Subtitled Public is an interactive computerised projection work by the Mexican-born, Canada-based artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Installed in a darkened room, the work involves a network of infrared surveillance cameras that detect the presence of visitors when they enter the space. Once identified, the body of a participant is individually and continuously tracked by Lozano-Hemmer’s system. As long as a visitor remains within the space in which Subtitled Public has been installed, a randomly generated verb, conjugated in the third-person singular (including words such as ‘tastes’, ‘shifts’ and ‘benefits’) is projected in white light in lower-case characters onto his or her torso. The verb remains projected onto the visitor as he or she moves around the room and the projected language will remain unchanged as long as the viewer does not come into contact with another person also being tracked by the system. If two participants in the work touch, the words projected onto each visitor will be exchanged. The newly acquired word or words will then follow the visitor until further contact is made with another participant, thereby triggering a further exchange, or when he or she exits the gallery.
Subtitled Public was conceived by Lozano-Hemmer in 2005 and depends for its operation on the sophisticated coordination of technological elements of the work’s design. According to curator and art historian Beryl Graham, Lozano-Hemmer relied for the work’s construction on the expertise of computer programmers in India:
At the core of this work are many thousands of lines of bespoke code written in Delphi, which operate in an environment produced by the commercial software, including the operating system and the libraries and drivers required for communication between an array of hardware and software components. Distinguishing between the functions created by the bespoke software and those determined by the commercial software is difficult as they meld together to create the desired behaviours of the system.
(Graham 2014, p.78.)
Subtitled Public has been interpreted as a comment on contemporary society’s increasing reliance for its safety on CCTV and the profiling of potentially dangerous citizens. According to the art historian María Fernández,
By replicating the technique of automatic labeling, the work calls attention to the potentially erratic logic of hyperrational computer systems. The piece elicits empathy among the visitors because any participant is subject to random stereotyping. Like other Lozano-Hemmer works, Subtitled Public invites participants actively to play: it encourages people to chase each other around the room to touch and exchange labels. The playful aspects of the work mask its sinister content.
(Fernández 2013, pp.292–3.)
However, in 2005 Lozano-Hemmer stated his belief that in mimicking such ‘sinister’ technologies he can effect an interruption in individuals’ thinking and a consequent reassessment of social prejudices and assumptions: ‘I look for the “special defects” that allow me to activate the imperfections, the disruptions; “to disrupt” seems to be the most precise term for describing what I want to do.’ (Lozano-Hemmer in Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Subsculptures: A Conversation between José Luis Barrios and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Geneva 2005, p.27.)
As with any work whose function relies on the maintenance of hardware that can wear out, Subtitled Public is vulnerable to the obsolescence of its parts over time. However, in 2012 the artist indicated that the integrity of the work does not rely essentially on the components that comprise it, and that its meaning is more than the sum of its constitutive elements:
When Tate acquired my piece Subtitled Public, they wanted spare projectors in case any broke. But I consider this is more like Sol LeWitt’s Art of Instructions [of the 1960s and 1970s]. As far as I am concerned, for this piece you can generate the same experience with whatever projectors come up in the future, which will probably have even more resolution.
(Lozano-Hemmer in Boucher and Harrop 2012, accessed 7 May 2015.)
Marie-Pier Boucher and Patrick Harrop, ‘Interview with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’, Inflexions 5: Milieu, Techniques, Aesthetics, March 2012, pp.149–60, http://www.inflexions.org/n5_lozanohemmerhtml.html, accessed 7 May 2015.
María Fernández, Cosmopolitanism in Mexican Visual Culture, Austin 2013, pp.292–3.
Beryl Graham, New Collecting: Exhibiting and Audiences After New Media Art, Farnham 2014.
Supported by Christie’s.