Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

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Vectorial Elevation, 1999

Technologies: 18 robotic 7kW xenon searchlights, 4 webcams, TCP/IP to DMX converter, Java 3D interface, GPS tracker, linux web and e-mail servers.

Keywords: public, spectacle, telepresence

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the doomsday scenarios that many anticipated?from Biblical Armageddon to Y2K computer malfunctions?failed to materialize. Mexican-born artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer satisfied an otherwise unquenched thirst for spectacle by placing eighteen robotic searchlights around Mexico City's Zócalo, the world's third-largest urban square. In Vectorial Elevation, an ambitious new media art project that was first presented in Mexico City to celebrate the new millennium, participants used a Web-based interface to control the searchlights, choreographing patterns on the night sky and the urban landscape. Lozano-Hemmer calls this type of performance "Relational Architecture," which he defines as "the technological actualization of buildings with alien memory." In other words, laypeople and passersby (who possess the "alien" memories of outsiders) can construct new meanings for edifices, usually via technological tools -- such as Internet software and robotic lights. Lozano-Hemmer cites the work of Thomas Wilfred, an artist who in the 1920s was an early innovator in light-based art works, as an influence. Wilfred invented a keyboard-like machine called the "Clavilux" to project light on New York City skyscrapers. According to Lozano-Hemmer, "light projections...can achieve the desired monumental scale, can be changed in real time, and their immateriality makes their deployment more logistically feasible."

When a participant's design for Vectorial Elevation reached the head of the Web queue, it was beamed into the sky, visible to crowds on the ground in Mexico City and, via Web cameras, to a large online audience. The searchlights were connected by data cables and calibrated by Global Positioning System trackers. More than 800,000 people from 89 countries visited the Web site in a two-week period. The light show they produced was visible within a 20-kilometer radius. When each design was executed, its maker received an email linking to an automatically-generated personal Web page displaying both photographic images and virtual renditions of the performance. Each page also featured participants' uncensored texts, ranging from dedications to political manifestos.

The project's aesthetic effect evokes that of Tribute in Light (2002), a temporary public art memorial to the victims of 9/11, by Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda, who utilized vertical beams supplied by 44 searchlights placed at Ground Zero in New York to project vertical beams into the night sky above the World Trade Center's destroyed Twin Towers. Like Tribute in Light, Vectorial Elevation was hard to ignore because of its giant scale and inescapable presence. But Lozano-Hemmer describes his project as an "anti-monument" that serves primarily as a platform for public self-expression. Lozano Hemmer installed later incarnations of Vectorial Elevation in Spain, France, and Ireland, each time drawing large audiences both in the streets and online. New Media artists often make use of technologies in order to critique them. Although Lozano-Hemmer uses technologies that suggest panoptic regimes of control, Vectorial Elevation is primarily a celebration of the potential these technologies have to produce a new kind of participatory spectacle.

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