Abigail Nehring: Voices in the Sky

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s installation combines searchlights, cityscapes, and crowd-sourced voices, challenging the way we conceive of participatory art.

Images courtesy of Abigail Nehring

By Abigail Nehring

Above the Agora

It’s 10:30 P.M. on a Friday night and the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art are filled with dozens of people, every one of them looking at the sky. Far above their heads 24 searchlights powered by 240,000 watts of power scan the clouds, used not for searching, but to make art in the sky. The interactive project known as Open Air Philadelphia has been taking over the city skyline every evening this month in a magnificent display of lights in the vastness of space. It is the brainchild of artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.

Lozano-Hemmer has never stuck to the conventional wisdom when choosing an artistic medium. He has previously worked with shadows, simulated smoke, and the intersections between art and technology.

Open Air Philadelphia was commissioned by the Association for Public Art, to draw spectators from across the city. Placed high atop hotels, office buildings, and apartments, the lights form an enormous grid interlocking from the far corners of urban space. They are programmed in Javascript to move in unison to the sound of a human voice. The beams of light arc upwards to represent the gleeful squeals of a baby or pan out in a low arch to mimic a soft whisper. Without a contract with a publisher or a column in the newspaper or a college degree, anyone at all gets to speak into the megaphone. All they have to do is use the iphone app Lozano-Hemmer designed to send recordings into the queue or follow the steps online at www.openairphilly.net. Every night until October 14th, people are calling in to have their voices broadcast across the city in the silent language of the lights.

Lozano-Hemmer’s work has a way of bringing people out into public space who might otherwise use it for little other than to go shopping.

The result is what anyone might find by scouring the twitterverse without looking for anything in particular: an explosion of human pathos and banality. The cracking voice of a fifteen-year-old boy telling a girl he loves her, a UPenn student gushing about how she never wants to leave Philadelphia, a brief Oscar Wilde quote someone decided to read: We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.

All of these words dancing in the lights high above where usually only astronomers bother to look.
Art in the Public Square

“The political is inevitable,” Lozano-Hemmer tells me, talking about his inspirations for Open Air Philly. What he means is that although many of the comments broadcast in lights are personal in nature, there are also those with larger-scale grievances, determined not to miss the opportunity to have the eyes and ears of the city, if only for 30 seconds.

In the past, Lozano-Hemmer’s artworks have been used to memorialize fallen soldiers and celebrate the end of government corruption. His work has a way of bringing people out into public space who might otherwise use it for little other than to go shopping. With the 2012 elections around the corner and Pennsylvania a key battleground state, Philadelphians can expect to hear more soapbox politicking coming out of Open Air’s loudspeaker in Eakins Oval. Lozano-Hemmer does not intend to stop them. This, he insists, is the power that emerges from conflict and disagreement when people claim their right to the public square, spontaneous cheers erupting from the crowd at the mention of Obama’s name and a hushed silence when another caller delivers this sobering message: “Forget Lady Gaga, Jersey Shore, and everything you think you know” the voice booms over the loudspeaker. “Pay attention to what’s going on. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and within our own borders. Wake up.”

Art has traditionally found its home in the two-dimensional space of the canvas, hung on the walls of galleries, cordoned off from anyone who doesn’t hold a ticket. By focusing his artistic endeavors on public space and allowing his audience to take part in its design, Lozano-Hemmer activates new forms of social engagement. A brief stroll down the parkway any evening this week proves that watching Open Air is a community activity. Philadelphians gather in a circle of armchairs and lawn furniture arranged at Eakins Oval, a loop of road where the Benjamin Frank Parkway meets the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At its center sits the Washington Monument, and below, old and young gather to watch the show, transforming a patch of open lawn into a kind of shared outdoor living room.

Every word, noise, and note callers send in to the Open Air online portal is projected into the sky and through the speaker, uncensored and unedited.

Upon first seeing the lights, many are confused: “What’s with the lights?” one woman toting a shopping bag asks. It’s unusual to see such an enormous and ostentatious display that’s not part of a Fourth of July celebration. Yet as Lozano-Hemmer has envisioned, every one of the lights, the speakers, the inputs of electricity and labor celebrate one of this country’s oldest and most cherished values: freedom of expression and the right to gather in shared space.

Open Air seeks to pass that right on from the hands of the artist to viewers themselves. Every word, noise, and note callers send in to the Open Air online portal is projected into the sky and through the speaker, uncensored and unedited. And since its debut several weeks ago, Philadelphians have been daring and resolute in their use of the application.
“We need Obama to win the 2013 election,” one caller argues.
Another makes a plea on behalf of all women: “We need to stop holding women accountable for being raped and to start holding the rapists accountable for raping them.”
Most people are unsure exactly how to respond. Maybe there isn’t a right or a wrong way to react to this stream of anonymous monologue. One spectator comments that “It has the feel and tone of late night talk radio.” True, perhaps, except that instead of seeking answers and expertise from a voice at the other end of the line, these callers seek only the knowledge that thousands are listening and watching from the streets below.

A New Artist, an Old Medium
But the beautiful thing about Open Air Philly is that you actually don’t need to even leave your house to see it. A rooftop perch four stories high and separated from the searchlights by only the Schuylkill River and a half-mile of wide-open air is the perfect viewing spot. A group of young Philadelphia artists gathers here to watch the last beams of light cast their bluish glow over the city. From this distance the lights are silent and removed. Our small group is composed of a handful of twenty-something painters and craftsmen, some graduates of the oldest art school in the country, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, based right here in Philadelphia.

