BITFORMS | SEPTEMBER 6 – OCTOBER 13, 2012
In Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s spectacular “Voice Array” (2011), part of the Mexican-Canadian artist’s fourth solo show at bitforms, one can listen to up to 288 anonymous vocal samples—played in uneven unison, and accompanied by pulses of vibrant white light in discrete beams, emanating from above and below a raised black strip along the back wall. When activated, the piece connotes the pulsing volume bars on an old stereo, turning sound into light to measure intensity. Any visitor can speak into the silver-buttoned intercom to the left of the strip—upon withdrawal, the recording immediately transforms into a flashing sequence, stored as a loop in the first light of the array. This newest sample then activates the others already accumulated; they cascade, clamorously, to the right. Once the oldest loop reaches the right-hand side of the piece it momentarily becomes the sole, dying voice of the array, emanating from every speaker as lights illustrate its swan song. During quieter moments, a directional speaker cycles through stored samples. Each voice is a breath of life, and together they shape the piece like pilgrims: pious hands and mouths on sacred stone.
There is a sense of the communal in Voice Array, of participation and aggregation—attributes that characterize the bulk of Lozano-Hemmer’s work. Known for establishing platforms for participation, borrowing from the phantasmagoric and the alien, Lozano-Hemmer has created pieces as disparate as a rope swing-activated sun in a 16th-century church and a conveyor belt that visually “remembers” scans of objects left behind by scores of participants. Despite the diversity of his work, Lozano-Hemmer’s prerequisite modus operandi is ever-present: his content is always crowd-sourced or crowd-modified, or both. The oft-inscrutable pathway of his creative output can be defined in part by the predicted presence of thousands of bodies.
In stark contrast, then, is “Last Breath”(2012), also on view at bitforms; with its medical, hands-off appearance, this apparatus is not for play. “Last Breath” contains the exhalation of only one geographically removed human being—the dazzling Cuban singer Omara Portuondo. Trapped within a continuously inflating and deflating brown paper bag, which is hooked up to a motor, bellows, and respiration tubing, the sound of Portuondo’s exhale is extended into ten thousand daily breaths, or inflations, per day, and 158 punctuating, soundless sighs: perpetual, unalterable. “Last Breath,” though beautiful in its sterility, keeps out the crowd; a sign even warns eager visitors away from touching the paper bag. In a body of work so heavily focused on crowd participation, why now a hands-off homage?
The inclusion of Portuondo’s breath in particular was an understandably thematic choice on Lozano-Hemmer’s part, whereby he links the apparatus to Havana, where the piece made its debut earlier this year at the Eleventh Bienal de La Habana. In an accompanying video at bitforms, we even watch Portuondo in her kitchen, dressed in a sunflower-dappled turquoise dress and spangled blue head wrap, sighing heavily into the paper bag. Perhaps “Last Breath,” in its distancing stance, is designed to effect a moment of helpless, macabre pause: the singer will soon be 82 years old, leaving us all to wonder which breath will be her last.
I wonder, then, at the experience of this unique, unalterable, un-anonymously-altered piece in the company of Lozano-Hemmer’s other, largely crowd-sourced work. Given that crowd-inclusion in a “perpetual famous breath machine” is impossible by default, what would happen if, at the very least, the recorded sigh were anonymous? When I observe the piece now, I inevitably recall Portuondo gazing into the eyes of Ibrahim Ferrer in the 11th minute of Wim Wenders’s Buena Vista Social Club (1999), singing, sighing, voice honey-laden, that she wouldn’t want the flowers to know about the torments that life gives her: “No quiero que las flores saber los tormentos que me da la vida.” But without the video and wall text provided here by bitforms, this pseudo-medical display would reveal nothing of the breather, leading us instead to the idea of breath—to the self-referential experience of feeling the occurrences of our own lungs; to a moment of untethered, existential fervor before an indifferent display.
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