“Pulse Park” Illuminates the Beat of New York

Artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer Uses Technology to Stress Interactivity, Unity


The central lawn glows under the flickering spotlights lining its perimeter. (Megan Stillwell/The Observer)

Published: November 13, 2008

In this age of mobile technology, do you ever feel cut off from the people around you? Are you sick of walking down the street and wondering whether the guy in the hoodie next to you is crazy or just on his Bluetooth headset? Do you find yourself questioning how great the iPod really is as you ride up an elevator listening to someone else’s music turned up to full volume?

There’s no doubt that modern technology can seem insulating and isolating. Fortunately, one artist has the solution to our increasingly automaton-esque existence. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has ingeniously harnessed technology to illuminate the fundamental unity of humanity in his latest installation art exhibit, “Pulse Park.”

Wandering into any city park after dark doesn’t usually seem like the best idea. But you can now leave these fears behind you when you visit Madison Square Park, located between Broadway and Madison Avenue and East 23rd to 26th Streets, after dusk. The park’s main lawn is now alight with the beat of New York—literally.

Lozano-Hemmer has set up a series of 200 individual spotlights in an oval around the perimeter of the lawn. At the south end of the oval, individuals log their heartbeats at a kiosk. The machine works on the same principle as the heart rate monitor you might find attached to the treadmill at your gym—you grip two handles for 15 seconds. The difference between this and the gym? Instead of giving you a number, all 200 lights begin to pulse in time with your heartbeat; then, your pulse becomes just one of the 200 lights that flash continuously across the lawn. At any given moment, you can see a visible manifestation of the heartbeats of the last 200 people to register at the kiosk.

What makes this lightshow truly spectacular isn’t just the environmentally-friendly technology it utilizes—the artist clarifies that the whole thing runs on renewable biodiesel fuel; rather, it’s the sense of connection it is meant to inspire. As you wait your turn to register your pulse, you get the chance to see those of the people ahead of you—and if you’re lucky, you just might make some new friends. Interactivity is key to this installation—a welcome change for the perpetually plugged-in Crackberry set.

The inspiration behind this innovative use of technology?

“When my wife was pregnant with twins and you listened to their hearts beating, there was this beautiful syncopation, like minimalist music,” Lozano-Hemmer told New York Magazine. Indeed, the exhibit provokes thoughts of composer Steve Reich, another muse to Lozano-Hemmer.

The installation has a few quirks to it that improve its impact. If it’s quiet enough, you can’t help but notice the hum of the generator that powers the entire display. It begins to echo your pulse, as the lights blink rhythmically, expanding the experience to your sense of hearing as well as your sight. Additionally, the heart rate monitor proves to be extremely resilient. In the spirit of artistic experimentation, one can buddy up with a friend and log both your heart rates simultaneously. If two people grab one handle each, the monitor will create a hybrid pulse—even if it does take a few seconds longer than usual. This results in a new and unique visual rhythm, like a call-and-response jazz improvisation between the
two beats.

Unfortunately, there are a few flaws with the execution of the show. Although Lozano-Hemmer envisioned two kiosks at either end of the lawn, only one was actually installed. Moreover, park patrons cannot wander through the beams of light, also part of the artist’s original vision; plastic fencing prevents people from entering the lawn, but also prevents them from tampering with the light fixtures.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is a Mexican-Canadian artist who uses electronic media to create public art installations throughout the world. “Pulse Park” is the latest in his series of light-based projects and will be on view in Madison Square Park until Nov. 16. The lights go on at dusk every night and turn off at 10 p.m.