Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s ‘Unstable Presence’ electrifies human relationship with technology

Photo of the Unstable Presence exhibit
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/Courtesy

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“Could you puke differently? Who shouldn’t perish in horses? Will I let someone hex the rug?” Questions such as these project onto a large white screen, a faint click signaling the next at a rate of 33 questions per minute. Ripples across the screen amplify the disorienting effect of the words that exit the screen as quickly as they enter. Viewers of this surreal structure, “33 Questions per Minute,” are left in a void, unable to fully process a single question.

This is what attendees can expect when they step onto the seventh floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Media artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s “Unstable Presence,” on display through March 6, welcomes the lack of control that comes with participatory installations of art, as each attendee constructs their own interpretation of what lies in front of them.

Born in Mexico City, Lozano-Hemmer is known for crafting interactive installations that unite technology and architecture with the human experience. Given his degree in physical chemistry, reactions and unknown outcomes fuel Lozano-Hemmer’s work, accentuating the gap between the corporeal self and its spatial habitats, natural or human-made. 

Some experiences in “Unstable Presence” require individual interaction, such as in “Cardinal Directions.” A monitor continuously rotates in a counterclockwise circle, displaying a poem by Vicente Huidobro that can only be read if the individual follows its course and keeps up with the words that pass by. Mirroring the movement of this technological structure leads attendees to literalize language; they find that the parts of the poem that read “North” and “South” only appear when the monitor is aligned with its respective direction. 

Language continuously appears and disappears throughout the exhibition. In “Call on Water,” a ghostly vapor spills over the sides of a fountain that forms momentary fragments of poetry by Octavio Paz. The poet’s words disintegrate into a mesmerizing sea of clouds before shaping into another extract of poetry, implicating the evanescent nature of words.

Dissonant beeps and muffled recordings drift throughout each pocket of “Unstable Presence,” creating offbeat chasms of sound that linger long after their points of origin are left behind. This stacking of sounds creates an undertone of discomfort, complementing the isolated sensory experience that rises in each attendee as they attempt to make sense of their surroundings.

The most monumental of these sounds pour out from “Sphere Packing: Bach.” Once inside the domelike structure, attendees are encapsulated by each of its 1,128 loudspeakers, which play a unique composition by Johann Sebastian Bach. At times, one speaker plays and hones in on a high-pitched vocalist or a drifting violin. Seconds later, the sounds of the other speakers trickle in, creating an impending wave of noise that crashes before sinking back into a single composition.

The visual aesthetic of the structure is just as entangling as its sounds. A sea of thick black wires streams down the back of the sphere, neatly organized in an engrossing mass of twists and turns that gives life to each speaker.  

Attendees can add their own voices to the beat of the exhibition in the political installation “Voz Alta and Prototype.” It’s an extension of Lozano-Hemmer’s anti-monument, which was publicly displayed in remembrance of the 40th anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre. The memory of this massacre is extended with each attendee who speaks into the piece’s megaphone. Once they are done speaking, recordings from the memorial respond over a radio as a searchlight flashes in harmony with each vocal shift.

To exit “Unstable Presence,” attendees must come full circle, back to the ephemeral pairing of words in “33 Questions per Minute.” Returning to these questions may not make them any clearer to viewers, but the entirety of the exhibition opens a space in each individual to find solace in uncertainty. It’s a reminder to embrace the world, its technologies and its people as poetic beings — no matter how transient and inaccessible their various parts may be. 

Contact Amanda Ayano Hayami at [email protected].