Relational Architecture: Interview with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Daniele Mancini. Let’s start this interview from the beginning, from your background. I mean, I know you’re graduated in Physical Chemistry, But then? How did it happen you start doing art? I must admit i’m very much intrigued by the short circuits coming from the cross fertilization of different discipline…

Rafael Lozano Hemmer. My family in Mexico ran nightclubs and discotheques, where artists and musicians would hang out, like Josè Luis Cuevas or Parez Prado. We moved to Spain when I was twelve and then I went to University in Canada when I was seventeen. I studied chemistry and then art history in Montreal and, with some friends, started a group called PoMo CoMo doing experimental radio and technological performances. For about four years we toured several cities with up to 12 people and tiny budgets. From that group I ended up working only with Will Bauer, a composer engineer with whom I still collaborate. We first developed interactive installations and then started the Relational Architecture series.

DM. What about this body of work you call Relational Architecture? How would you define Relational Architecture?

RLH. I define Relational Architecture as the technological actualization of public space with “alien” memory. I prefer to say “alien” instead of “new”, because the word does not have the pretension of originality and simply underlines the fact that the memory “does not belong”. The series consists of large-scale interventions that allow local or remote participants to transform buildings or urban landscapes through sensors, networks, robots and audiovisual technologies. The installations tend to be ephemeral although they could become permanent if a budget and context allow it.

DM. So they can be considered more as piece of interactive and performing art than as of visual arts…

RLH. I named the series “Relational Architecture” in large part because I wanted to avoid using the term “interactivity”! This word has now become too vague, like “postmodern”, “virtual”, “deconstruction” or other terms that mean too many things and is exhausted. Duchamp said “Le regard fait le tableau” (the look makes the picture) and when we say that everything is interactive, the word is not that interesting anymore. Also interactive sounds too much like a top-down 1-bit trigger button -you push it and something happens- which is too predatorial and simple.

“Relational” on the other hand, has a more horizontal quality, it’s more connective: events happen in fields of activity that may have resonances in several places in the network. The word “relational” takes you away from this discrete, personalized, individualized experience of interactivity, which I dislike.

DM. I do dare to say “Relational” still looks an overused term as well, don’t you agree? I think for example to “Relational Aesthetic” by Nicolas Bourriaud…

RLH. Of course “relational” is not my term, I read about it in Maturana and Varela’s studies of the brain and also the word has been used since the 60s to describe cross-referencing databases. Also, the great Brazilian artists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, precursors of electronic art, aused the term in the 60s to refer to their user-activated objects and installations.

DM. If the city does not change your work, can we say it’is your work changing the city?

RLH. Perhaps the city does not change with my work but the opposite is clearly true. As I remount a piece in a different city the range of response varies widely, and these variations are very revealing about what constitutes “location”. Almost every culture in the world has a very sophisticated vocabulary and tradition of shadow plays or shadow mythologies. As I remount a piece in a different city the range of response varies widely, and these variations are very revealing about what constitutes “location”. I am currently organizing a tour for Body Movies and I am really looking forward to seeing how people’s reaction differs in Seoul, Sao Paulo or Singapore. I think in most electronic artworks what’s interesting is the cross-reference of different behaviours that arise from showing in different settings.

DM. Then, let’s talk more specifically about the involvement of the public…

RLH. Depending on public participation is a humbling affair because the work will not exist without the main protagonist, which is the public as actor. Most people, with the exception of children, will opt to not participate in an installation in public space, -which may seem strange considering that we live in the age of reality TV and the society of the spectacle.

DM. How do you explain this phenomenon ?

RLH. This is due in part to shyness and living in a culture of rules like “do not touch”, but I like to think that there are two other reasons. One is political: people are sceptical about the neutrality of public space. No one wants to go along with a culture of surveillance, even if they know that it is inevitable. The other is aesthetic: some people prefer the chaotic sights and sounds of an urban landscape, or silence, rather than some canned multimedia intervention that forces you to focus on one event, usually to sell you something.

DM. Which technique, which approch to make people partecipating your Relational performance?

RLH. For me dependency on participation is a way to “ground” an installation and this helps me conceive interfaces and strategies that demystify the spectacular. The key is to develop pieces that offer some degree of intimacy within an intimidating scale. Also to find participation metaphors that are relatively familiar or self-explaining. Finally to offer a wide range of entry points into the work, attempting to underline the incompleteness, uselessness and indeterminacy of the initiative.

DM. With interactive installations there always seem to be two approaches for the audience: one can either participate, or one looks at the piece from a distance, and reflects on it. Is this true for your work also? How can people reflect while participating in Body Movies or Vectorial Elevation?

