On Sunday evening in Augst, Switzerland, about 30 minutes from downtown Basel, the artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer stood behind an old stone wall in a partially reconstructed amphitheater at Augusta Raurica, a Roman settlement dated to about 44 B.C. He was out of sight to most of the spectators gathered on the grass as Sabine Himmelsbach, the director of the Haus der elektronischen Künste Basel, described the piece that Lozano-Hemmer and his team had installed in the grandly designed theater seats behind her.
Upon his introduction, the 50-year-old artist bounded out in a wide-brimmed tan hat and a long-sleeved dark blue shirt, took the mic, and declared, “I was hiding out there because, even though I’m Mexican, I’m actually allergic to the sun, so you don’t want to see me turn into some kind of fat lobster, just rolling on the floor. It’s not pleasant.” The crowd laughed, and Lozano-Hemmer, who was born in Mexico City and lives between Madrid and Montreal, launched into a charming exegesis of his new piece, Voice Theatre, which is the first work of contemporary art ever installed at Augusta Ruarica.
For the next three weeks, through July 1, some 75 loudspeakers and 421 lights will sit on the sloped semicircle of seats, where inhabitants of the Roman colony once watched plays in hierarchical formation, with the most important citizens closest to the bottom. Centuries later, by pressing a button on a metal column behind his or her seat, art-goers can now record a message that will be recorded and played back through the speakers in a process that also activate the lights. Speaking of the ancient theater, Lozano-Hemmer said, “This is a perfect machine for sound echoes.”
As each new voice is recorded, the previous one moves up a step in the theater, playing out of new speakers. The messages are layered on top of one another like a round or a kind of rudimentary fugue. “It is you, the spectator, who is also the participant, who will be in the middle of the stage, activating this little microphone,” the artist said. “It is the theater reacting to what you are saying.” He likened his construction to a kind of mnemonic theater, mentioning Giordano Bruno and Giulio Camillo as inspirations.
Just in case people don’t feel comfortable recording a message, Lozano-Hemmer also prepared some pre-recorded speeches. “If we don’t speak, there will be other people speaking for us,” he said gravely. ”Please don’t let that happen.”
The piece grew, in part, out of Voice Tunnel (2013), a similar work presented in a passageway underneath Park Avenue in New York, with voices projected among activated lights. In that case, the New York Police Department had asked for a six-second delay on the recordings, so that offensive speech could be filtered out. As Lozano-Hemmer recalled, “As a Mexican—I’ve seen this in the movie, I’ve always wanted to do this—I said to them, ‘This is America and it is your job to protect freedom of speech.’ The police officers just looked at each other and they said”—the artist shrugged for them—“’ Yeah, yeah, he’s right.’ ” (In the end, they agreed only to block recordings that would cause imminent danger.)
“The most important thing I can do is create platforms for people to self-represent,” he said while noting that, in Spain, “a rapper is going to jail for four years because of what he just said against the stupid king.” The ancient theater, too, was a site of expression, he said, and even “hidden or a veiled attempt to criticize power,” thanks to plays that might present, through metaphor or allegory, critiques of society or the government.
The people who could speak in theaters were often those who were “pariahs—it was the marginals: the artists, the singers, the musicians,” he said. Connecting this to the present, he continued, “I am, for instance, a pariah. I am here, an artist who has social concerns, during Art Basel, where there’s billionaires. To me it’s an interesting, or problematic, kind of relationship of power. To what extent are artists complicit with the power that they want to denounce? The answer is: very complicit.” He adjusted his hat and cracked a sneaky smile. “I am a socialist that likes Champagne.”
But he was also plaintive at moments. “To me it’s so humbling to stand here in front of an almost 2,000-year-old structure and imagine, What is our voice going to be like in 2,000 years’ time?” he asked. “I’m a father of three kids. I’m not sure we’re going to make it. . . . The world is collapsing and we cannot be silent. We have to use our voice.”
Lozano-Hemmer had lined up a few speakers to get the performance going, but he encouraged everyone to consider what they could contribute to the piece. “It could be a dedication, a proposal—in New York we had marriage proposals, maybe we’ll have that here too,” he said. “If you want to say a poem or whisper or sing or shout or read. Just talk. . . . Silence will not protect you.”
A man of perhaps 20 went first, enthusiastically reciting a few messages in German into the microphone, which echoed through the ruins, and he was followed by an older man, bald, with a huge, wispy white beard, who gesticulated dramatically as he spoke. In the amphitheater, the young man’s utterances rang out first, to soon be joined by those of the elderly gentleman. A wall of sound—syncopated but strangely captivating—was began to build. Even as I walked away from the ruins, back down a hill to the train station, it seemed to be getting louder.