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<nettime> A conversation between Jos? Luis Barrios and Rafael Lozano-Hem
Geert Lovink [c] on Mon, 31 Oct 2005 19:09:38 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> A conversation between Jos? Luis Barrios and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer [u]

>From: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer <errafael {AT} gmail.com>
>Date: 28 October 2005 5:24:23 PM

(Dear Nettime, here is an interview I did with Mexican critic Jos? Luis 
Barrios. It recycles a bunch of ideas but also discusses recent 
interactive works and public art pieces. Issues covered by this text 
include surveillance art, tedium with randomness, and the concept of 
"subsculptures" and "antimodularity". If you are in Geneva, please stop 
by the exhibition at Galerie Guy Bartschi to see seven new pieces, the 
show runs from Nov 5 to mid-January. Best, rafael at lozano-hemmer.com)

A conversation between Jos? Luis Barrios and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

* This is the edited transcription of a teleconference which took place 
in the Sala de Arte P?blico Siquieros (SAPS), Mexico City, on the 20th 
of April 2005, and which was moderated by the director of SAPS, Itala 
Schmelz. Translation from the Spanish original by Rebecca MacSween.

JLB: The distinguishing factor that defines modernity has to do with 
self-awareness, or the ability of the subject to both represent and 
represent self-reflexively his activities and relationships with the 
world. An important aspect of this is expressed in the Foucaultian 
concept technologies of the gaze. Throughout the history of art and 
visual culture various strategies of the gaze have existed. How do you 
distinguish and conceptualize those strategies that belong to the 
present and how are they manifested in your work?

RLH: New visual experiments have always been aided, or even initiated, 
by technological advancements. For example, perspective during the 
Renaissance, anamorphosis as part of Mannerism, or Eug?ne Chevreul's 
color theory for the Impressionists. In this context my contribution is 
the following: Walter Benjamin spoke with great clarity about the birth 
of modernism. For him the image is that which can be reproduced 
mechanically, a condition that eliminates the aural quality from a work 
of art. Mechanical reproduction democratizes art, popularizes it, and 
takes away that privileged point of view born of singularity. However, 
with digital technologies I believe that the aura has returned, and 
with a vengeance, because what digital technology emphasizes, through 
interactivity, is the multiple reading, the idea that a piece of art is 
created by the participation of the user. The idea that a work is not 
hermetic but something that requires exposure in order to exist is 
fundamental to understand this "vengeance of the aura".

Today digital art, -actually all art-, has awareness. This has always 
been true, but we have now become aware of art's awareness. Pieces 
listen to us, they see us, they sense our presence and wait for us to 
inspire them, and not the other way around. It is no coincidence that 
post-modern art emphasizes the audience. In linguistic theory Saussure 
would say that it is impossible to have a dialogue without being aware 
of your interlocutor. Exactly the same thing was said, almost 100 years 
ago in the art world by Duchamp, for example, when he said, "le regard 
fait le tableau" (the look makes the painting). What we see happening 
is that this concept of dependency is reinforced by digital technology. 
Pieces of art are in a constant state of becoming. It's not that they 
"are" but that they are "changing into". I think the artist no longer 
has a monopoly over their work, or an exhaustive or total position over 
its interpretation or representation. Today, it is a more common 
idea-an idea that I defend-that the work itself has a life. The work is 
a platform and yes the platform has an authorship, but it also has its 
points of entry, its loose ends, its tangents, its empty spaces and its 
eccentricities. In this sense, artworks tend to be eclectic which for 
me signifies the liberation of art, the freedom to reaffirm its 

