Memorial Hall looks different now. For the past three weeks, a team of some 60 local and international engineers, technicians, and programmers have worked 13-hour days, Monday to Sunday, laying over 40 miles of Etherlink cable to thousands of interconnected devices. In doing so, they’re transforming the theater into an immersive, experiential pop-up museum of technology that lets patrons reconceive, reframe, and—perhaps most importantly—play with the science of sound.
But Atmospheric Memory, the installation by Canadian Mexican media artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer that fills Memorial’s lobby and auditorium (plus stage and backstage spaces normally off-limits to the public), is more than an audacious 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 Manchester International Festival, where it premiered in 2019. It is a detailed examination of the social and ecological implications in an arcane theory advanced by Charles Babbage, a 19th-century English mathematician and engineer who is also known as the “father of the computer.”
In his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, Babbage noted that whenever humans speak, the act creates specific turbulence, sending breath and sound waves into the air. If a computer could track and calculate the trajectories of all those waves and displaced molecules, Babbage reasoned, we could conceivably reconstitute them and recreate the voices of everyone who has spoken in the past.
If that were possible, the air could become, in Babbage’s words, “one vast library on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said.”
“It’s about the idea that the atmosphere is not neutral and that it’s potentially trying to tell us something,” Lozano-Hemmer says. “That it is a location of memory, and our biosphere is the continuing location of our voices, our songs, and our sorrows, I found attractive. Because in Babbage’s world, nothing was lost.”
After he first presents the concept that voices from the past can be plucked from the air by technology as a romantic, utopian idea, Lozano-Hemmer begins to probe its ramifications beyond lost loves and extinct languages.
“One day, he thought we’d be able to rewind the atmosphere and find evidence of wrongdoing, like slave owners getting away with murder,” Lozano-Hemmer says. “The atmosphere has been collecting all the evidence so that in the future they could be tried for their crimes.”
In an age where handheld media has sometimes provided the only documentation of racial violence, “social justice issues can be helped by these recordings, by this remembering,” Lozano-Hemmer observes.
But the combination of technology, voice, and memory has a darker side. Atmospheric Memory also explores this.
“I say I work with technology not because it’s new or original, but because it’s inevitable,” Lozano-Hemmer notes. “Our relationships, our wars, our economy, and our politics are all mediated through these devices. But in the end, do we want to live in a society that remembers all?”
In Atmospheric Memory, Lozano-Hemmer notes the degrees to which we already do. An Amazon Alexa is cut in half in his Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit, revealing the eight microphones that are “recording us at all times.” The voice recognition software in his Cloud Display exhibit comes from Google, whose algorithmic, AI, voice-to-text transcription services are “trained by all of our voices, always speaking through an Android phone.”
His Zoom Pavilion, Recognition, and Stand In exhibits call for awareness and a critical approach to these technologies, as images from surveillance and machine-learning face recognition software are displayed, large writ, on 50-foot screens surrounding the audience.
“We live in this Orwellian moment where everything is collected,” Lozano-Hemmer says. “And more and more, especially in autocratic governments, this will become a source of abuse.”
An even more catastrophic form of the past remembered in the air is found in other exhibits, including Airborne Projection.
In Lozano-Hemmer’s view, Babbage’s greatest atmospheric memory, by far, is contained in the airborne contaminants created by the industrial revolution he helped to automate.
“I’m from Mexico City, where over 10,000 people die each year because of the toxicity of the air. We’re breathing 421 parts per million of carbon dioxide. In the history of the planet, no human has ever breathed this concentration,” Lozano-Hemmer says. “Climate change is not a futuristic scenario; we’re already in it. We know we’re living in an extinction event, where every three minutes a different species disappears permanently from the planet.”
In Airborne Projection, the words of international environmental journalism—and local news stories like an account of UNC-Chapel Hill getting emission standards relaxed for its coal-burning power plant—are literally blown away by human interactions in the viewing space.
While noting that most large-scale immersive exhibits invite viewers “to dream and see things you already know and like,” Lozano-Hemmer thinks of art as more of a disturbance.
“The Zapatistas used to say their slogan was ‘We’re not asking you to dream; we’re asking you to wake up.’ Artwork that I like shakes me into an awareness of something I wasn’t seeing. It makes invisible phenomena material, and tangible.”
While taking in Atmospheric Memory’s 23 exhibits that fill the lobby, auditorium, stage, and backstage areas of Memorial Hall, don’t miss these:
Those 3,000 two-inch cubes that are arrayed across the seats and aisles in Memorial Hall’s auditorium? They’re speakers, each playing a different sound channel (including some 300 species of insects and 200 different birds). But what happens when Atmosphonia repeatedly builds from a single channel (look for the active speaker’s lit LED) to all 3,000 simultaneously? At some point, the cacophony “sounds very much like water rushing—because water waves use the most frequencies in all of nature,” Lozano-Hemmer says.
Then Atmosphonia gradually dials the chaos back down to a different single channel. “It’s this real tuning exercise. In this massiveness of sound, how can we become better at being able to listen?”
Think of something you’d like to see disappear. Speak its name into the exhibit’s intercom. Then watch as the word fades in, in front of a wall-sized grid of 1,600 humidifier atomizers that spell it out in ghostly water vapor, before it vanishes as the micro-fog dissipates, moments later.
To be clear, the plastic-lined paper bag in this exhibit doesn’t contain the last breath avant-garde accordionist and composer Pauline Oliveros ever took. It’s just the last one still being taken, after the composer’s death in 2016, as a medical-grade respirator draws its contents in and out through rubber tubing. Ten thousand times per day—the normal rate for a body at rest—the respirator partially deflates the bag, before breathing it back in, in an eerie simulacrum of a human lung.
“We did it originally as a biometric portrait, as a way to capture this impossible essence, someone’s life force,” Lozano-Hemmer says. “But when she died, it changed the piece completely. It became a memorial.”
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