As we come out from behind our screens, bleary with tech fatigue, Kansas Citians have begun to seek out safe and meaningful ways to come together. Museums are working out how to balance public engagement with visitor safety, in a world still warily emerging from its pandemic cocoon. Artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, whose installations center around human interaction, aims to address that conundrum in the exhibition “Pulse Topology,” on view through Jan. 2 at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.
As the director of Antimodular Research in Montréal, Lozano-Hemmer collaborates with a team of programmers, engineers, architects, designers and artists engaged in the “creative misuse” of technology to facilitate platforms for public participation. The artist’s “Pulse”series, an interactive installation concept centering around the human heartbeat, began in 2006.
After significant delays brought on by the pandemic, the show opened on June 25 to an eager public. “Pulse Topology”is the largest technology-based exhibition ever shown at the museum and proved especially challenging to install. The artist was unable to travel to Kansas City to oversee the setup due to Canadian travel restrictions. But thanks to a stellar team of preparators at Kemper Museum, he was able to direct the process remotely and hopes to visit before the show closes.
Installation views, “Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Pulse Topology,” June 25, 2021–January 2, 2022, Charlotte Crosby Kemper Gallery, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. (© Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, courtesy of Antimodular Studio. Photo by E. G. Schempf, 2021)
After all the technical maneuvering, the result is stunning. Hanging from a grid armature fixed to the ceiling, 3,000 LED bulbs are suspended at varying lengths to form a rolling landscape intended to reflect the mountains and valleys of the Midwest. When fully illuminated, the space reads like “an invasion of fireflies,” according to the artist. Lozano-Hemmer’s “Pulse”series arose from a desire to make visible the life force, in this case multiplying it to fill an entire exhibition space. A celebration of what it means to be alive should resonate with a public venturing out to reconnect with others.
It begins with a heartbeat, that universal element of our biology. Three available sensors hang among the bulbs which, when a hand is placed underneath, read the biometric information of each participant. Using touchless PPG (photoplethysmography) technology, the cameras sense heat from the body, and the flow of blood that causes subtle difference in skin coloration. The heart’s rhythm is then translated into flickering lights, and a bass simulation of the heartbeat. As the next pulse sequence is transmitted, the previous information moves to a single bulb down the grid. Special bulbs provide rhythmic modulation, mimicking the unique cadence of each individual viewer’s heart.
Moving through the space, one is surrounded with dazzling sensory stimuli. There is something really profound in this animation, this bringing together of something unique but shared by all of us. The light patterns are unpredictable and ever-changing, and at times it feels as chaotic as it is mesmerizing. As more visitors submit their information, previous participants’ heartbeats move off the grid. Here, then gone, like a memento mori, symbolic of the ephemeral nature of existence. Over the months thousands of heartbeats will live in this space, if only for a moment.
“Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Pulse Topology” opened June 25 and continues through Jan. 2 at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Free timed entry tickets are required. For tickets and more information, www.kemperart.org or 816.753.5784.