In contrast to the idea of creation through the gaze of the public, the 
other side of the coin should also be mentioned; the panoptic 
computerized gaze. Artistic interest in criticizing the predatory gaze 
of the surveillance camera is nothing new; there is for example the 
work of Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman or Julia Scher, to mention a few. What 
is new is the degree of computerization that the new surveillance 
systems, which invade our public and private spaces, possess. Stemming 
directly from the American "Patriot Act" is a wide variety of 
computer-vision techniques that, for example, are intended for 
identifying suspicious individuals or classifying them based on ethnic 
traits. It is literally about technologies designed to discriminate 
based on a series of innate prejudices. This new intensification of 
surveillance is extremely problematic because, in the words of Manuel 
DeLanda "it endows the computer with the power of executive decision 
making". What is also new is the amount of memory that these systems 
have thanks to ever-smaller storage units and increasingly efficient 
compression-decompression algorithms (codecs) that allow for the 
recording and reproduction of events from the distant past. Lastly, the 
widespread popularization of cameras by reality shows and the 
penetration into public and private spaces by means of things like web 
cams should be mentioned. I have no doubt that a new type of art is 
emerging in order to confront these technologies of the panoptic and 
post-optic gaze. The Institute for Applied Autonomy, Harun Farocki and 
the Bureau of Inverse Technology are some examples of this new line of 

JLB: A fundamental aspect of the connection between technology and 
language is that which is linked, and this is particularly important in 
your work, to society. If the machine is language and a space for play, 
how can we understand its function or connection with social bodies? 
Let me clarify; in a large part of your work, interventions into the 
space of the subject are obvious, whether these spaces are public or 
private. This is interesting because at the same time that you link 
technology with language (society), you also introduce a type of 
"principle of intrusion of technology" to both the subject and their 
space. What imaginary social space do you believe your work opens? 
Above all I am asking about those pieces that have a direct link to 
public spaces.

RLH: It depends on the project and how it is received. Often the 
response to the work is very different from what I had imagined. For 
example, my installations using giant shadows; the first time I used 
the projected shadows of pedestrians in a public art piece was when 
transforming the fa?ade of a military arsenal in the Austrian city of 
Graz. It happened that in the arsenal there was a painting entitled 
"The Scourges of God" depicting the three primary fears of the people 
of Graz in medieval times: a potential Turkish invasion, the Bubonic 
plague and infestation by locusts. For this installation I invited 
dozens of artists and thinkers from all over the world to participate 
in an on-line debate on the transformation of the concept of fear. 
Perhaps the Turkish threat had been replaced with a fear of an invasion 
of Yugoslavian war refugees, or instead of Bubonic plague, the current 
day AIDS epidemic. The debate was projected in real time onto the 
fa?ade, but I thought I could use the shadows of the pedestrians as a 
kind of "window" or "scanner" linking the public to the text. I assumed 
that the shadows would give an expressionistic and lugubrious touch to 
the piece-I was thinking of Murnau. Also, I wanted the shadows to 
function as metaphors for fear: for instance fear of the Turkish 
invasion that never happened but was only a menacing specter. I was 
totally wrong! As soon as people passed by and noticed the installation 
they would start to play with their shadows and perform humorous 
pantomimes. The huge dimension of the shadows allowed, for example, for 
school children to step on their teachers, or that a man in a 
wheelchair could roll his twenty-five-meter-high shadow over the others 
deriving great pleasure from squashing them with his giant wheels. The 
installation was converted into an ad hoc carnival and nobody thought 
for one minute about fears, plagues or invasions. This was one of the 
most entertaining errors of my career. The piece, which was called 
"Re:Positioning Fear", opened a Bakhtinian carnavalesque space where 
the environment was artifice and game, an environment that was 
completely outside of my control, literally and poetically.

