November 16, 2021

Atmospheric Memory at Carolina Performing Arts (video preview)

When it premiered in the UK two years ago, Atmospheric Memory proved so “inventive and provocative” (The Times of London) that it was named “the most ambitious art project at this year’s [Manchester International] Festival” (New York Times). Now, continuing the organization’s extraordinary commitment to innovative and mission-driven programming, Carolina Performing Arts (CPA) welcomes live audiences back to Memorial Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the multidisciplinary installation’s North American premiere (Dec 2–17). Created by Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, and substantially expanded and reimagined for its first presentation of the pandemic era, Atmospheric Memory offers an immersive experience inspired by Victorian computer pioneer Charles Babbage, who conceived of the air we breathe as a “vast library” of human voices and dreamed of a device that would enable us to hear them. As visitors interact with each of Lozano-Hemmer’s thought-provoking artworks, and take part in CPA’s wealth of related educational activities, they are invited to consider the echoes of the past that linger in our atmosphere, reflecting on the lasting impact – both literal and figurative – we make on our environment.

Commissioned by CPA in collaboration with Manchester International Festival, the UK’s Science and Industry Museum, FutureEverything and ELEKTRA/Arsenal Contemporary Art in Montreal, Atmospheric Memory is the creation of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (b. 1967, Mexico City) and a team of programmers and artists from seven countries. A media artist working at the intersection of architecture and performance art, Lozano-Hemmer has been recognized with honors including two BAFTA British Academy Awards, a Rockefeller fellowship, an International Bauhaus Award and the Canadian Governor General’s Award. He was the first artist to represent Mexico at the Venice Biennale, and examples of his works are held in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim, London’s Tate Gallery, and many more.

Atmospheric Memory draws inspiration from Charles Babbage (1791–1871), the English inventor of the first programmable computer, who believed that “the air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered” and that the “earth, air, and ocean, are the eternal witnesses of the acts we have done.” Babbage hoped that one day we might succeed in creating a computer sophisticated enough to rewind the path of air molecules, thereby enabling us to hear again the voices of long-lost loved ones, extinct languages and evidence of historical injustice.

For Lozano-Hemmer, these ideas offer new ways of conceptualizing our relationship with the air we breathe, as brought to life by the numerous artworks of Atmospheric Memory. These include Cloud Display (2019), a voice-controlled fountain whose 1,600 ultrasonic atomizers use cold-water vapor to write spoken words, as if by magic, in mid-air; Atmosphonia (2019), reconceived for CPA as a field of 3,000 loudspeakers filling the Memorial Hall auditorium, each of which plays a different recording, capturing the sounds of water, fire, ice, insects, birds, bells, bombs and more; and Last Breath (2012), in which a paper bag containing the final breath of the late avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros inflates and deflates ten thousand times a day – the normal frequency for an adult at rest. Atmospheric Memory asks us “to look at not just how we feel about technology, but how technology feels about us,” notes Forbes, concluding: “And asking these questions may well be the key to ensuring our humanity.” Click here to see Cloud Display in action at the Manchester International Festival.

Crucially, Lozano-Hemmer’s work examines the ways we are bringing about climate change. He explains:

“I want people to be aware that the atmosphere isn’t neutral. On the one hand, it carries our voices and brings us together, but on the other, it carries the deadly results of the globalization and industrialization that Babbage helped make a reality, like COVID-19 and record concentrations of carbon dioxide. The atmosphere is trying to tell us something, and we need to listen.”

In addition to new health and safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the first North American presentation of Atmospheric Memory features a number of new innovations. These include the world premiere of Banderoles, which – inspired by Samuel Beckett’s dramatic monologue Not I – films each visitor’s lips and mouth as they speak, using voice recognition to create virtual representations of their words. In addition, multiple new pieces have been added to the Cabinet of Curiosities, a collection of original 19th-century objects, and The Atmospheres projection series will now take place on the ground and in the round, making for a more intimate, interactive experience. Perhaps most significantly of all, Lozano-Hemmer has worked closely with UNC-Chapel Hill faculty and doctoral students to inform the entire immersive experience with local voices and artifacts; as he explains, if we are to listen for memories of the past, those memories must be specific to their location, in this case evoking stories unique to North Carolina and the American South. To prompt deeper exploration of these and some of the other issues raised by Atmospheric Memory, CPA will accompany the installation’s North American premiere with a variety of auxiliary educational events, including learning mornings with University faculty and installation guidance by student docents for local school groups; family art kits and self-guided art walks from the University’s renowned Ackland Art Museum; and more.

This important presentation is in keeping with Carolina Performing Arts’ mission: to spark curiosity and inspire all members of its community to discover and more fully engage with the world. CPA collaborates with trailblazing and compelling artists from across the globe to create novel, mission-driven arts experiences in partnership with its community, as well as opening its venues for others to explore, create and celebrate their own work. Past presentations include 2013–14’s The Rite of Spring at 100, CPA’s season-long celebration of Stravinsky’s seminal work; 2016–17’s Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey, a season-long exploration of Sufism; 2017’s U.S. premiere of Parable of the Sower, a new opera based on Octavia E. Butler’s epic novel of the same name; and 2017’s Glass at 80, a ten-day festival devoted to the music of Philip Glass, in honor of his 80th birthday.

CPA’s 2021-22 programming offers numerous ways for its communities to participate safely in the arts, whether virtually or in person. Upcoming highlights include “Southern Futures,” presented in collaboration with UNC-Chapel Hill’s College of Arts & Sciences and University Libraries as well as with the Center for the Study of the American South; this extended initiative will feature a three-year residency by Grammy and MacArthur award-winner Rhiannon Giddens, and is designed to produce new works, collaborations and research into social justice and racial equity in the Southern states.

Follow the installation on social media at #atmosphericmemory, and click here to download a high-resolution photo.

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© 21C Media Group, November 2021