Dazzling Art Basel installation by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer visualizes heartbeats


Ayanna Dozier

Installation view of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Pulse topology, 2022 at Art Basel. © Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Courtesy of BMW i and Superblue.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s immersive and interactive installations subvert technological power systems to reveal the beauty of human connection. The Mexico City-born Montreal artist plays with biometrics to create images, light and electricity that reflect the natural inner workings of the body. “It’s a desire to capture the ephemeral,” Lozano-Hemmer explained in a recent interview. “It’s an absurd insistence on making technology tangible and making the invisible palpable. Much of my work is about this – it’s about “how do we interconnect realities in the way we coexist?”

This year, Lozano-Hemmer is bringing its human-centered use of biometrics to Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland. Superblue and BMW i present the artist’s installation Pulse topology (2022) from his ongoing series “Pulse” (2006-present). As visitors passPulse topology, the room detects visitors’ heartbeats using technology that measures photoplethysmography – the change in your skin’s opacity as blood flows – by analyzing changes in skin color. In response, Pulse topologyThe 6,000 light bulbs flicker and change, modulating in tandem with heartbeats, while recording and playing the sounds of organ rhythms.

Installation view of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Pulse topology, 2022 at Art Basel. © Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Courtesy of BMW i and Superblue.

Pulse topology works like a memento mori in that it retains the last 6,000 heartbeats that passed through it, with the most recent replacing the oldest. He thus creates links in space and time between visitors who have never met. On the occasion of Art Basel, Lozano-Hemmer and his studio have also joined forces with BMW engineers and designers to bring the same technology of Pulse topology in the BMW i7. Once seated in the i7, a visitor will experience their heartbeat through light, sound and graphics.

The collaboration with BMW, which was facilitated by Superblue, is part of a long tradition in Lozano-Hemmer’s practice of creating experiences through technology that can be universally understood. In past works like edge tuner (2019), Lozano-Hemmer used light to create visual bridges along the US-Mexico border, connecting Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua and El Paso, Texas. In this case, the light was controlled by the voices of participants on either side of the border and created visuals that could be seen over 10 miles away.

Lozano-Hemmer aspires to an intuitive practice, where the presence of the participant is essential to activate his work. “My collaboration with BMW is really a collaboration with designers and engineers,” he explained, noting that together they had a dialogue around creating universal technology interfaces.

Portrait of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer at Art Basel, 2022. Courtesy of BMW i and Superblue.

He compares his approach to universalizing technology, still mired in the world’s social inequalities, to that of a DJ playing in a nightclub. A DJ constructs his playlist in response to the presence of the audience, ideally creating a symbiotic relationship with the dancers.

This reference to nightclubs is not accidental: Lozano-Hemmer grew up in a nightclub. Her parents owned a nightclub in Mexico City called Los Infernos. “I became a chemist because I think you have to rebel against your parents,” he explained. “When I was 13, my dad gave me a book called The Bar Bible. So I said, ‘I got out. You want me to do reactions, I’ll do chemical reactions! He pursued studies in chemistry and coding at Concordia University in Montreal and obtained a bachelor’s degree in physical chemistry in 1989.

Nonetheless, Lozano-Hemmer’s disco upbringing, along with his early use of coding and artificial intelligence, shaped his early work, including collaborations with other artists and musicians in Montreal. His early art installations were based on these collaborations, such as a 1992 piece where a choreographer interacted with a robotic eye programmed to follow her as she danced across the stage. At the end of each performance, the public was invited onto the stage to see for themselves and test the program, dispelling any doubts about the dynamic use of technology.

Installation view of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Pulse topology, 2022 at Art Basel. © Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Courtesy of BMW i and Superblue.

Installation view of the BMW i7 at Art Basel, 2022. Courtesy of BMW i.

As you might expect, the same interactive features that electrified Lozano-Hemmer’s early experiments are the same ones used for surveillance and policing systems. “There’s a lot of artwork I’ve done that highlights tracking and policing mechanisms,” he said. “And other times there are projects where we try to misuse the technology that tries to control us and follow us, and we create [instead] poetic and critical experiences.

While discussing the new poetic staging of Pulse topology, Lozano-Hemmer recalled a past iteration that was particularly impactful: In 2014, he mounted the installation at the Izolyatsia Cultural Center in Donetsk, Ukraine. A few months later, Pulse topology was presented in Madrid, Spain; at the same time, the Chechen militia invaded Donetsk. And when the piece was first activated in Madrid, a sobering realization was thrown at the attendees, as the last 6,000 recorded heartbeats, which reverberated throughout the exhibition space, came from individuals who were under extreme duress.

Now, Pulse topology also comes at a time of global turmoil, not just with the war in Ukraine, but amid the still lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its activation can now be seen as a way to visualize the heartbeat as part of a shared existence across geography and time.

Installation view of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Pulse topology, 2022 at Art Basel. © Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Courtesy of BMW i and Superblue.

Lozano-Hemmer does not situate her work as new, but rather as something that dialogues with a fleeting and unfixed oral history of Latin American cultural producers. He draws an analogy between his research practice and that of the Brazilian inventor and painter Hércules Florence, who is credited with inventing photography in 1832. While Florence invented the device for creating images, he did not create a fixative that would make the images permanent. . Giving the example of Florence, whose contributions go largely unrecognized, Lozano-Hemmer points out that many technological innovations have an origin story going back to people who have been written off the official record.

Rather than making technological discoveries, Lozano-Hemmer had better rebel against them. He observes the ways in which technology is spiraling out of control and seeks to exploit it by making connections between various past and overlooked innovations in the field. This approach not only motivates his collaborations, but fuels his use of human-centered technology.

“We can change the narrative of technology,” Lozano-Hemmer said. “We are not only at the reception.”

Ayanna Dozier

Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s editor.

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