My projects with shadows since then have benefited greatly from this 
lesson. "Body Movies", the piece in which shadows reveal enormous 
photographic portraits, precisely invites people to play with their 
representations in a public space and to play at being the "other", 
like a kind of inverse puppetry. The plastic potential of the shadow is 
used not as an absence, loss or darkness, but as a window to an 
artificial reality. We were trying to interrupt convention, routine, 
the predominant narratives of power that the buildings represented. 
Cicero said, "We make buildings and buildings make us". Our situation 
in the globalized city says the opposite: the urban environment no 
longer represents the citizens, it represents capital. Architects and 
urban developers build with the priority to optimize cost, and from 
there to the homogenization of globalization, and from there to the 
unfortunate reality of contemporary architecture which fetishizes the 
modular, the formula. It has reached a crisis of representation that 
carries with it a tremendous avidity of connection. In my work I try to 
encourage exceptionalism, eccentric reading of the environment, alien 
memories (meaning, those that don't belong to the site). I don't want 
to develop site-specific installations but rather focus on the new 
temporal relationships that emerge from the artificial situation, what 
I call "relationship-specific" art.

JLB: In understanding public space as a carnivalesque space it is also 
understood why communities developed where-and this also happens with 
Relational Architecture-there is no subject identified as autonomous 
and independent. Bakhtin explains in his text on the forms of the 
carnivalesque in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that in order for 
the carnival to succeed there has to be an overflowing beyond the 
limits of the subject's identity and body. It seems to me that in the 
examples you provide you reconstitute the carnivalesque condition by 
means of shadows, not as theatre but as pantomime. What you do is 
create a carnivalesque space in which the user can intervene and 
symbolically create a collective body. This is noticeable, for example, 
in the fact that you intervene fa?ades or the Z?calo Square in Mexico 
City; by doing so certain symbolic connections to power are 
deconstructed. In this manner you open a ludic space and deepen the 
potential of the social body, but you do this via interactive 
technological supports, reinforcing the imaginary-fantastical aspect of 
the game. Seen this way, and to delve more deeply into the relationship 
between the public space and that of the carnivalesque, what place does 
the orgiastic body have in this game?

RLH: My projects vary so it is difficult to generalize. There are 
pieces where the body is amplified on an urban scale (Displaced 
Emperors, Body Movies, Two Origins), others where the body is the 
canvas (Subtitled Public), and others where it becomes the target of 
extremely predatory electronic detection (Surface Tension, Standards 
and Double Standards). There are also others in which the body plays no 
highlighted role (Amodal Suspension, 33 Questions Per Minute, Vectorial 

I'd like to make a clarification on a term you used and that is the 
idea of the collective. I run away from this idea. In the world of 
electronic art there are two competing trends. On the one hand the 
unbearable utopian vision of Pierre Levy, amongst others. He proposes a 
"collective intelligence", virtual communities that form a global 
village, the idea that we are facing the emancipation of the human race 
all thanks to inter-connectivity. To me this vision, which is promoted 
by publications like Wired, is corporative, colonial and na?ve. I am 
amongst the ranks of those that reject the notion of community and the 
collective when it comes to acts of interpretation or perception. I 
think that we have seen truly disheartening agendas produced in the 
name of collectivity. In contrast, I really like the concept of the 
connective -a much less problematic word because it joins realities 
without a pre-programmed approach. What's interesting is that this 
concept doesn't convert realities into homogeneity. What Derrick de 
Kerckhove calls "Connective Intelligence" seems more useful as a 
concept for linking planes of existence that may be extremely disparate 
even if they coexist at times. I would even go so far as to define the 
connective as those tangents that pull us out of the collective.

To return to the connection between carnival, body and public space, 
"Body Movies" is a piece that inspired different behaviors depending on 
where it was presented. When it was to be shown in Lisbon I thought of 
the stereotype of the "Latino" who loves to be out on the streets, 
partying and hugging affectionately so I expected a lot of this type of 
interaction with the piece. However what we saw was people trying their 
best not to overlap or interfere with another person's shadow. In 
contrast, when we presented the piece in England, where I had thought 
we would see considerable modesty and moderation, people got drunk, 
took off their clothes and acted out a variety of orgiastic scenes, 
which was a lot of fun to watch. This anecdote points out the 
difficulty of making generalizations about the body in a public space, 
which seems to me like quite a healthy difficulty.

