by Renny Pritikin
At the opening of his show, TechsMechs (a punning reference to Tex Mex culture), Rafael Lozano-Hemmer presented a slide show about unrecognized, innovative artists and scientists from Mexico and South America. One was the Brazilian inventor Hércule Florence. He was the first to make a photograph, beating Louis Daguerre to the punch by three years in 1836. Problem was, Florence couldn’t find a way to fix an image, and as a result, his discovery was, at least in the popular imagination, lost to history. Retelling that saga (and many other similar stories) is part of the Mexico-born artist’s ongoing effort to decentralize the story of American and European domination of innovation.
A resident of Montreal since 1985, Lozano-Hemmer, 55, represented Mexico at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and, in 2021, had a mid-career retrospective co-produced by the Muse d’Art Contemporain de Montreal and SFMOMA. Gray Area, a former movie theater reconfigured into an exhibition space on Mission Street, brings Hemmer back to San Francisco for the first time since his SFMOMA show. In addition to educating the public about Florence and other such figures, his primary emphasis is demonstrating how digital art forms can transcend political and cultural boundaries.
Toward that end, he presents Pulse Topologies (2021) and Remote Pulse (2019). The first consists of 3,000 small light bulbs — the old-fashioned kind with clear glass and visible filaments – installed in a darkened gallery and arrayed to mimic a computer-generated landscape set to a throbbing ambient soundtrack. The display is controlled by a sensor that reads each visitor’s pulse and assigns that data to an individual bulb, forming light show-like displays of swarming motion. Once 3,001 visitors encounter the piece, the process repeats and new values are assigned, turning the installation into an evolving record of the internal workings of its audience, the intent of which is to break down barriers of race, gender or nationality.
Remote Pulse operates similarly; it has visitors place their hands on a book-like device that reads heartbeats. This data was initially sent to an identical device in Mexico so that two people could experience each other’s heartbeat across the border. For this exhibition, it is linked to a machine in a simultaneous Hemmer exhibition at bitforms gallery at Minnesota Street Project. (As it happens, Lozano-Hemmer isn’t the only artist thinking along these lines: In 2022, the Chicano artist Chico MacMurtrie made a similarly conceived piece titled Border Crossers with inflated plastic objects that met at the border from opposite sides.)
The other major piece in the exhibition, Airborne Newscasts (2013), projects video onto a 25 x eight-foot wall. The content changes periodically but always contains three news stories in Spanish. When viewers step between the projector and the wall, their shadow causes the text to dissolve and float away, similar to the renowned Text Rain (1999) by Camille Utterback. Hemmer’s interactive piece posits the body as a medium for play, political exchange and disruption, prompting people to shadow dance before it.
Two freestanding objects, Sway and Volute Zero (both 2016), occupy the same space. The latter is a 3D printed stainless steel object sitting atop a metal stand at the height of a human head. It replicates the volume of air displaced by uttering a word. The title means swirling shape, but it also refers to ancient Mayan and Aztec runes that employed what might today be called speech bubbles, like those seen in comic books. Eccentric and eerie, it is the exhibition’s most original and compelling object. Sway, mounted similarly, ends in a hangman’s noose. While it appears stationary, it vibrates whenever ICE arrests an undocumented resident in the U.S. In this way, Lozano-Hemmer augments the sorcery of his digital works with content grounded in political reality.
A month ago, I had never heard of the 17th-century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Amalia Mesa-Bains frequently references her in her retrospective at BAMPFA, and so does Hemmer. Sor was a feminist and anti-colonialist centuries before such insights were understood or accepted. As punishment, the Church forced her to nurse victims of a plague, which killed her. Recurrent First Dream (2022) shows the manuscript of de la Cruz’s poem, First Dream, spread across four separate screens. The images break down into spiraling storms of individual letters, a metaphor, perhaps, for the pace of change presently overtaking us. A related digital video piece, Reporters with Borders (2007), depicts 864 television reporters in tiny Zoom-like boxes; look at them, and your silhouette joins the throng, sorted by gender, race and country.
Synaptic Caguamas from 2004 is an outlier and a crowd-pleaser. It consists of 30 quart-sized beer bottles laid horizontally on a table. Without warning, they snap to order like a platoon of soldiers going from “at ease” to “attention” before cycling through a computer-controlled set of coordinated maneuvers that are charming and odd. While the piece may signal the obedient conformity posed by AI, it also functions as an entertaining piece of digital hijinx, reflecting the seductions and pitfalls of every new technological development.
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Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: “TechsMechs” @ Gray Area through May 31, 2023.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.