Most art museums still don't know what to do with it. Art critics still don't know what to call it. Over a decade since the dot-com boom and bust, the field known as new media art, digital art, interactive art or electronic art still occupies a sort of ghetto, with its own biennials, festivals and even its own exhibition centers.
"I work with technology because it's inevitable. Our politics, our culture, our economy, everything is running through globalized networks of communication," says Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, a prominent artist in this field, which he prefers to call "experimental" art. "But these kinds of works are not very popular with art critics. They're seen as a form of gadgetry."
Lozano-Hemmer waved at one of his artworks — a large tank of water rigged to sense your heart rate and create corresponding ripples in the water — as if to prove the point. "This looks like something straight out of a science fair. There's an electrocardiogram, solenoids, a ripple tank — everything about it is nerdy."
The artist was explaining why technology-based art does not always get critical respect. He was also explaining why he found himself in Irvine at the Beall Center for Art and Technology and not in a major contemporary art museum for his first solo show in California.
Born in Mexico City and now based in Montreal, Lozano-Hemmer has had major gallery shows in New York and London with Bitforms and Haunch of Venison. He represented Mexico in the 2007 Venice Biennale. He created a Web-based, user-driven light show above English Bay in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics. This year the Guardian called him "arguably the world's most famous electronic artist." But he has not had a solo show in California until now.
"It's surprising," says Beall Center curator David Familian, who has organized shows of other tech-savvy, crossover artists like Jennifer and Kevin McCoy and Jim Campbell. "This is a guy who does major public commissions in Europe. You would think that a larger museum with a larger budget would be doing this show instead."
Instead, Lozano-Hemmer was sitting in a 2,500-square-foot campus gallery in Irvine before the opening of his exhibition there, talking about why he likes California. "I love the beach for the way it brings together such a mix of people," he says, wearing a T-shirt of his own design that says "United Apostates." ("It's my brand," he says with a laugh. "I have many.")
The previous week he had staged a project on the Santa Monica beach, just south of the Pier, for "Glow," the not-quite-all-night festival. His dark tan was proof. "The rest of my team hates us. We spend the day setting up work on the beach in perfect weather," he says, "while they are setting up a show in Manchester, England."
His work for Glow, called Sandbox, was an experiment in scale, eliciting a cat-chasing-virtual-tail sort of interaction. Infrared surveillance cameras detected people walking on a certain 3,000-square-foot stretch of sand so they could be projected as tiny dot-like images onto a sandbox Lozano-Hemmer built nearby. At the same time, the hands of anyone in the sandbox were picked up by other cameras and projected in large scale, so that images of massive, monstrous hands could reach down and touch (visually if not physically) the people who were walking in that stretch.
"Some people find my work empowering and fun. Others find it frightening," he says. "My works are on the border between being very seductive, inviting, inclusive and being predatory, ominous, Orwellian."
The three installations in Irvine, all from his "Pulse" series, do not invade your personal space in especially threatening ways. But they do take intimate bodily information, your heart rate and, in one work, your fingerprint too, and broadcast it large for others to see.
The artist says he had the idea for "Pulse Room," the first work in the series and by far the largest in the Irvine show, four years ago. "This is a cheesy story, but my wife was pregnant with twins, and we once got two ultrasound machines so we could listen to both of their hearts simultaneously. The syncopation they were creating was so interesting."
He describes the effect as "rhythmic and symphonic," in ways that recall the minimalist music of Steve Reich. And it gave him an idea: How could he visualize the electrical signals of the heart?