JLB: In your work you make a distinction between "Relational 
Architecture" and "Subsculptures". Does this distinction correspond to 
certain connections that you maintain or establish with specific 
aesthetic systems-architecture or sculpture-or perhaps to formal 
concepts, for example, scale, or is it more about two arbitrary 
concepts that allow you to explore diverse issues?

RLH: They are more about arbitrary concepts. They are neologisms 
designed precisely to avoid being classified with other existing 
concepts. I first used the term "relational" in 1994 in describing my 
telepresence installation "The Trace". I found the word in the 
neurological essays of Maturana and Varela, although I was also aware 
of pioneering artists like Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticia and their work 
with relational objects. As well, I was interested in the relational 
functions of database programs that wove multi-dimensional webs for 
connecting various fields, a valuable concept when applied to the word 
"architecture" that for so long has signified solidity and permanence. 
Lastly, it was a good word in counterpoint to the term "virtual", which 
emphasizes the dematerialization of experience and asks us to create in 
simulacra. "Relational" emphasizes the dematerialization of the real 
environment and asks us to question the dissimulation. Today the term 
is already dated, partly because of the popularization of the term 
"relational aesthetics" by Nicolas Bourriaud, which by the way has 
little to do with my work and was published a number of years after I 
used the term. For the sake of coherence with my earlier work, I will 
probably continue to make Relational Architecture pieces maintaining 
the two grotesque definitions that I gave to the field: "technological 
actualizations of urban environments with alien memory" (1994) and the 
newer "anti-monuments for public dissimulation" (2002).

I started the series of Subsculptures in 2003 with the motorized belt 
piece "Standards and Double Standards". I have already added another 
three to the series: the kinetic sculpture "Synaptic Caguamas", the 
interactive screen piece "Glories of Accounting" and the neon piece 
"Entanglement". It's true that in the majority of cases these are more 
portable and nomadic pieces than the Relational Architecture 
installations are, -however I think that at some point I will make huge 
Subsculptures... so, the scale isn't the difference. I don't yet have a 
definition of what "Subsculpture" is but I think it has to do with 
contagion matrices. All of the installations consist of two or more 
interconnected robotic or virtual entities. The rules of behavior for 
these entities are relatively simple, but they are dependent on and 
influenced by the status of neighbouring entities or other inputs, for 
example the surveillance of the public (my installations almost always 
"watch the watchers", as Daniel Garcia And?jar would say). In this way, 
they achieve an unpredictable and emergent global behavior, where 
turbulence and other phenomena that are products of non-linear 
processes are found. For example, in "Standards and Double Standards" 
there are between 10 to 100 buckled belts hung from interconnected 
robots. A computerized camera system detects a visitor and instructs 
nearby belts to rotate on their own axis until the belt buckle faces 
him or her. This local movement then spreads in a process of chain 
reactions that travel throughout the matrix until the entire field of 
belts has been affected. If a second visitor enters, then those belts 
closest to this second presence will be influenced and begin to rotate 
in the same manner described spreading and influencing the orientation 
of the entire field. The resulting effect are patterns of interference 
very similar to those that can be seen, for example, in a tank of water 
into which various drops fall; some belts remain still, others turn 
constantly (eddies) and others follow the spectators.

Another aspect of Subsculptures is my interest in Barbara Liskov's 
"Substitution Principle" that says, in object-oriented programming, 
that an object of one class can be substituted for another in an 
inherited class without changing the properties of the program. It's 
something like the concept of metonymy in psychoanalysis or linguistics 
and like the categorical syllogism in philosophy called the "minor 
premise" or "subsumption". Liskov's Substitution Principle is, for me, 
extremely useful when it comes to making symbolic transferences between 
disparate or copresent realities. For example in "Standards and Double 
Standards" the belt substitutes the figure of masculinity, the father, 
authority. I'll give you other examples: in "Synaptic Caguamas" beer 
bottles play at being neurons in an algorithmic simulation of cerebral 
connections; in "Glories of Accounting" the raised hands are both 
metaphors of the Fascist salute and of the Spanish anti-terrorist 
gesture of "manos blancas" ("white hands"), -the hands also 
simultaneously signify distance (as in a "stop" gesture) and inclusion 
(as in the expression "show of hands"); and a last example, 
Entanglement, in which the neons connected to the Internet substitute 
for the photons linked by quantum mechanics.

