediated or facilitated by technology. And I don’t mean just the gadgets. I’m talking about globalization in general, like our culture, our politics, our finance, which are all based on virtual capital. It doesn’t really exist. It’s all just transactional, right? All of the different elements that constitute life on this planet even in remote regions of the world have to contend with the fact that technological advancements have created a certain globalization. And I’m not moralizing about whether it’s good or bad. It just is. So for me it’s natural to use technologies. I don’t think of it so much as a tool, because then it sounds optional, but as a language. It’s like we don’t know what it would be like not to have technology. So for example, if you’re a painter, your public are watching 8 hours of screen time a day, be it Internet or cell phone or TV. So you can’t pretend that that doesn’t affect how they look at your work. So even if you are a painter, you are involved in that technology. Because art is a process of sharing. It’s based on social exchanges. So departing from that conviction, it takes away a lot of the awful, sensation of the future future and new media and so on. It’s just what we’re all doing. That’s where I’m coming from with tech.

Now science is different, because I have a degree in Chemistry. Most people in the humanities have a 19th century view of what science is. They’re thinking very utilitarian and positivist. You know, that science is very concrete, and it has solutions. The reality now is that after 100 years of uncertainty science today is a site of intense creative and counter-intuitive situations. Science is very inspiring because they’re having to deal with things like quantum reality, with uncertainty, with chaos theory, with the idea that things are indeterminate. So science is no longer this rigid, concrete thing but this world that has exploded into many realities. And I think there are lots of opportunities for artists to be inspired by those processes, by just the sheer curiosity of the unknown.

Having said all of that, I don’t agree with some people who say we are living in some kind of new Leonardo Renaissance. You know, the artist and the scientist are the same guy. No, scientists are looking for answers. They are looking to clarify and simplify our reality. Aside from that and not completely opposite, artists make things complex. They slow them down. They want to ask questions. They make them ambiguous. You know, like poetry right: poetry is really good when you can read it in many different ways, whereas a good mathematical equation is good when it can be read in only one way. So there are very many differences between them. That’s not to say there aren’t intersections. There are many creative intersections that can happen. So it’s neither that art and science are now the same, or that they are disparate opposites.

PHAWKER: You earned a degree in chemistry but then somewhere along the way you decided you wanted to do this. What was the a-ha moment when you decided you wanted to be an artist?

RAFAEL LOZANO-HEMMER: My parents were nightclub owners in Mexico City. I grew up among artists and dancers. So it was already in my family. But then when I chose to do chemistry I met choreographers, composers, and writers in the University. I started doing radio programs with them. I hooked up with people doing performance art. We did these technological performances. My contribution was directing and connecting different media through technology. That background in theater led to the visual arts. Because eventually I started doing work with a smaller group of collaborators, and we realized that the works were still theatrical, but the public was the actor. That’s the switch that we made into the visual arts. So that’s how it went about. It was nothing in particular that made it happen but a desire to experiment, to mix media, and to have fun.

PHAWKER: Does art have a function?

RAFAEL LOZANO-HEMMER: The poet, Auden, said that art is passionately useless, but not worthless, which is to say it’s not utilitarian. It doesn’t have an objective that is clearly laid out, but it certainly has a social, aesthetic, and critical function. The thing is, in my opinion good art is based on the idea of releasing control, of being able to create situations where very tight controls have been relaxed and where one is able to jump from one subject to another and make connections between disparate realities. So in that sense, art is a disturbance. It’s an interruption of the normal narratives in which we identify as people, or in the way we see ourselves as a country, or as a people. We interrupt that. The key is to incite people to reflect on their own artificiality.  That’s what art does, and that’s a very useful thing to have. Societies without art… first of all they don’t exist. And when they do, instead of perverting reality, they try to control it. Those are societies, like the Soviet Union, which tend to disappear.

PHAWKER: So you see art as inviting the transformation of culture?

RAFAEL LOZANO-HEMMER: Without a doubt. In the last 50 years, there’s been a really important displacement of what art is. I’d say 60% of the art has been trying to decide what could it be. What else could it be than the conservative view of objects and fetishes and collectibles? Art is in a really good position to understand the fundamental change that is occurring in the Internet and in the economy in general. Conceptual art allowed ideas to take a privileged position in relation to either the process or to material reality. When you think about the Internet, iTunes or music online, there is a distancing that has happened from vinyl. I’m not defending this as a good thing, but it is nonetheless happening. The object is no longer as primordial. What is more primordial is the experience. So art has been doing that for a long time, and in my opinion has laid the groundwork for that to happen.

Sadly, that development is becoming intensely corporate. The freedom that we had exercised on the Internet is under severe scrutiny and attack. None of what I’m saying is celebratory. It is descriptive. Artists are in a good position now to question this supposed neutrality of the Internet, or public space. Artists show that these are constructions. And as constructions, they have biases. They have gender. They have race; they have class; they have all these things, even though we sometimes like to pretend that they don’t. As artists, it is one of our jobs to try to discover how to mess that up a bit and re-wire it.

PHAWKER: How do you see Open Air rewiring people?

