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Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Border Tuner

Art21 proudly presents this special extended segment as a complement to the "Borderlands" episode from the tenth season of the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" series. Edited to focus on a singular artist narrative, this film contains original material not included in the television broadcast. "Borderlands" premiered in October 2020 on PBS. 

Known for his large-scale, interactive installations, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer uses contemporary technologies like computerized surveillance, heart-rate sensors, and robotics to create participatory experiences and platforms for public participation and connection. The artist frequently works in and transforms public spaces, creating awe-inspiring, poetic, and critical installations, like "Voz Alta": a massive megaphone system erected in a Mexico City plaza to commemorate the infamous Tlatelolco student massacre in 1968. Spurred by his Mexican heritage and the growing nationalism in the United States, Lozano-Hemmer embarks on his most ambitious project to date: "Border Tuner," an enormous intercom system at the border between El Paso and Juárez that allows participants from both sides to speak and listen to each other via radio-enabled searchlights. At his studio in Montreal, the artist works with a team of scientists, engineers, programmers, architects, and designers to develop the project; at the El Paso–Juárez border, he invites local artists and performers and members of the public to use "Border Tuner" to listen to, share, and visualize their voices and stories. Highlighting the intimate, personal relations in a public space that is otherwise systematically dehumanizing, Lozano-Hemmer explains, “The most important role that art can play is that of making complexity visible. The usage of technology is inevitable; it’s up to the artist to use those technologies to create experiences that are intimate, connected, and critical.”

Learn more about the artist at: https://art21.org/artist/rafael-lozano-hemmer/

CREDITS | Executive Producer: Tina Kukielski. Series Producer: Nick Ravich. Directors: Rafael Salazar Moreno and Ava Wiland. Producer: Ava Wiland. Editors: Rafael Salazar Moreno and Russell Yaffe. Director of Photography: Rafael Salazar Moreno. Production Services: RAVA Films. Assistant Curator: Danielle Brock. Associate Producer: Julia Main. Post-Production Coordinator: Alexandra Lenore Ashworth. Design & Animation: Momentist, Inc. Composer: Joel Pickard. Additional Music: Amalia Mondragón. Advising Producer: Ian Forster. Additional Art21 Staff: Lauren Barnett, Lolita Fierro, Joe Fusaro, Meghan Garven, Jonathan Munar, and Emma Nordin. Additional Photography: Elan Alexenberg, Robert Biggs / Phoenix Drone Pros, Gina Clyne, Adrian Gutierrez, Nick Kraus, Christoph Lerch, and Alejandro Almanza Pereda. Tijuana Field Producer: Yadira Avila. Location Sound: Ariel Baca, Jacob Bloomfield-Misrach, Nikola Chapelle, Michael Cottrell, Rayell Abad Guangorena, Veronica Lopez, Baili Martin, Nathalie Piché, Chris Tolan, and Ava Wiland. Production Assistants: Ben Derico, Jake Grossman, Jacquelin de Hoyos, Keira Kennedy, Zac Settles, and Jorge Villarreal. Digital Intermediate: Cut + Measure. Post-Production Producer: Alex Laviola. Colorist: David Gauff and Jerome Thélia. Post-Production Sound Services: Konsonant Post. Re-Recording Mixer & Sound Editor: Gisela Fullà-Silvestre. Online & Conform: David Gauff. Additional Animation: Andy Cahill. Assistant Editor: Jasmine Cannon, Jonah Greenstein, and Mengchen Zhang. Translation: Ava Wiland and Russell Yaffe. Video Quality Control: Jonathan Hansen. Artwork Courtesy: Tanya Aguiñiga, Guillermo Galindo, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Richard Misrach, Postcommodity / Cristóbal Martínez & Kade L. Twist, Bockley Gallery, Fraenkel Gallery, Pace Gallery, and Volume Gallery. Public Relations: Cultural Counsel. Station Relations: De Shields Associates, Inc. Legal Counsel: Barbara T. Hoffman, Esq. Interns: Shane Daly, Grace Doyle, Eda Li, Daniela Mayer, Jason Mendoza, Nikhil Oza, Anika Rahman, Ana Sanz, Sara Schwartz, Victoria Xu, and Sadie Yanckello. Major underwriting for Season 10 of "Art in the Twenty-First Century" is provided by PBS, National Endowment for the Arts, Lambent Foundation, The Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Toby Devan Lewis, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Henri Lambert, Nion McEvoy & Leslie Berriman, and Sakana Foundation. Series Creators: Susan Dowling and Susan Sollins. ©2020 Art21, Inc.
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Video transcript