Contrary to what the Substitution Principle asks for, in my 
Subsculptures substitution has a formal impact: it leaves a symbolic 
residue and destabilizes equivalencies. This residue is the strength of 
the piece, its poetry and its absurdity. For this reason I propose 
anti-modular strategies for artwork. I like breakdowns, the remainder 
in a division, and rounding errors. I find modularization boring and 
homogenizing. Modularization is promoted by:

* Computer science, through object-oriented programming, or plug-ins
* The art world, through the idea of authorship and bienialism
* Capital, as an instrument of control and quantification
* Architecture, using the formula as a solution (see Norman Foster)
* Education, through the modernist idea of specialization

No doubt my work is often quite modular, above all in its fabrication 
and sale, and it's better to confess it even though it is a 
contradiction, because one cannot live outside of the zeitgeist.

I think that Relational Architecture, like Subsculpture, can exhibit 
the anti-modular, symbolic inequalities or develop itself in the 
matricial space of rules of contagion. So there is no definite line 
that separates the two series. It is true that the Subsculpture series 
is slightly more personal; perhaps it is more an investigation of 
psychological spaces than of urban ones. I have been doing 
psychotherapy for four years now and maybe that explains that!

JLB: I would like to go back to the problem of non-linear mathematics 
and its relationship to "Synaptic Caguamas". When information is flow, 
a multi-perspectival flow that unfolds in various dimensions, it 
introduces the notion of "possibility" as a form of construction. It's 
interesting to me that this piece is not built on random relationships 
but that it is more about variables and vanishing lines configuring the 
system of representation. Keeping this in mind, I would like you to 
explain how this flow of information operates aesthetically as a system 
of self-management and self-configuration.

RLH: Recursive algorithms, chaos theory, cellular automata, digital 
genetics and other descriptions of complex dynamic processes are 
fascinating because they appear to be alive, to have life. Some exhibit 
evolution, others morphogenesis, and still others management and 
self-control. Mathematics associated to this field originate from 
various places, one of them being Weiner's postulation of the theory of 
Cybernetics in Mexico City in 1946, -it's definitely not something new. 
If during the Renaissance perspective and Fibonacci's series were used 
as media to legitimize the production of representation, today we can 
and should make dynamic mathematics our media. The Renaissance subject 
emerges precisely from the privileged vision of the vanishing point. 
What might be the equivalent impact as we contemplate, say, a fractal 
pattern? These mathematics shatter humanism, fortunately. They allow 
artists to design work that disobeys us (and the critics).

Until these mathematics reached the art world one of the only 
strategies that the artist had to create unexpected processes, for 
example a kinetic sculpture or automatic poetry, was chance. The people 
whom I most admire worked with chance in a very serious way -like John 
Cage or Marcel Duchamp- but I think that randomness is not that 
interesting anymore. Not even the greatest computer in the world could 
generate numbers that are truly random. Today we accept that the 
occurrence of a hurricane isn't due to bad luck but due to the 
consequences of a non-linear system of energy distribution (Lorenz's 
famous "fluttering of the wings of a butterfly on the other side of the 
planet"). Of course this doesn't mean that there is a destiny or that 
everything is predictable, it's exactly the opposite. These mathematics 
show us that uncertainty is inseparable from the system being observed, 
and artists love to work with uncertainty.