RLH. When we look at projects that offer collective participation there are usually two strategies, which I call “taking turns” or “taking averages”. “Taking turns” is the most common, and in it interaction is restricted to one or two people who have the control of the installation while others are passive. Displaced Emperors was like that, as only one person could hold the tracking system. You have one or two sensors and people take turns to use them, and the rest are spectators. Examples include Jeffrey Shaw’s Eve, where one person controls the point of view of a virtual world projected on a large dome, Toni Dove and Michael Mackenzie’s Archaeology of a Mother Tongue, where a tracking glove is used to navigate a narrative, and our Displaced Emperors where a participant wears a tracking system to transform the Linzer Castle. “Taking averages” is the strategy used in game shows, rides or several variants of interactive cinema, where there are sensors whose signals are averaged and then statistically directed at a few possible courses of action. This is what you have in interactive cinema experiences or in game shows: a voting interface where input gets statistically computed and the majority directs the outcome. This can be very frustrating and democratic; it makes you feel that your discrete participation goes nowhere. The challenge is how to open a piece for participation without taking averages or taking turns. In a way, Body Movies does this because on the one hand you can have the discrete individual participation, as one’s shadow is recognizably one’s own; but there are also emerging collective patterns of self-organization, as people may choose to interact with one another, with the building or with the portraits. We can have as many people as fit in the public square interacting simultaneously without the need for any interface device.

DM. How d’you face the cultural background of the public? Don’t you think it’s not just a matter of the history of a place ? I believe the public respond differently according to their visual culture for example …

RLH. That’s true. Everyone already has a sophisticated vocabulary of interaction with their shadow, so no explanation of the media is necessary. There were collective behaviours emerging from the group of shadows, -in particular, the self-organisation of scale according to social constraints-, but also each person had a discrete and direct participation as their shadow was recognisably theirs. In some pieces action and reflection are not mutually exclusive. I will now make a big over-simplification about approaches to representation. The Italian approach is all about the window onto the world. You have this frame and you step back from the subject, from reality, as though looking through this neutral glass. This formula is what informs humanism and virtuality. In contrast, the Dutch approach -I am specifically thinking of Rembrandt and Van Hoogstraten- is based on artifice, on acting, on surface aesthetics like the camera obscura, anamorphosis and trompe l’oeil. The Italian metaphor implies that you can look at a subject objectively, while the Dutch emphasis is on foldings or reflections that are already taking place in our own corporeal space, where perception is an apparatus. The two cannot be clearly separated as I suggest, but the Dutch approach illustrates more clearly my preferred understanding of perception, which is that the act of seeing is the act of inventing. Spectators play an active role, not a passive one. You can also say the opposite. People who are participating are in fact reflecting. People are not innocent when they activate interactive works in a public space, and this already constitutes a certain ground for reflection. People are participating in these sort of interactive operations with a lot of knowledge and awareness. It is important for me that they may understand the interface of the piece in an intuitive manner so that it does not become too distracting. In Body Movies people adopted the shadow interface very quickly, and they definitely played roles, in character, like Rembrandt was when he was doing his self-portraits. In Vectorial Elevation this interpenetration of action and reflection was not so obvious. I received a lot of valuable criticism about the fact that when you look at the light sculptures over the plaza in Mexico City, your experience is one only of contemplation. You see this constant transformation of the lights overhead, but you’re not actively involved in it. Even though we put computers in public access locations, that was not enough to have this more balanced outcome between acting and reflecting that we have here in Rotterdam. In Mexico there was definitely a power gradient, an asymmetry, and now when I see Body Movies I think it is so obvious. I’m looking forward to doing Vectorial Elevation again and finding more ways to get people to participate on-site. In Body Movies there is a brief blackout that happens between each representation as the slides change to show new portraits. This blackout was something I did not want at first, -if I had used video there could have been a continuous transformation. But now I am extremely pleased with this “silence”. It introduces a rhythm and it makes everybody aware of his or her own presence. A kind of Brechtian “noticing of the knots”. This rupture has become a fundamental feature of the piece. It’s one of those technological limitations that becomes a plus: “Oh, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature!”

DM. So after all this, how would you position your work in the artistic context, in the realm of the arts?

RLH. My work is best situated somewhere between architecture and the performing arts. The making of a piece itself is closer to developing a performance or a play than a visual artwork. For the most part, I work with my long-standing collaborator Will Bauer, but also with photographers, programmers, architects, linguists, writers, composers, actors or other staff that may be needed depending on the project. For me it is a priority to create group experiences rather than to generate collectible objects. We emphasize artwork that is connective or social, in contrast to a lot of electronic art which features individual interfaces for solitary participation. Most of our work has been developed in media arts contexts, and within this I prefer collective experiences rather than using individual interfaces for solitary participation. In 1989 I interviewed Robert Lepage, the Canadian theatre director, about the impact of technology on the arts. He said, “computers can communicate very efficiently; but they can’t engage in communion”. I think he used the word communion not in its religious connotations but more as the acknowledgement of the human complicity that can’t be shared with computers. I find this idea very interesting, not because it sounds like an apology for humanism, which is in a well-deserved crisis, but because I think communication as a concept in Art is overrated and corporate. What’s more attractive is people meeting and sharing an experience, -a simple pleasure that composer Frederic Rzewski calls “coming together”. This concept, at least when referring to coming together in the flesh, is becoming more radical as people do it less and less thanks to telecommunications, urban design, increasing work load demands, and work schedule flexibility, to name a few factors.