[rustling] - [speaking Spanish] [soft music] - Many of my works involve this process of taking a portrait of a participant, for example, like their face, or their fingerprint, or their heartbeat. And then making it into a landscape because it's beautiful to see your heartbeat, but it's more beautiful to see it in relationship to all this others. From the very beginning of my practice, I worked with technology. When we're using this technology, it's very easy to seduce people and have this kind of mesmerized hallucination. But the reality is that we must reuse those same technologies to create critical platforms where difficult questions are asked. [soft music] We're living in a society where these technologies are inescapable. Across the U.S.-Mexico border, you see surveillance systems and the searchlights of the Border Patrol choppers looking for migrants. I'm a Mexican immigrant in Canada, but when I would hear the Trump administration talk about Mexicans being rapists, using Mexicans as this escape valve for all this hatred, you feel that; you feel that personally. I felt, "Okay, this is time to come up with a work that can make a contribution in the area." - I like to take people up to this lookout because it's one of the places where you can really get a sense of how the two cities fit together. So should we get out? Have a look around? - Yeah. Let's do it. - Juarez and El Paso together make up the largest bi-national metropolis in the Western Hemisphere. So that's the border that you see there. It's this big, wide stretch, like, running through. And from here, you can see our site also. So you can see Bowie High School, and just across the trees are- are the Chamizal, which was a bi-national park at one point. It's a particularly integrated place. More than 65% of the people in both cities have immediate family in the other cities, so 65%. - I love when you have a pre-established notion of what you're gonna see and it's wrong. I learned that you can't make an artwork about the wall. People there are sick of the wall. They want to talk about the ways in which the two societies interpenetrate. [light music] To create an artwork for listening is really what the project became. Probably...pause. - Oh, that's cool. - The work that I'm doing now, "Border Tuner," which present this continuous symbolic bridge across El Paso and Ciudad Juarez using searchlights not to look for individuals, but rather to look for relationships between individuals. I work a lot with light to take over public space. As an artist, our challenge is to interrupt the normal ways that the city is becoming homogeneous. The idea is to use the language of technology and spectacle and scale to bring people into the area, but once they're in the area, give them something completely different. Create eccentric interactions, moments where it is not business as usual, something has happened that invites you to talk to others and to establish relationships anew. So let me ask you this. My practice is not me standing in front of a canvas getting inspired. It's really about liaising with specialists in different fields, putting that together. Half of us are chemists or scientists or engineers or programmers. The other half are architects, designers, artists, composers. I love the words "factory" and "laboratory" to describe my studio. Often, we're working with fundamental science and then something comes up from those experiments that can lead to a piece. And that's what we're doing in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Now speak without leaning. - Hi, this is a test. - Okay, now lean. - And now it sounds better. - His microphone... - Creating a platform for people to self-represent, for their voice to be visible, is a fundamental part of what I'm doing politically. [muffled shouting, gunshots] "Voz Alta" was a work in Mexico City to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the massacre of students in Tlatelolco Plaza. We set up a megaphone that converted people's voices into light. So these very powerful searchlights would come flashing to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. [somber music] [people speaking Spanish] - Well, that's what we had before, so 0.001. - Whoa. So go for 2.1. Whereas "Voz Alta" was more about speaking to the heavens, "Border Tuner" is about speaking to another person, establishing those new connections to create community. [soft music] [woman singing in Spanish] - See, we're so close. Eso es Juárez - All that is Juárez, yeah. Since the '70s that I was born, totally everything has changed here in El Paso, Juarez. We used to come and go. I don't know how many times a day, and we didn't have no ID, no paper, nada. Now I don't even go to Juarez. I'm scared to go to Juarez. When I found out about "Border Tuner," I was like, "I need to be heard." Since age seven, I was experiencing abuse mentally and physically. I think wrestling was my escape. I became the first officially gay wrestler to be a world champion. This is "Border Tuner." Look. That's station 2, and we'll be in station 1. See, this is the one where I'll be speaking. This is to give voice to the ones that can't have a voice. This is all part of our healing process, I think. - [speaking Spanish] - Jeffrey, you can run the streaming interface in here, is that true? - I can run it over here. Yeah. - Oh this is really good then. Live stream. - So I can see here all of the different attributes of that station, whether I need to ignite the light or things like that. - Okay. - [speaking Spanish] - Hey, Jeffrey, for fun, let's start the lights early. - Going into performance mode. - Here we go. Lights up. Boom. - Whoa. - Whoa! - Whoa. - My parents were nightclub owners in Mexico City, so I grew up in the light of the nightclub, surrounded by musicians, by dancers, by artists. Good artwork is a little bit like a club. You can bring the drinks, and put great music, and good ambiance, but it is not until the people show up that the party begins. - Thanks for joining us. [speaking Spanish] Starting now, the mikes are interactive, so anyone who wants to try them out, come on in. - You wanna try moving the lights? All the way over. There--you can stop right there and say, "Hello." - Hello. Hola. - [speaking Spanish] [both speaking Spanish] [people speaking Spanish] - Juarez has gone through a lot of difficult times for the longest time. We have so many migrants waiting on the border, femicide, narco violence. People in Juarez are, like, always recovering from something. And their communities and their art is just like a--a way of surviving. I've learned to compare people here like desert plants. They live in the harshest conditions, but once they bloom, they're one of the most beautiful plants. We're super resilient. [both speaking Spanish] - [speaking Spanish] - Sometimes this kind of social geopolitical issue is something that's very abstracted, but when you can hear the individual voices, when you can connect one to one, it becomes real, it becomes tangible. - Party to people, are you coming to party? Guys, there's Mexicans trying to communicate. You must touch this. So you put your hands on it. The one on the right is the Mexican heartbeat. The one on the left is the one for me. And what I feel in my hands is the heartbeat of the person on the other side. Quick, put your hands. So now you feel their heartbeat, and they feel yours. Perhaps the most important role that art can play is that of making complexity visible. You can scale it up, you can size it up to make it evident. If the job of nationalist administrations is to try to simplify the narratives, we as artists need to intervene and complicate things to show the dynamics and the interrelations that take place between the two sides. [soft music]