Technology-infused art


There is something visually striking about walking into the Pulse Room, with its 300 clear incandescent light bulbs. The participant holds the heart rate sensor placed at the side of the room, and the bulb in front of them pulses with their heart beat. In an instant, the entire room darkens, except for that one pulsing bulb, and then the flashing sequence joins the others in the room.

Playground of technology

A self-proclaimed nerd, Lozano-Hemmer defies the “do not touch” attitude of the conventional art world, and is unusual in his embrace of technologies for his art works.

“All the artworks in this show are crowd sourced,” he told Electronics News. “We use things like surveillance cameras, biometric scanners, we use microphones, motion sensors, we use a whole variety of different technologies for the computers in the show to track, detect and trigger events based on the presence of the public.”

This playground of technology is powered not just by hardware, but also by some very sophisticated software and algorithms.

Lozano-Hemmer has a team of 11 helping develop his concepts into projects. Depending on the preferences of each developer, the installations run on Windows 7, Mac OS X, Linux and iOS.

Half the installations are programmed in 64 bit Delphi, while others are written in Coco, C++, and other languages.

The project titled “People on People” is powered by 11 dual-core computers with five high-definition gigabit cameras. These leverage very sophisticated background subtraction algorithms to produce the final effect.

In another piece titled “The Year’s Midnight”, a camera mirrors the viewer on a plasma screen. The systems behind the scenes uses Australian company Seeing Machines’ faceAPI to track the faces of the participant, and Navier-Stokes fluid dynamics equations to overlay a smoke effect on the eyes.

A new installation for the Sydney show is called “Tape Recorders”, where 60 tape measures line the walls of a room.

The tape recorders extend as participants stand in front of them. The longer the participant remains, the higher the tape extends, until it predictably crashes.

“It’s a little bit absurd because tape measures measure distance, not time,” Lozano-Hemmer say. “And that moment where it’s about to crash, there’s this dramatic moment with the tapes.”

The tape measures are actuated by servo motors, controlled by wireless Arduino processors. Four Kinect systems attached to the ceiling of the room are connected to Apple computers which provide the processing to detect the position of people in the room and the length of their stay.

“We have been working with computer vision for 20 years, and we’ve developed our own tracking systems,” Lozano-Hemmer says. “We were very happy when the Kinect came out, because it used structured light, which means changing light conditions in the museum do not affect us, it has a decent range, and decent 3D.”

“We hacked into them to use them in our own tracking system, and we have four of them, and multiplexed them to cover a large area.”

Like programming languages and OS, the choice of hardware was dependent on the individual developer of the piece.

“The one who did Tape Recorders likes the Arduino,” he said. “They’re fast and cheap, and easy to program, with a good range of sensors, and we like that they are developed by Makers.”

“That’s always hopeful to me, because when the culture of technology is open, it makes you feel like you are also contributing and feeding back on the benefit of that.”

Participation in technology

Lozano-Hemmer makes the mechanisms driving some of the works visible to the public. For example, some screens show the tracking software at work.

“Conceptually, I find it honest for people to understand the mechanism behind the scenes, he explained. “As a nerd, I appreciate it when other artists do that, because I get a sense of what’s happening, how they’ve done things.”

“I think displaying the mechanisms for an artwork that is a machine provides that moment where you go ‘Ah it’s all just a machine, and it’s how it works.’”

“It’s breaking the fourth wall, and I think it brings people into a sense of complicity instead of one of invasion.”

The transparency of the technology adds another dimension to the participatory quality of his works.

“If people do not participate, the project doesn’t really exist,” Lozano-Hemmer said. “Some people think this interactivity makes it more similar to a science exhibition, but the messages here are the classic art questions about loneliness and connection and poetry and criticism.”

Lozano-Hemmer emphasises that technology in art is inevitable, because it’s part of modern politics, economy and culture, and everyone is “connected to a technological reality.”

“I try to have fun with it, have people feeling included into the show with participation and relation,” he explained. “At the same time, I want to underline the darker sides of these technologies…the ways these technologies can be used to control the public.”

“It’s important to have both the seduction of participation and interactivity, and the violence of observation and control.”

“My show will be successful if people who are afraid of technology end up enjoying it, and people who think technology is fun and playful, end up being a little bit scared.”

“Recorders” runs from 16 December 2011 to 12 February 2012, from 10:00am to 5:00pm daily, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

Photo credits and copyright: Isaac Leung