DM. What abut the composition of your production team? How many expertise need to be directed smoothly to achieve the results driven by a performative impulse?

RLH. The production team varies from piece to piece, but it usually includes my long-standing collaborator Will Bauer and programmer Conroy Badger. Sometimes a project may involve up to a couple dozen people. Depending on the type of project we work also with writers, photographers, choreographers, architects, composers or whatever is required. For my piece at the Havana Biennial, which is an automated question-generator, we had several people working on linguistics, for example. Even when I am working on a project alone I still feel it is a collaboration because I am always aware that tools that I use are already encoded with the “personality” of its programmer/designer. One can say the same thing about language and ideas, as these arise from an uncontrollable social context. Creation is always a fluid dialog. The mode of cooperative conception that works for my production team is one derived from the performing arts: there is a director, actors, composers, and so on, everyone knows their role and is credited and paid accordingly.

DM. Now I would like to stress a bit on Technology. The fact you were not trained as a former artist will introduce a number of interesting variables into the creative process. For example, are the new medium, so new for you?

RLH. Like most people, I like living vicariously through technology. I am seduced by amplification, simulation, telematics and things that crash. I work with technology because it is impossible not to. Technology is one of the inevitable languages of globalisation. I like calling it a language because this conveys two attributes that are significant. Firstly, that technology is inseparable from contemporary identity, -there is no such thing as “what we were like before technology”-, and secondly that it is not something that has been invented or engineered, but rather that it has evolved through constantly-changing social, economic, physical and political forces. I think artists use technology explicitly as a way to understand and criticise from within some of the paradoxes of our culture. How can “media” culture actually result in disintermediation? How can a condition of placelessness become situated as multi-place? How come telematics may actually remarginalize the periphery? On the other hand, there is a tendency for “technologically correct” art, like critic Lorne Fak says, where artists, museums and galleries adopt technology not to create new experiences specific to the new media, but rather to leverage and validate their current grab-bag of metaculture.

It is interesting that the successive waves of techno-hype for multimedia, VR, the internet, and now ubiquitous computing have been typically reported by using cliché references to the Renaissance as though we were about to enter a new humanism where the user is the “centre of the digital world”.

The human today is at the centre of nothing but a flock or stampede. If we could zoom out of our scene we would probably see ourselves following relatively established patterns and group behaviours, like partaking in consumer culture, which are unavoidable. This humanist approach, where art and science may pretend to be one and the same thing, is nostalgia at best and necrophilia at worst. I find it significant that the first realistic computer models of humans (synthespians) were done at the same time that flocking behaviours (particle systems) were being implemented in high-end animation packages. 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 and embodiment, ephemeral intervention, misuse of technology, non-digital approaches to virtuality and resistance to what I call the “effect” effect.

Anyhow, I grew up on four hours of television a day. For me Painting is new media!

DM. Lets’ go back a bit about the relationship among your installation, the public and the city. Your work seems to be founded on a rather strong idea of what public interactive pieces should be like and what the modern city is today. How do your public installations affect normal city life? Or to put it more generally: how do your pieces change the city in which they are shown?

RLH. Many people from Cicero to Churchill have been quoted as saying: “We make buildings, and buildings make us.” This is far from true in our time. Globalization has deepened the crisis in urban representation. The vast majority of buildings constructed today no longer represent local inhabitants or concerns. Instead we see two tendencies.

The first is the erection of “default buildings”, that is, generic architecture that represents corporate culture and the optimization of capital. A default building in Montreal will be very similar to one in Mexico City because both are functions of the same formula that seeks a return on investment.