RAFAEL LOZANO-HEMMER: For a long time, I’ve been doing art works that are at the border between violence and seduction. So on the one hand I give the seduction of participation, the idea that you are in the limelight, that as you are controlling the lights, your voice has 240,000 watts of power and is heard over all the apps on the web. So there is a sense of inclusion and intimacy to someone who is participating.

So there is that seductive part, but then there is also a violent aspect in all of my projects. And that comes in because the desire to participate and to have interactivity cannot be divorced from the desire to police people and to control them.  The reality is that these searchlights have been used for intimidating spectacles of power, for instance, by the Nazis – by Albert Speer. They are anti-aircraft surveillance mechanisms used during the Second World War. The Internet, itself, is a development by the pentagon to create a platform for communication and control. So, we can’t pretend that these things are neutral and they’re just celebrations. They have a very dark and ominous background.

As a Mexican, I’m very moved by the activities of the Minute Men in Arizona. They are a group of motherfuckers who take searchlights and point at the people who are illegally crossing the border. The migration authority, that light of the helicopter pointing down at people is a light of violence, or interrogation, a light that blinds you, so it’s not the situation where I’m pretending that light is enlightening and spiritual. It could be to some people, but to many others, including myself, light is violent. It’s tracking.

The idea that your phone knows your position at any given time through GPS tracking is not new, but Open Air makes that tangible – visible. All of a sudden you are singled out, and the lights are on top of you. They’re not exactly on you, they go on top of you, and there is an aura that follows you wherever you go. In that sense, Open Air is a project that asks questions about public space, for instance, cell phones and the ecosystems that are closed, like iTunes. I find it problematic that now a corporation has the choice of which apps are suitable for their people and which ones aren’t. It’s a fundamental problem that we’re entering into these closed networks, which by definition are open for exploitation.

Now, I’m an Apple user, and in fact the entire project is Apple-based, but it doesn’t mean that I condone that.  I think that it’s important that companies understand the importance of creating public spaces within their technologies. Because ultimately, these technologies are already in the wrong hands, you know, corporate greed, but in addition once you start linking them to oppressive governments and so on the implications are very dire. So it’s important to think about the fact that this public space, which is the Internet, our data and our phones, is not so open. So we need to open it. We need to provide a platform for self-expression without censorship or moderation. That’s one thing.

The second thing is architecturally, in terms of urban planning, the Parkway is a really incredible, privileged space that was designed in the tradition of European promenades. Though it’s magnificent and surrounded by world-class artistic institutions, if you walk there at night, no one is there. The whole design of pedestrianizing that area has gone into a highway. It is a challenge for us to draw people into the area and allow them to occupy it. What’s important for me, what’s radical is to find things to do in public space that are not shopping. That’s radical. I will feel that I’ve succeeded if people who don’t normally walk in the Parkway show up and are present. That would be an important accomplishment, and to have diversity of participation would be another drive.  Ultimately, I don’t know if this will work. My work is completely experimental. We don’t know. We just put it out there, and then once it’s running, I become just another spectator.

PHAWKER: If you had to name five thinkers who have influenced your politics, then who would you name?

RAFAEL LOZANO-HEMMER: Let’s make it more difficult. How about five thinkers related to Philadelphia, because I really like your city.

PHAWKER: Really, what makes you like Philadelphia?

RAFAEL LOZANO-HEMMER: I love it, I don’t know. I think I’m really lucky because I have friends from here who have showed me a really good time. You guys have unbelievable institutions. I just went to this textile museum. I was like, I am so not interested in textiles until I came to see this, because it’s world class contemporary art. Things like that win me over. You guys have the most incredible Duchamp collection.

So to go into my patron saints from Philly…Buckminster Fuller. He was at UPenn. His thinking: not only about architecture and space but also the place of urbanity and public space, the place of really trying to come up with alternatives to the current organization of the state, of the country, of the state and humanity. His statements about seeing planet Earth as a spaceship and: “we’re all in this spaceship together,” is fundamental. I mean now we laugh, because it seems so obvious, but when he was saying these things, it wasn’t. He remains one of the most important and influential thinkers, in my opinion. He’s funny as hell. This is a man who would give away 90% of his wealth. At the end of the month, he would clean his accounts. It is very interesting how he would invest and move that money.

Also, David Lynch is incredibly influential. He was a real tour guide through the subconscious and perversion. He got to the very fiber of our schizoid moments, about how we are not just one person; we are many. In his movies, this is materialized. You get an opportunity to live several lives at once, in a way that no other filmmaker has ever done. So that’s two.

Number three. I love Black Thought from the Roots. As a rapper, he has gravitas. There’s all these people who are jumping out and grabbing the mic, and they have a real effusive form. I think Black Thought is a real poet. His lyrics, his demeanor and musical interests have really saved rap from the current horrible state it’s in. I find it difficult to say names of hip hop artists that I like, but The Roots have consistently been a group from Philly but worldwide, they’re recognized as really cutting edge people, lyrically but also musically too. Everything about them is really great.

