Voices, meaning and absolute recollection in Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s latest work
Author: José Luis de Vicente
When the doors of the Atmospheric Chamber finally open on the morning of July 6th — right by the Science and Industry Museum’s 1830 Warehouse — it will be the culmination of a very long journey for everyone involved in this unlikely, extraordinary project – from the organisations that joined forces to make this co-commission possible, to the individuals who have exchanged countless emails, voice-over-IP calls, and crossed the globe to meet in cities like Montreal, Mexico City, New York and, of course, Manchester.
Atmospheric Memory is a very important milestone for FutureEverything, as the most complex artistic commission in our 25-year history. It’s also a milestone for the artist who dreamt it up, who has called it “my most ambitious project ever”… That’s saying a lot when the artist in question is Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.
Lozano-Hemmer’s Atmospheric Memory
For the last three decades, Lozano-Hemmer has become one of the most important explorers of how digital technologies can create systems of participation and transform the dynamics of a social environment. His massive interventions of light, projection and computer vision systems have taken over iconic public spaces like Trafalgar Square (London), Madison Square Park (New York) and the Zocalo, the main square of his native Mexico City. As he developed his series of antimonuments (artworks that operate on the scale of the whole city), Lozano-Hemmer also started looking inward, through interactive installations and biometric sculptures that scan and observe the vital signs and the gesturality of our bodies — from the heartbeat to the fingerprint, facial expressions to breath. Lozano-Hemmer’s artworks allow us to recognize the technological and social configurations in which we are entangled.
Atmospheric Memory exists between these two realms. Inside the Chamber, visitors will find a cathedral-like laboratory dedicated to observing, capturing, analysing and translating (into visual and sonic patterns) one simple act that defines the human species — that moment in which the air coming from our lungs leaves our larynx, is modelled by our vocal tract and exits through our mouth into the atmosphere, turned into a word, resonating in space and becoming meaning in the brains of those who get to hear it. In this way, the air contained in the private interior of our body is released to become an elusive but public exterior form that can itself be breathed in by others.
The origins of Atmospheric Memory
Sometimes, the day you’ve just delivered a new project is when it’s the most fun to start speculating about what the next could be. That’s how Atmospheric Memory started for us, as an informal conversation between team members during the opening of FutureEverything Festival 2014 at Manchester’s National Football Museum. The game of “what’s something you’d like to do that we haven’t done before?” produced the name of one of our favourite artists, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, and the idea of creating something that would combine the experience of the exhibition with two other languages very much present in his work — live performance and architecture. An important inspiration was the groundbreaking work that Manchester International Festival had been doing in the city experimenting with new formats, situating projects in unlikely urban spaces and establishing powerful forms of collaboration.
For Rafael, the project started with his fascination with some words written in 1838 by Charles Babbage, the foundational figure in the field of computation. In the ninth chapter of his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, “On the permanent Impression of our Words and Actions on the Globe we inhabit”, Babbage speculates with the notion that every word ever spoken leaves a permanent trace in the movement of particles in the air. “The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.” In theory, an evolved intelligence could reconstruct these words by reverting the movement of the particles, and reveal the secrets and memories that are hidden in the atmosphere, invisible but ever-present.
“The dream of absolute recollection is one of the defining obsessions of our time. We have filled the world with sensors that capture every event and every act, and digital clouds that store them, indefinitely…”
What can audiences expect?
Babbage’s beautiful, poetic idea has guided five years of intense creative development and technical research. What is, then, Atmospheric Memory? It’s at least three things. First, it’s a collection of new artworks by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer that scan for voices in the air — those of the visitors and others — and makes them visible and tangible. It’s also the one-hour sensory experience that weaves them together; a collaborative performance between audience and machines. And finally, Atmospheric Memory is the Atmospheric Chamber, the environment where it takes place — a sealed, custom-built space, almost forty metres long and sixteen metres high, made with shipping containers and filled with the many cubic metres of air that represent our shared atmosphere.
Multiple techniques and methodologies are being deployed by Antimodular -Rafael’s team of programmers, architects and engineers- to make these machines possible. Some are based in historical phantasmagorical effects that connect us with Babbage’s time. Others use the latest technologies, from immersive projection and sound, to robotics and machine learning, to 3D printing and fluid dynamics, in some cases in ways that are literally unprecedented. Atmosphonia, the work opening the experience, is a long corridor of lost voices that uses more than three thousand different channels of sound. In another of the pieces, the breath exhaled while speaking is scanned by a custom-made laser tomograph (just one of the Atmospheric Machines in the chamber), then converted into a 3D shape using photogrammetry and, finally, printed in high-definition stainless steel. Quite literally becoming a “figure of speech”, like those Babbage anticipated could exist in the atmosphere. Babbage himself will make his presence felt in the room, through objects and artifacts that connect us with his legacy.
The dream of absolute recollection is one of the defining obsessions of our time. We have filled the world with sensors that capture every event and every act, and digital clouds that store them, indefinitely. We wear smartwatches that register our pulse and carry devices that measure how fast we move, when we sit and we stand up. We’ve opened our homes to AI assistants with female names that remain listening permanently, waiting for our voice to reach them with a request or an order. 180 years after Babbage’s hypothetical question, the air is vibrating with words that can cross the world in tenths of a second. Atmospheric Memory invites us to experience and think about the permanent impression of our words and actions on the globe we inhabit, and to reconsider the value of forgetting and letting go.