Today it is possible to create art from seeds, which actually is called 
"seeding the initial conditions" for a process, and then the work 
unfolds via mathematics in ways that you cannot control. You'll notice 
that every three minutes the bottles in "Synaptic Caguamas" line-up and 
reset themselves. This is done to give new initial conditions and to 
generate a variety of behaviors because on occasion the emerging 
patterns are boring or the bottles remain locked in what is referred to 
as "dynamic equilibrium".

Complexity describes processes like neuronal connections, genetic 
mutations, and the variegation of leaves. There is an infinity of 
examples of how non-linear mathematics permeate almost all of our 
natural and social history. Manuel DeLanda writes about how this 
dynamic flows can be used to understand history in a non-linear way, 
-it's not about the selective recording of facts, dates and heroes, but 
rather it's about understanding history in terms of fields of 
attraction, of isobars, of influences, which is how non-linear math 
works. We want to visualize these flows, animate them, and evoke them 
so that they can help us give shape to our work.

JLB: "Subtitled Public" is a piece that isolates chance. When we were 
speaking about the piece a while ago, you said that it was a little 
like Mallarm?'s roll of the dice. One roll of the dice, as in this 
piece, puts in motion a mechanism where poetry, theatricality, 
technology and non-linear mathematics construct a complex space of 
meaning. A space where language names me and, at the same time, the 
body is interpreted as a shadow. How do you explain the connection 
between intrusion and evasion in this piece when it is a metaphor for 
the society of surveillance? What importance does the interaction of 
the spectator have with the piece as a sort of "subversion" of the fact 
that in the contemporary world "I am named"?

RLH: Chance is present in "Subtitled Public": A visitor is detected by 
a computerized surveillance system and the computer randomly selects a 
verb, conjugated in the third person, and is then projected onto the 
visitor's body. The visitor cannot get rid of the word that will follow 
him or her throughout the entire exhibition space, unless physical 
contact is made with another visitor, in which case they swap verbs. 
The use of chance in this piece has an important ironic component. Here 
we have a display of surveillance technology detecting the public's 
presence with great precision. The system pretends to have the ability 
to identify moods, gestures, desires and actions, but in the end it is 
chance that takes this to an absurd level. It's a comment on 
identification technologies that I spoke about in the beginning of this 
interview. I use chance, a throw of the dice, when criticizing the 
ridiculous systems used for example by the Department of Homeland 
Security in the USA that are trying to identify suspicious individuals.

Surveillance never tires of taking possession of our words and images. 
In my recent work I ask what would happen if all the cameras became 
projectors and gave us words and images rather than take them away from 

In a piece such as this one I like the public's rejection to "being 
named". When we enter a piece of art or a public space, we all have 
certain values that are given to us by what we read, who we know, who 
we have seen etc. What I want is to shake up those values and create 
something dysfunctional, a moment of resistance and of rejection of 
those preconceived mantras. I look for the "special defects" that allow 
me to activate the imperfections, the disruptions; "to disrupt" seems 
to be the most precise term for describing what I want to do. The 
system projected the words "se mea" ("she urinates") onto a friend of 
mine who came to the opening and the words chased her through the 
exhibition space until I finally showed her how to rub them onto 
someone else. For me it's valuable that there is a moment of resistance 
to the assigned label, that people don't accept the subtitle nor see it 
as an oracle, that they are always conscious of the lie. I loved the 
comment of one visitor who said, "I got the word 'inv?lido' 
(handicapped), and maybe I am handicapped but I don't exactly know in 
what way" and there was another person who said, "you put on a 
psychological outfit depending on the word you get".

I think we are not done with exploring the culture of paranoia. I don't 
feel happy having to make art that works on that level, however I think 
it is extremely important to do so. What has been happening since 
September 11th is very, very serious. The authorities believe in the 
huge fallacy that the solution to terrorism should be technological. I 
react against that. We must use the distortions of the camera, and 
underline the innate prejudices of our media, of ourselves. Next time a 
person stops in front of a surveillance camera they might expect to 
have words projected on his or her body, and know that it is highly 
likely that they will not agree with the subtitle assigned to their 
public body.

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