Other thinkers and voices from Philly… I did this to myself… [laughing]

PHAWKER: You can open it up, if you want. I was thinking Lacan.

RAFAEL LOZANO-HEMMER: I couldn’t understand Lacan. I tried reading Lacan, but I had to read books about Lacan. Before I started my career I did study a lot of theory. I studied with Brian Massumi, Arthur Kroker, post-structuralism. I was lucky enough to be introduced to Foucault and Barthes. In fact, I had a radio program called postmodern commotion. It was back when the word, “postmodernism,” was cool. I’m talking like 1989. So we interviewed Jameson, Leotard, Terry Eagleton. That was great, and at the time I kept up with theory. I thought theory is really important. I really need to make a contribution to this field.

Now, I’m a dad. I have three kids. My career in the visual arts is overwhelming. I haven’t given up, but I have stopped reading. I’ve realized that to be really good at philosophy and theory in general you really have to dedicate your time to it. Lacan certainly is a lifelong project to be able to read that stuff. Do you read it?

PHAWKER: I’ve tried, yeah. [laughing]

RAFAEL LOZANO-HEMMER: You’ve tried, oh my god. [laughing] Yeah, I like it when theory is hard. That doesn’t put me off except for the lack of time. But that it has a reward at the end. I find that theorists are really useful because they’re catalysts of ideas, and it helps you organize some thought. So I do have some of my favorites. One who I recommend very much and do read still is Manuel DeLanda. He’s a Mexican philosopher who’s written really beautiful… I was going to say explanations. That’s unfair – but explanations of Deleuze. I tried reading Deleuze and followed him to an extent, but it’s really through reading Manuel that can begin to enter the world of dynamic systems, nonlinearity, chaos, simulation, all of these things that we are dealing with every day in terms of code, which Manuel describes really well in terms of history, economy, the military, sociology, so I would recommend reading his books a lot. And he’s my friend and really funny, which helps a lot. [laughing]

PHAWKER: What has your experience as an artist who works with the public taught you about people?

RAFAEL LOZANO-HEMMER: I just thought of two more Philadelphians though. Sun Ra and his orchestra. Unbelievable. He’s the musical equivalent of Buckminster Fuller. So, Buckminster Fuller has got this cosmological approach. So does Sun Ra. He just blew away any boundaries of jazz, funk, soul, and he was an unbelievable speaker too. Super funny.

So back to the public. The projects that I’m making are often projects that tour. And that helps a lot, because there is a sense of recycling, which I used to be embarrassed about. It’s like oh no, I’m doing another pulse project. But now, I’m not embarrassed at all. In fact, I’m happy. I consider it a language. It’s not because I’ve done a project where the heart beat gets visualized as a light bulb doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to do a heart beat visualized in water vibrations. So, I consider it a language. I recycle some ideas. I try out different proposals to see what works out in a particular case. Also, as these projects tour, it helps me see different responses to the same project.

So on the subject of the prolific and how the public reacts, the ability to tour these almost as if it were a theater play is interesting, because a lot of public art is based on site specificity. The artist, especially a good artist, will study the site and understand the history and architecture and politics. All these considerations will go into the proposal. I don’t do that. In my case, I do relationship-specific art. What is specific are the relationships established through the piece. But the piece itself, can and will be taken to other cities. And the responses tend to be very different – not even from city to city, but also from night to night. This kind of public feedback is very rewarding, because it shows that art is not objective, not universal, but rather created at the moment of perception and participation.  Marcel Duchamp would say it is the look that makes the painting. And I like that very much. There’s this emphasis on the artist as a creative collaborator.

PHAWKER: So you’ve learned that the public is chaotic.

RAFAEL LOZANO-HEMMER: It’s chaotic, and it’s out of control, which is very important to me. Nobody tells you what to do or not to do in my projects. There is never censorship, which is one of the reasons why I have hardly worked in North America. In North America, there is a general distrust of the public. Actually, in most countries, there is mistrust. But there is this sense that things need to be censored. One of the things I love about Philly in my romantic idea of Philly, and I recognize that my idea is romantic, but that free speech has always been defended passionately here. That diversity of opinion, that democracy – all those words that are perhaps platitudes now – they all originated and took root here.

So for me, doing this project in Philly is symbolic because it really is about that free speech. Will we get some moronic content? The answer is yes, we will. But in my experience with these open platforms is that it’s less than 1%. Most people are too busy using the project for shout outs, for dedications, for marriage proposals and football scores, and the people who will abuse the system are small. But they’re important, because if you are in a public space, like a park, then you may hear some expletives. But people self-moderate if you give them a chance. If you tell them not to do something, then it’s more like a challenge, and your project becomes only about censorship. In my case, the projects are completely out of my control.

In this project, every night, we have a different group that has been invited to kick off the night. We have everything from the voice of the homeless, to skateboarders, to artistic groups, to seniors, to astronomers – different people who will get to take the mic. I’m really proud of that, because in the hands of the skateboarders, the project will have a completely different flavor than the Hampton seniors, and so on. That’s key for me. I don’t anticipate what the outcome will be.