Without a roof, a floor, a foundation, the sky is the place we turn to in our imaginations when we are too ensnared in reality to venture a glance upwards.

Seeing art projected into the sky is thrilling and exotic, and seems to run against the grain of the art history that these students have assiduously studied. It is a form of expression, which, for lack of a better term, we must capture under the umbrella of “new media.” Yet Lozano-Hemmer winces when he hears his work described as new media, a term which has entered into the lexicon of art curators to describe a kind of leftover category. As we watch the searchlights dance across the sky, the art students describe to me the four departments that make up the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts: drawing, painting, sculpture, and printmaking. If it doesn’t fit cleanly into one of these areas of study, it’s not that it doesn’t count as art; just that there has been a rupture with the past. It’s experimental. New.
This is where Lozano-Hemmer begs to differ. “This assumption of originality is ridiculous. It’s always more interesting to see how we are connected to past experimentation.” Throughout his career, Lozano-Hemmer has made subtle homages to the artists and thinkers that preceded him. The idea of wide open air, he explains, is in part inspired by the Estridentista artists in his home country of Mexico who used radio technology to reclaim their right to expression. In a time when the radio was just emerging as a new form of communication, the Estridentistas usurped it to create poetry for the open air.
“It was immensely innovative,” Lozano-Hemmer lights up. “They believed this new form would allow for the democratization of culture.”  The night sky, the Philadelphia show reminds us, is the original open air. Without a roof, a floor, a foundation, the sky is the place we turn to in our imaginations when we are too ensnared in reality to venture a glance upwards. The sky is the oldest medium we can get our hands on.

As the lights dance and the voices of the callers boom out of the speaker far away, I think of all those who have found inspiration and mystery in the night sky before. In an urban corridor where light pollution and smog make a view of the stars impossible even on the most halcyon of nights, the searchlights are a helpful reminder to appreciate what lies above

Crowd-sourcing Art
Roughly fifty percent of MOMA’s new acquisitions in New York are now categorized as technologically- and new media-based. Museum Director Glenn D. Lowry describes his own memory of how nontraditional works started making their way into the museum gallery spaces. “Several years ago, we created a department for film and video, which migrated into film and media, which migrated into film and new media to distinguish it from older media.”
It is an evolutionary process that moves forwards in fits and starts. “We’re interested in any form of art that is new, interesting, and provocative,” Lowry continues. “The underlying structure of the art is less interesting than what it’s doing and why.”
No one seems to be able to decide what Lozano-Hemmer’s installations are doing until after they are installed. He specializes in interactive, crowd-sourced projects on a larger-than-life scale—to the chagrin of many of his funders, it is hard to reliably predict where the audience will take the work. This is because Lozano-Hemmer eschews the traditionally passive role of his audience and attempts to reengage them in a new relationship between art and its subjects. He dares to give the public a voice when it is entirely possible that in passing on such a powerful tool, things could go utterly out of control.
Perhaps it is the lingering memory of life under Mexico’s authoritarian PRI in the 1980s that leads Lozano-Hemmer to stand by his belief in free expression. He paused when I asked him about what happened to the American ambassador to Libya in the wake of the disparaging film a group of Egyptian-American producers released last month.
“That video needs to be interpreted as what it is: a stupid video on YouTube,” he explains. “I want to literally take it out of my brain and not be occupied with it.” By focusing attention not on the errant views of a few, but the small kindnesses of many, Lozano-Hemmer hopes that people can reclaim what it really means to speak one’s mind unhindered. As consumers of art and media, what is really crucial is to whom we choose to give our attention. Thousands of voices in the sky—now that seems worth our while.
Voices in the Sky

Ironically, one of the first uses of searchlights was by the Royal Navy to illuminate enemy ships for attack with greater precision. The internet, also an integral part of Open Air Philly, was invented by the Pentagon in the 1960s to enhance communication. But the list doesn’t stop there. GPS, which Open Air uses to locate its callers, was also developed as a military tool used to guide missiles and track potential targets. These technologies have a dark history, becoming more sophisticated as warfare grows more deadly. Open Air appropriates and replaces them, transforming the tools of control and surveillance into, in Lozano-Hemmer’s own words “platforms that are out of control.”
But Lozano-Hemmer is not necessarily trying to draw a clear line in the sand. “Ultimately, my work may not be protagonistic,” he says. Like an online meme, Open Air takes on a life and direction of its own, with callers submitting everything from wedding proposals to poetry.
There is humility in creating this kind of art. Like Sol Lewitt’s handwritten instructions to his art installers, Open Air reverses what centuries of Western art have done to glorify the artist’s hand. With the proliferation of online platforms from tumblr to Twitter, there is now an insatiable appetite for self-representation, which Open Air responds to and promotes. Rather than digging in our heels, the towering searchlights suggest, we should question the boundaries and intersection of high-brow and low-brow art. There may be other voices out there worth listening to.
By tuning in to openairphilly.net, you can listen in real time from any location as human voices are translated into the sky. The show will continue every evening from 8:00 – 11:00 E.T. through October 14th.

Abigail Nehring is a writer and waitress. She lives in Brooklyn and is working as an editorial intern with Brooklyn Magazine and The L Magazine.

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