The second tendency is what the Spanish architect Emilio López-Galiacho calls “vampire buildings” which are symbolic 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 predisposition to assign an identitarian role upon a select number of buildings like Vicenza’s Villa Rotonda or Sevilla’s La Giralda. These two phenomena of default and vampire buildings are flip sides of the same coin. So, an important aspect of my work in Relational Architecture is to produce a performative context where default buildings may take on temporary specificity and where vampire buildings may decline their role in their established, prevailing identification. The pieces are usually ephemeral interventions designed to establish architectural and social relationships where unpredicted behaviours may emerge. I want buildings to pretend to be something other than themselves, to engage in a kind of dissimulation. To accomplish this we use large-scale technologies of amplification that are usually reserved for publicity stunts and corporate events. These technologies are typically used to perform a pre-programmed commercial monologue, and it is always exciting to exploit them in ways they were not intended. Using projections, robotics, sound, net connections and local sensors, the input and feedback from participants becomes an integral part of the work and the outcome is dictated by their actions. As I said at the beginning, my work attempts to introduce “alien memory” as an urban catalyst: the adjective “alien” simply to underlines the fact that “it does not belong”. Body Movies transforms the Schouwburgplein Square by introducing huge portraits of people only matched in scale by the amplified shadow of passers-by. With this piece you see constant realignments taking place. For example, there is the movement in the square to embody the portraits, to “become” the alien representation, which is frustrated by the fact that the portraits change automatically the moment total embodiment happens. Also, there is the encounter between the dominant culture, which is Hollywood films being shown inside the cinema building, and shadow representation of the participants outside in the open space. This makes people look at the cinema building potentially as a membrane where two realities are co-present -an “internal exterior” as Jodorowski would call it. The impact of these projects varies widely. In Vectorial Elevation, the installation in Mexico City, we had over 800,000 active net participants in twelve days, plus possibly millions looking at the work in the city and more through the media. Here in Rotterdam we have probably a couple thousand people participating every night and the piece runs for 23 days. Of course, it is easy to determine statistics on participation but these numbers tell us little about the impact of the pieces, if any, on the creation, perception and occupation of public space, which is what I am mostly concerned with. The best way to gather this information is to interview participants and this tends to be one of the more rewarding aspects of doing a project, as one becomes aware of the diverse reactions elicited.

DM. I would like to conclude this interview asking about the cultural references your work is informed of… Who are your closest inspiring people? Do your scientific background have shaped somehow your sensibility?

RLH. I read critical theory primarily for pleasure, as a catalyst, but I never consider it to be a recipe or a manual, nor do I presume to know how any theory might interpret my work while in the process of creating it. I was educated here in Canada where during the 80’s and 90’s I studied post-structuralist theory on the one hand, and the theory of information and complexity on the other. Through the guidance of Brian Massumi and other teachers I witnessed the takeover of North America by French thinkers like Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Barthes, etcetera. For three years (1988-1991) I directed a radio show called “The Postmodern Commotion” that was dedicated to putting into practice what we considered to be post-modern activist tactics. We interviewed a number of thinkers such as Frederic Jameson, Jean-François Lyotard and Terry Eagleton. In the early 90’s the term “post-modern” dissolved and it became clear that the new trend was toward the “virtual”. In keeping with this shift I turned to thinkers like Geert Lovink, Tim Druckrey, Donna Haraway, Siegfried Zielinski, Peter Weibel, Sandy Stone, Simon Penny, and others who helped me form more critical ideas on virtualization. These days I mainly read about science: Chaos Theory, uncertainty, the strange world of Quantum Mechanics and non-linear phenomena, -authors like Mexican writer Manuel DeLanda and Ilya Prigogine. I think the science of complexity, for example, offers us very fertile terrain for creativity. Unfortunately, the humanities continue to maintain a rather antiquated, almost 19th century vision of science in general. Within “Canadian” traditions there are authors to whom I feel a great affinity. Above all with respect to the idea of understanding technology not as a tool, or as something that is separate from us, but rather as a “second skin” to use the words of Marshall McLuhan. After the end of phenomenology people no longer wondered about the nature of pre-linguistic consciousness. In the same way, we now consider it impossible to think about our world without technology simply because technology has become the language or the unavoidable medium for our thoughts.

Daniele Mancini e Rafael Lozano Hemmer

Ottobre, Novembre 2006

// What is

UNPACKED Studio is a professional practice based in Rome (Italy) operating within the traditional fields of architecture and urban planning but also interested in exploring the contemporary through other creative approaches.

// What we do

UNPACKED Studio provides services in the fields of Design, Communication, Architecture, Urban Planning, Participatory Process, Innovative Education and Research.

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// Mission

UNPACKED Studio is a common ground for speculations over cross-fertilizing projects involving several professionals from diverse disciplines. We like experimenting cutting-edge approaches between digital and analog.

// Who we are

UNPACKED Studio has been founded by Daniele Mancini and Irene Rinaldi, both architects and educators.

Daniele Mancini is Ph.D. in Theory of Architecture. He worked in France at Jakob+ MacFarlane Architects and in The Netherlands at Wiel Arets Architects. He is currently involved in teaching activities at IED Istituto Europeo di Design di Roma.

Irene Rinaldi worked in Spain at De La Puerta Architects and in Italy at Schiattarella Associati where participated to the design of Italian Pavillon for the Japan Expo 2005 in Aichi (Nagoya)

UNPACKED Studio started in January 2005 thanks to the Young Entrepreneurs European funds “Sviluppo Italia”.