Vast installation at UNC Memorial Hall rethinks and reframes the science of sound


Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Atmospheric memory | UNC Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill | From Thursday December 2 to Friday December 17

Memorial Hall looks different now. Over the past three weeks, a team of some 60 local and international engineers, technicians and programmers worked 13 hours a day, Monday through Sunday, laying over 40 miles of Etherlink cable to thousands of interconnected devices. In doing so, they transform the theater into an immersive and experiential pop-up museum of technology that allows clients to redesign, reframe and, perhaps most importantly, play with the science of sound.

Corn Atmospheric memory, the installation by Mexican-Canadian media artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer that fills Memorial’s lobby and auditorium (as well as the stage and backstage spaces normally closed to the public), is more than a daring collection of 25 interactive exhibits devoted to various ways of visualizing the invisible world of audio and human speech.

Carolina Performing Arts co-commissioned the work with the Manchester International Festival, where it premiered in 2019. It is a detailed examination of the social and ecological implications of an obscure theory advanced by Charles Babbage, a mathematician and 19th century English engineer who is also known as the “father of the computer”.

In his Ninth Treaty of BridgewaterBabbage noted that whenever humans speak, the act creates specific turbulence, sending respiratory and sound waves through the air. If a computer could track and calculate the trajectories of all of these displaced waves and molecules, Babbage explained, we could in theory piece them together and recreate the voices of everyone who has spoken in the past.

If this were possible, the air could become, in Babbage’s words, “a vast library on the pages of which are written forever all that man has ever said.”

“It’s about the idea that the atmosphere is not neutral and that it is potentially trying to tell us something,” Lozano-Hemmer explains. “That it is a place of memory and that our biosphere is the permanent place of our voices, our songs and our sorrows, I found it attractive. Because in Babbage’s world nothing was lost.

After presenting for the first time the concept that voices of the past can be extracted from the air by technology as a romantic and utopian idea, Lozano-Hemmer begins to probe its ramifications beyond lost loves and extinct languages. .

“One day he thought we would be able to rewind the atmosphere and find evidence of wrongdoing, like slave owners getting off with murder,” Lozano-Hemmer says. “The atmosphere has gathered all the evidence so that in the future they can be tried for their crimes.”

In an age when portable media have sometimes provided the only documentation of racial violence, “social justice issues can be helped by these recordings, by this memory,” observes Lozano-Hemmer.

But the combination of technology, voice, and memory has a darker side. Atmospheric memory explore this as well.

“I say that I work with the technology not because it is new or original, but because it is inevitable,” notes Lozano-Hemmer. “Our relationships, our wars, our economy and our politics all go through these devices. But in the end, do we want to live in a society that remembers everything?

In Atmospheric memory, Lozano-Hemmer notes the degrees to which we are already doing. An Amazon Alexa is cut in half in its Cabinet of curiosities exhibition, revealing the eight microphones that “register us at all times.” The voice recognition software in its Cloud Display The exhibit comes from Google, whose algorithmic, AI and voice-to-text services are “trained by all of our voices, always speaking through an Android phone.”

His Zoom Pavilion, Acknowledgement, and Upright the exhibits call for awareness and a critical approach to these technologies, as images of machine-learning facial recognition and surveillance software are displayed, in large format, on 50-foot screens surrounding the audience.

“We live in this Orwellian moment where everything is collected,” says Lozano-Hemmer. “And more and more, especially in autocratic governments, it will become a source of abuse.”

An even more catastrophic form of the past remembered in the air is found in other exhibitions, notably Airborne projection.

In Lozano-Hemmer’s view, Babbage’s largest atmospheric memory, by far, is contained in the air contaminants created by the Industrial Revolution that he helped automate.

“I’m from Mexico City, where more than 10,000 people die each year from toxic air. We breathe 421 parts per million of carbon dioxide. In the history of the planet, no human has ever breathed this concentration, ”says Lozano-Hemmer. “Climate change is not a futuristic scenario; we are already there. We know that we are experiencing an extinction event, where every three minutes a different species disappears permanently from the planet.

In Airborne projection, comments from international environmental journalism – and local reports like an account of UNC-Chapel Hill relaxing emission standards for its coal-fired power plant – are literally blown away by the human interactions in the space of observation.

While noting that most large-scale, immersive exhibitions invite viewers to “dream and see things you already know and love,” Lozano-Hemmer sees art as a disruption.

“The Zapatistas used to say their slogan was’ We don’t ask you to dream; we ask you to wake up. The works of art that I love make me aware of something that I did not see. This makes the invisible phenomena material and tangible.

As you tour the 23 Atmospheric Memory exhibits that fill the lobby, auditorium, stage and backstage at Memorial Hall, don’t miss these:


Those 3,000 two-inch cubes that are laid out on the seats and aisles of Memorial Hall’s auditorium? They are loudspeakers, each playing a different sound channel (including some 300 species of insects and 200 different birds). But what happens when Atmosphere built multiple times from a single channel (look for the lit LED of the active speaker) to 3,000 simultaneously? At one point, the cacophony “is very much like a stream of water, because water waves use the most frequencies in all of nature,” Lozano-Hemmer explains.

Then Atmosphere gradually composes the chaos to a different single channel. “It’s this real adjustment exercise. In this mass of sound, how can we become better at listening? “


Think of something that you would like to see go away. Say his name into the exhibition intercom. Then watch the word fade away in front of a wall-sized grid of 1,600 humidifier atomizers that spell it out in ghostly water vapor, before it disappears as the micro-fog subsides. dispels, moments later.


To be clear, the plastic-lined paper bag in this exhibition does not contain the last breath that avant-garde accordionist and composer Pauline Oliveros ever took. This is only the last one that is still taken, after the composer’s death in 2016, when a medical-grade respirator sucks its contents through a rubber tube. Ten thousand times a day – the normal rhythm for a body at rest – the ventilator partially deflates the bag, before re-breathing it, in a strange simulacrum of a human lung.

“We originally did it as a biometric portrait, as a way to capture this impossible essence, someone’s life force,” Lozano-Hemmer explains. “But when she died, it changed the room completely. It has become a memorial.

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