Recorders: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer at the MCA

On New Year’s Even 2011, I  decided to go down to the MCA to have a quick look at the most recent exhibition there, ‘Recorders’ by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. I was quite surprised to hear there was anything going on at the MCA given the extensive refurbishment and extension works going on at the moment by architect Sam Marshall.

I am not a massive fan of the plans for its extension, although it is a much needed improvement to what is essentially an Art Deco building designed to house the Maritime Services Board. It was originally refurbished by Andrew Andersons, from Peddle Thorpe in 1990. And this is not the first refurbishment the main building goes through. As early as the early 2000s, Sam Marshall had already been called upon to rethink the entry sequence and the circulation. It really makes you wonder how ‘durable’ Andersons design was. Moving on.

The exhibition takes place on the only floor of the building which is open to the public these days. It’s a perfect size for this small yet complete exhibition by Mexican-Canadian artist, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. In the brochure for the exhibition, they call him an ‘electronic’ artist. I find that a somewhat outdated label. I would definitely support the view that he uses digital connectivity and sensors as enabling technologies, but I am not sure that makes him an ‘electronic’ artist. There is something distinctly retro about the use of the term electronic.

So electronic may not be my term of choice, but Lozano-Hemmer’s work is definitely worth a visit. In a nutshell, his work is predicated on the creation of feedback loops which engage and include the visitor/viewer in the work of art itself. It’s a funny scene walking through the exhibition space and watching all these visitors experimenting and trying to leave their mark on the work. Whether through sound, images, lights, text, or measuring tapes mechanised with basic servos, the viewer is looking for the trace of his/her own participation in the installation.

His claim is that he is using his work simultaneously as a call for engagement and agency as an act of policing, control and supervision. Arguably, there is a very fine line between those two concepts as projections of the self into an installation requires the collection of data, digital traces left in the engine of the art work, just like the digital traces we leave on CCTVs and other surveillance technologies on a daily basis.

It’s an interesting premise, that is for sure, and although there was only a very limited selection of works on display, I thought I would choose my three favourite to expand on here. Pardon the poor quality photos, that’s about as good as it gets on iPhone 4…

#1: Tape Recorders, 2011

The first is a piece called ‘Tape Recorders’ from 2011. The work consists in two rows of standard measuring tapes mounted on a wall and mechanised with small servos. As visitors enter the room, the tape closest to where the visitor stops inches up, as a way of visualising the amount of time that person has stayed in the room. The room is allegedly retrofitted with sensors that feed movement information to the servos and supposedly inform the speed and frequency with which these servos move… I choose my words carefully, because I remain unconvinced of the accuracy of the data. The little receipt printer on the side printed how long individual visitors had stayed, 73 minutes, 27 minutes, etc… I did not see anyone stay there longer than to see one of those tape measure inch towards the sealing and succumb to the pull of gravity, which makes me doubtful that anyone would spend that much time in there. But also, I think the connection between the visitor and the tape he/she is influencing is very tenuous. I suppose it is all you need for a work of art, but I found it quite easy to dismiss the whole thing as an interesting concept that fails in execution.

#2 People on People, 2010

Now this piece really starts to get into the impact of real-time information of behaviours. A series of high-definition face recognition cameras are nested into a white wall onto which the real-time images of the people being captured by the cameras are being projected. In addition, a row of serious light beams are projecting oversized shadows of the same visitors onto that same wall. The layering effect is clever, and the interactivity quite engaging to say the least. This is an experiment in what Lozano-Hemmer calls ‘co-presence’, a layering of perception of the self to create visual and scalar confusion as well as impact on the behaviour of the viewer who ends up starting to perform to track movements through the feedback loop created by this work of art. The piece remains innocent and playful although its underpinnings are sinister and pessimistic for the future of our digitally enhanced world. You can’t help but feel that this piece is a metaphor for the Big Brother breathing down our necks. I think Lozano-Hemmer is exploring the public’s willingness to comply and participate in an act of surveillance.

#3: Voice Array, 2011

I thought this one to be the most ‘artistically’ engaging piece as it combines sound, light and an amplifying algorithm to echo sound bytes entered into a low-tech intercom by visitors. You end up with ‘noise’, an apt metaphor for a lot of the information overload we are confronted with. It is also a representation of the power of social media networks in my view, a way of multiplying and disseminating information through a series of interconnected networks. I could easily see this piece as an outdoor public art installation, with people yelling and clapping at it to make it glitter. This is what happened with Social Firefly, an artwork Arup submitted to the 2011 edition of Vivid Sydney.

On the whole, I enjoyed this exhibition very much, especially as it points to the power of real time feedback loops on behaviour design and showcases how precisely existing technologies can track the movement, image and sounds generated by people. Although this was not Lozano-Hemmer’s aim, I think it can be argued that his works could go the extra mile by embedding a certain type of behaviour design in the work. Exploring the power (both good and bad) of real time information on human behaviour, as a sort of curatorial act for the artist in almost a directing role, is where this work is going in my view. And the applications to this line of thinking to the way we design our urban environments is urban informatics is all about. What if we moved beyond the curiosity in the feedback loop to generate genuine behaviour change? What is the power of feedback loops to impact on culture? I will leave you with those thoughts!


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