AN INTERVIEW with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer  

by Jacinta Laurent 

What is Atmospheric Memory? 

It is an ‘art environment’ that consists of an exhibition of nine new or recent artworks inside a massive projection chamber made from shipping containers. It is the first time I have mixed small works that typically go to museums, like sculptures or interactive displays, with more performative, ephemeral projections of a type that I have been producing for public spaces for more than 20 years.

What ideas have inspired Atmospheric Memory? 

Almost 200 years ago, English polymath Charles Babbage proposed that the atmosphere is a ‘vast library’ that keeps a record of every word that has ever been said. He imagined a sufficiently advanced computer that could calculate the movement of air molecules, and rewinding their paths would allow us to recreate the voices hidden in the atmosphere.

If this were possible, whose voices would we want to hear? Loved ones, long gone? Languages and songs, now extinct? Oral histories, never transcribed? Perhaps we could find evidence of criminal acts and send old injustices for a retrial. These and other questions emerge from Babbage’s writings, and are a point of departure for Atmospheric Memory.

What pieces does Atmospheric Memory contain? 

There are kinetic sculptures, anamorphic projections in the round, a sound environment with 3,000 audio channels, a display that writes texts with cold water vapour, endoscopic films, and a speech bubble captured and 3D-printed in steel. All the pieces produce and examine polyphony, wave propagation, echoes, resonance and fluid dynamics.

Atmospheric Memory also contains several original and rare objects that give a historical and critical context. Most salient among them is Charles Babbage’s ‘Analytical Engine’, the first programmable computer ever designed, for which Ada Lovelace wrote the first software code.

Is this a new kind of immersive art experience? 

Absolutely not! There is a long tradition of immersive intermedia performance in the visual arts: as practised, for example, by the Bauhaus, the Estridentistas, Iannis Xenakis, Fluxus, Marta Minujín, EAT, ZERO, Fujiko Nakaya and many others. That said, I do think that we are currently seeing a computerised integration of media that is unprecedented – but, sadly, most immersive experiences I have seen are invitations to part from reality. They are about the creation of a new oneiric world, and many are totalitarian bubbles that are never out of control.

I agree with Bifo Berardi, the Italian writer and activist, that immersion provides tools for massive denial, and so I love the Zapatista slogan: ‘We’re not asking you to dream – we’re asking you to wake up’. So in Atmospheric Memory, I use as many approaches as possible to contaminate the bubble critically, politically and historically: for example, by using the Brechtian ‘noticing of the knots’ to situate the project as a call to action.

A call to action against what? 

Against the catastrophic collapse of the atmospheric conditions for planetary survival; against the concentration of all the power of the digital atmosphere into very few hands; against the weaponisation of the sky via guided missiles and drones; and so on.

Isn’t it all too much? 

I hope so! Ultimately, I hope the project makes the atmosphere tangible so that it’s no longer seen as something neutral or invisible that we take for granted. It is something complex, beautiful and irreversible.