At this moment of general Olympic excitement some may feel criticism is unwelcome, but artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s remarks are also constructive and inspiring. They point to the many ways in which the arts are making this Olympic moment beautiful and interesting, even for people who did not, until this moment, consider themselves consumers of arts and culture. Lozano-Hemmer’s remarks also give a clear sense of how the arts feed and improve our communities and economies on an ongoing basis, and not just when we’re hosting international events. They do this by ensuring our uniqueness, innovation, thoughtfulness and creativity, and thereby allow us to compete globally for the best minds.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer lives and works in Canada and Mexico. Based in Montreal, he was once a Vancouverite. His piece Vectorial Elevations, a very visible public work involving searchlights in the Vancouver sky, is part of the Cultural Olympiad (the arts component of the 2010 Winter Olympics) and it has become one of the most popular Olympiad artworks. Explanation of the “9-11” remark in this video clip: Before Vectorial Elevations was launched, its energy use wasn’t fully understood and the piece was accused of being “an environmental 9-11.” Hence his mention of “9-11.” In fact, for its entire month-long run, the artwork uses the same amount of power as only 10 hockey games, so its energy use is dwarfed by the Olympics’ energy use. It’s interesting that art tends to draw fire where other expenditures – whether of energy or money – do not. Sports come immediately to mind in this regard. Yet as Lozano-Hemmer argues here, the benefit of arts to communities and cities, both economically and socially, is huge, and cutting the arts is folly.
Further background on this clip: In this video Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is participating in a Q&A after his keynote speech at a Vancouver conference called CODE: Dialogue. The conference featured many Olympiad artists involved in CODE, the digital component of the Cultural Olympiad. After Rafael’s talk, the moderator asked him to talk about why public arts are worthwhile, and he unexpectedly began to speak about the arts cuts. As it turns out, he is not alone; many artists who received commissions to produce work in the Cultural Olympiad are horrified that after the Games, there will be no public money for other artists. When they agreed to be in the Games, they had no idea the government would cut public funding for the arts by 50-90% post-Olympics – funding that was already the lowest in Canada. This puts them in a very awkward position.
Full transcript of the relevant section of his talk is below…
Moderator: (summary of her question) Can you talk about the history of Vectorial Elevation, why that piece?
Rafael: I think for something like the Olympics which is so visible I was happy they were interested in re-presenting a project that was already successful, at least technologically, or so we thought. Their – when I say “their” I mean VANOC’s and the City’s – interest was to do something that would allow people in different parts of Canada to participate, that would be internet-related so that other time zones or other countries could participate. So there’s a little bit of that kind of Olympic romanticism, which on the one hand is really trite, but on the other hand it is kind of neat that you can have that kind of de-territorialized access to an artwork and sort of take over those kinds of technologies – two technologies that were originally military: searchlights and the internet – there’s something attractive about that. So when I said we could do Vectorial Elevations in English Bay they liked it a lot because they could see that that fit the bill of a participation-oriented project, connectivity through Canada and the rest of the world, and then it’s a very celebratory piece, it really is supposed to be a piece for celebration, to create a little bit of an interruption in the normal peace and quiet that you do have.
The project – I should mention now that we’re here, and I get a chance to talk – one of the things that was interesting is when we first presented it here in Vancouver I asked in general to put in the public press release information about the environment on my project, because everywhere you could see that it was 200,000 watts of power, and they refused to put environmental information into the press release because they felt that that would put too much attention on that. But what happened of course is as soon as the news [of Vectorial Elevations] went live somebody in the CBC said that Vectorial Elevations was the “environmental equivalent of September 11″… I mean the stuff that has been said was really crazy. So I’m now taking every public opportunity to say it is 200,000 watts of power, which is a lot; it’s also 10% of what a typical hockey game uses. And the moment that I drop hockey onto people, they kind of go “okay, oh, alright, 10%, that’s not too bad.” So I’m not here to destroy your environment, the piece is going to go away in 2 weeks and it will be over, and its entire 1 month-long run can be powered by 10 hockey games.
Moderator: That’s been the question all along… why should we spend this much money, all these resources, on something that is so quick and ephemeral… when there are so many problems to be solved. Can you talk a bit about the role of those big experiences in society? I noticed right away when Vectorial Elevations was turned on that people looked up, it had a very cathedral feel, a very out of this world feel, and it made you feel like part of something bigger. I kind of feel that way a little bit about the NASA program, going to planets, but I’m very practical and I tend to fall back into the “well no, we should save our money and deal with problems at home.” Can you talk a little about that?
Rafael: I don’t think that these things compete with one another. These things [art] cost a lot but they generate a certain kind of symbolic wealth, or at least that’s the hope, that there is an interruption in the way that we interpret our city, that…(pauses) For instance, virtuality is an intensely solitary experience, right? We sit with our iPhones or with our computers and we’re in the internet by ourselves. So anything we can do to take that kind of solitary interaction and map it onto our city, to me there is merit in that. For the usage of these kinds of technologies, which as we saw have a certain ominous past – a miltary past, like the internet or searchlights – and then to [deliberately] misuse them in projects that are platforms of participation and creating agency, there is merit in that.
So, I mean, I’m not the one who’s going to defend why that money needs to be spent, but I do think in general as I do this project and I learn more about the dire situation of the arts in BC, and I’m outraged by the complete lack of vision that has been sort of expressed for after the Olympics, I find my project obscene. Because I just can’t imagine this not to be connected from the general health of an art community, which should be the beneficiary as well, because we’re part of the public too. … From what I understand right now from the politicians you got your budget got cut by what is it, something like 90% or something like that? It’s unbelievable! They’re saying that I’m 9-11? That’s 9-11 for the arts! And it’s quite outrageous to have learned all of that. And I trust that will change, because people here in the city – I don’t know if you guys have noticed it but I’ve been here a little bit over a week, and there’d been a lot of animosity against my project and other projects. And now that it’s starting and people are seeing it, I’ve felt the tension go down a little bit. They’re starting to see… well, what is it about these projects that are making this moment special? And what if people get used to that, and they demand that of their city, to have that kind of vibrancy and cultural stimulation and so forth? What if the politicans were to be illustrated on the fact that this is important not just economically because culture brings in a net worth, but also in terms of quality of life, in terms of… you know, just… Around the world there’s this phenomenon, they call it regeneration and revitalization of cities, because with globalization we’re interested in new economies and so on and so forth. And every time I go and listen to one of these politicians, what they mean by regeneration is they mean putting 19th C lamposts, and Starbucks, and a nice kind of 19th C… sort of faux originality. And so that makes you the same as everybody else, there’s this homogenization. If Vancouver and other cities want to compete at the world level for minds, for bringing people into a vibrant way, they need to include the arts to do eccentric motherfucking things…. That’s our participation. We shit disturb. And we do that to try and find new ways of engaging with each other in our culture and in our city. And so I hope – and this is just very romantic I know – but I hope the Olympics will reactivate the dull minds that are running this province to giving money into the arts… I know there’s only a small chance that will happen, but…”