Exploring Community in Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Pulse

There aren’t many labels in the Hirshhorn’s newest exhibition, Pulse, which is suitable for works that are seen mostly in the dark. There are only three works on display that take up a dark second floor of the Hirshhorn, but you could spend so much time in each that it’s sufficient enough to leave you with many questions about purpose and meaning. I pulled away from the group I came with that morning to find myself in Pulse Room (2006), a large area with hanging lights evenly spaced across the ceiling. The room is dark I only see clear outlines of incandescent light bulbs. I continue to walk forward until I see, in the back of the room, two sensors, like the control wheel on a plane. I walk up to the sensors and am told to gently place my hands on them and wait. Only a few seconds go by and a light bulb in front of me reads my heart beat. It is steady but beating a little too fast (DC traffic will do that to you). Pretty soon a second bulb turns on, then a third, and a fourth and then the whole room is lit up by heart beats across the room. I am in this room by myself for awhile before others start to find their way in and while I’m in that space experiencing this work alone (or at least no one else but the museum’s guide and security), the only thing I can think about this entire time is immigration.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer,  Pulse  Room, 2006 in  Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Pulse  at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, 2018. Photo: Cathy Carver

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Pulse Room, 2006 in Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Pulse at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, 2018. Photo: Cathy Carver

Lozano-Hemmer is a Mexican-Canadian artist who creates stunning works based on his curiosity of technology which are only truly activated when viewers participate. The result becomes somewhat of a performance piece that brings together strangers, reshaping what could be construed as mechanisms of surveillance and control, to fit a more benevolent narrative of cohesion and community. He has worked for over a decade in various technological mediums, none of which I’ve witnessed for myself but have, perhaps fittingly, only viewed online.

Before seeing the show at the Hirshhorn, I didn’t know too much about the artist despite his wide success. I knew he was a Latino artist who created participatory and technological work where the audience was always a key function of the piece (Articulated Intersect, 2011). But for reasons that have to do with school, work, and life, I didn’t do much research beyond what I saw. Now, with his works in D.C., I had time to explore and think deeply about my own contribution to these three pieces and how the artist creates a new kind of community, made up of people joined together by their participation.

After participating in all three works at the Hirshhorn, one question kept repeating itself in my mind, “How do these works, in Washington D.C., transform or add to the artist’s original intent in today’s political climate?” The question felt strange to me because it felt like I was making an assumption of the artist based solely on his Mexican background. His work often explores universal themes of security and technological determinism, or perhaps challenges the very notion of it, but still I wanted to know how these works, conceived many years ago, could be interpreted as a renewed human connection to a community that has harshly been disavowed by the current administration.

His works are beautiful, there is no doubt about that. The romantic notion of registering a heart beat with the collective beats of those before yours is easy enough to understand. We all, strangers to one another, participate, come together, to create a symphony of life from aspects of ourselves that are both unique to us as individuals and mostly common among us all at the same time: the fingerprint and the heart beat. I found myself watching heart beats light up the ceiling of the Hirshhorn in a kaleidoscopic rhythm and wondered if we could think beyond the participants of this musical monitor to those fleeing danger in southern countries whose hearts beat just like ours. I wondered if the artist thought about this, too. I argued the notion back and forth with myself, wrestling with the idea of an artist tied to a political conversation simply because of their background but wondering how you could separate yourself in this moment, especially given the conversation?   

I left the show with more questions than answers but intrigued to learn more about the artist’s method, his thought-process and hoping for a deep-dive into both. Turns out, my questions that veered in the direction of how human connectivity can be accessed via technology and perhaps even outstrip racial bias (or otherwise) was not too far off. I wanted to understand the artist’s community, how he understood the role of community and how his work contributed to it. A talk with the artist at the museum later that evening confirmed that he was both keenly aware of the meaning of his work less than two miles from the White House, and more importantly, that he was not going shy away from articulating directly how his work functions in this kind of space. Lozano-Hemmer, upon describing the beauty and function of his work went further to explain,

“…at a time when there’s intense language of antagonism and separation in this country, I want to create something that is about togetherness…I do believe that at this time participation is a vehicle for transformation…”

I was excited by the talk and the way he expressed the profound nature of his work to connect communities unknown to each other. It is a technological connectivity fitting for 2018. Sure, the show lends itself quite beautifully to photographs and an influencer-Instagram aesthetic. The technology is impressively explored for those curious and awed about technology used for science now used for art. I was transfixed by it all, but inspired by something deeper. Lozano-Hemmer is right, communities need to come together in this time of divisiveness because what happens if we don’t is dangerous. This is something I have always known but never framed around the technological participation that shows us simply as we are, human beings. In the end, this show did what any artist wants from its audience, to be moved. So much so that I actually had to hold back tears.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer Pulse on view now at the Hirshhorn through April 28, 2019.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer,  Pulse Index , 2010 in  Time Lapse , Site Santa Fe, Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States, 2012. Photo: Kate Russel

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Pulse Index, 2010 in Time Lapse, Site Santa Fe, Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States, 2012. Photo: Kate Russel

More Reading Material:

Artist Talk: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (Hirshhorn)

Featured image: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Pulse Room, 2006 in “Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Pseudomatismos,” MUAC Museum, Mexico City, Mexico, 2015. Photo: Oliver Santana

Karen Vidángos