The Hirshhorn’s Pulse Exhibit Delves Inside the Body, Yet Remains Surface-Level

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Beret Optional is a biweekly column exploring museums, art, and the way we access it in DC.

by Hannah Malina

I’m waiting in line, examining other people’s fingerprints--some glisten with moisture, others swirl in perfect ovals. At one point, someone says, perhaps too loudly, “that one has a big slit all the way through it!” and we all look up to see a disfigured thumb, but a second later its replaced by a new thumbprint, this one an even spiral of beige.

We are in Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Pulse exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum, and I, along with around 30 others, are waiting to submit our fingerprints to sensors that will project them 20 feet high onto a screen in front of us.

In subsequent rooms, heart rate sensors like the ones on elliptical machines will use the rhythm of our pulse for tricks, like manipulating water and choreographing light shows. The exhibit strikes a balance between variability and consistency, individuality and anonymity.

Though I’m aware of the slight changes in the rhythm of heartbeats and the shapes of fingerprints, the differences quickly become hard to distinguish, and by the time I’m at the front of the line, I’m mostly focused on what my own print will look like. I put my thumb up to the screen and feel exposed as it projects my thumbprint and flashes my abnormally fast heart rate, though in truth, I don’t think anyone else is really paying attention.

In the next room, the ripples in a simulated pool of water mirror our heart rates, the pattern becoming increasingly intricate as more people submit their fingers to sensors, causing the ripples to interact. “We are all connected,” I pithily think to myself. I grasp for another conclusion, but I feel like I’m missing something. What I notice instead are people’s shadows interrupting the projection as they walk through the room, and the impatience in people’s faces as they stand in line for the sensors.  

Pulse is the Hirshhorn’s largest interactive technology exhibit to date, and it certainly is a breathtaking and literally larger-than-life display. There’s nothing wrong with flashy, technologically dazzling attractions--they’re fun to visit, and we all need to up our Instagram game somehow. But in terms of changing perspectives or telling a story, I felt the exhibit fell flat. I tried to feel something, to dig deep and figure out what this exhibit was making me think about, but I came up empty. It was just sort of cool.

In Lozano-Hemmer’s artist statement, he says, “At a time when we are seeing ethnic nationalisms on the rise, dividing people along simplistic categorizations, it is critical to misuse these mechanisms of control to create connective, anonymous landscapes of belonging.” And yes, we all have fingerprints that are unique but similar, we all have heartbeats that pump blood through our body at different rates. It’s a message we’ve heard a thousand times, delivered in a new and visually stunning way, but I’m not sure what it adds to the conversation, or whether the reductive approach of boiling people down to their basic bodily functions is especially productive. I would rather see art that embraces people’s differences on a holistic level, their conscious, visible expressions of themselves as individuals, because we are so much more than our biodata. Maybe that’s what Lozano-Hemmer was trying to show all along, but I found it pretty hard to tell.

In truth, the main thing that I took away from this exhibit is that I might need to see a doctor--a 97 bpm heart rate isn’t cute.