7th Havana Biennial -  Home November 2000 - January 2001Home
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer - Statement and Details
+ zoom in. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (building up the Installation) Zoom and translation of the questions: click on images
Interview by Pat Binder and Gerhard Haupt.

Why did you decide to bring this piece to the Havana Biennial, and how does it work?

I call "relational architecture" the kind of interactive installations in public space that I have been doing for the past four or five years. The work normally involves the transformation of emblematic buildings using new technologies - typically projections, sound, 3D sensors, robotics. The curators of the Biennial had seen some of my work through video documentation and asked me to do something in the streets, a kind of urban transformation project like the one I did in Mexico City for the Millennium. While I would have been delighted to do that, I also knew that it was very expensive to accomplish that kind of very ambitious show. So I designed a very small, intimate piece, one that was portable so I could bring it easily here.

I wanted a technology that had a ubiquitous, "anti-monumental" character, so I brought 21 tiny liquid crystal displays (LCD screens) and placed them on the supporting columns of the Wilfredo Lam Center. Poet Alejo Carpentier said that Havana was the city of columns and I was interested in the idea of working with this architectural support. The screens are connected to a laptop computer with a custom-made grammatical software program. Basically it's an algorithm that uses random access of words from a dictionary to form new sentences. It knows how to conjugate verbs and how to add adverbs, adjectives, articles and so forth. Currently, because of the number of words that I have in the database, it can generate 16 billion different questions that are unique and grammatically correct. When you look at some of these questions, they are completely absurd, like "¿Cuándo sangrarás de forma ordenada" (When will you bleed in an orderly fashion?). And then there are some that could be construed as having some relevance, like "¿Porqué nos siguen sobornando los artistas?" (Why do artists continue bribing us?).

The installation shows 33 questions per minute, which is the threshold of readability, so the experience is irritating to the extent that there is no time for reflection, like in our current media culture. This irritation is magnified by the fact that the screens beep each time a question appears. Cuban artist Glenda Leon remarked that the installation sounds like the countdown for a bomb, - which is an interpretation that I like very much.
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How is the people's interaction supposed to be?

There is a keyboard that people can use to add their own comments or questions and interrupt the flow of automatic questions.

But for instance my question would be one of those that would make sense in this automatic flow or would it be taken apart?

No. It will appear exactly as you typed it, but within the flow of the other questions. So if you wrote something that makes sense then it would make sense to other people. But also most of the questions that the machine asks make some kind of sense. So one interesting effect, which I was looking for with the speed of the questions, is the possibility for camouflage. If people write something that is disturbing or taboo or anything that can be considered problematic, this can be concealed within all of the automatic questions. The concealment happens because it is impossible to ascertain which questions have been generated by people and which have been generated by computer. Like a reverse Turing test.

I'm interested in that kind of de-authoring of the words as a phenomenon. Originally I wanted people to participate and for their input to be presented not only on the LCD screens but also on the Internet in real time. Unfortunately the Internet connection was not possible. So the system is recording everything people are writing and when the installation returns to me, I'm going to upload all of the text onto the Internet. Of course, people who participate know that their comments will be taken to the Internet and I am curious to see how that affects what they say, in a country with no local public Internet access... I saw a bit of it and it is very interesting and very eccentric stuff!

And I think that I'll continue this kind of work - the work about automatic texts - because, like I said, it asks fundamental questions about what our expectation is from technology. Some of the people I've met here in Cuba have a real concern - and of course it's very well founded - that they're not getting enough information, which obviously hopefully will be remedied. However, in western countries, I feel that there's almost too much information. I feel like there is a level at which there is a saturation and a density that renders us useless.

Is there a personal history behind the piece?

Yes, although by no means do I want to make it sound as though the piece is the natural result of that personal anecdote, but it definitely did affect me.

My father, a chain-smoker, got lung cancer suddenly. I was told he had only two weeks more to live. When I arrived in Mexico he already was on a life support system in the intensive care unit. I didn't really know my dad - my parents divorced when I was very little, - and there was so much I wanted to ask him. Unfortunately he couldn't speak because of the respirator tube coming out of his mouth, and he was too tired to write. So I made a small table with an alphabet where he could point at the letters and make words and talk to me that way. But that became pretty tedious and I had to make a new version of the table, but this time with words, subjects, nouns. Then it dawned on me - who should choose these words? Who should be the author of the textual puppetry? Should I be choosing words such as 'death'? Should I be choosing words such as 'fear'? I became a bit obsessed with the word selection and finally presented the new table to him. Well, I failed. The word that was in fact in his mind, as I finally found out later from my mother, was the word 'sex.' He was sitting there for weeks in a room with thirty people and what he wanted was to take a good look at the nurse. It would have never occurred to me in such a situation! I had my own agenda about what I wanted him to say and I missed the point entirely. It's interesting how wrong we can be in our assumptions. Now I'm interested in the room to be undermined, room to acknowledge that any kind of proposal should always has space for contravening.

At this stage you were already designing the software?

No, this happened six years ago. The work with software to combine words only started about a year ago. But it is connected, I think. To some degree I believe that there is a certain arbitrary quality to words. And I do agree with the observation that words and meanings are not necessarily connected; they do sort of float. What makes it real is the body. What makes it real is life and death.

© Interview, photos:
Gerhard Haupt & Pat Binder,
Universes in Universe
Lozano-Hemmer - 1 Tour

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