A volunteer walks past a gallery of fingerprints in the “Pulse Index” room, the first of three installations in “Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Pulse” at the Hirshhorn. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

When I log on to my computer, I’m used to seeing requests for two-factor authentication or notifications regarding updated privacy policies. But seeing a disclaimer about the security of my personal data on the walls of the Hirshhorn? That gave me pause.

I was walking into “Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Pulse,” where the artwork is powered by visitors’ fingerprints and heartbeats. Hand sensors and finger scanners collect the varying rhythms of visitors’ pulses, which are then visualized in the exhibition. Graphic ripples of water, dramatic amplified sounds and a minimalist network of hanging blinking lights all depict the universal equalizer, the heartbeat.

Though the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is no stranger to participatory exhibits, this is its first show that uses biometric information. How would visitors respond to the unusual request? I spoke to some on a recent afternoon to see if they were bothered by the idea of contributing their personal data for the sake of art.


Fingerprint sensors are found throughout “Pulse,” as the artwork is powered by visitor’s fingerprints and heartbeats. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
'Pulse Index'

When you enter the first of the three installations, “Pulse Index,” you’ll see a glowing digital grid stretched across the walls. Look closely, and you’ll realize that you’re looking at thousands of fingerprints, updated in real time. Place your finger on a sensor, which reads your heartbeat and scans your fingerprint. As yours is added, the earliest visitor’s is erased, and the cycle continues.

Anne Tilghman, a painter from Chevy Chase, appreciated the intimacy of the exercise. “It’s like everybody’s skin all together. Almost like if you participate, it puts you into intimate contact with other people,” she said.

On the wall, a sign reads, “To protect participant privacy, no other personal data is collected, making identification impossible.”

Shena Jocuns of Fairfax, Va., said she wasn’t too concerned about privacy because the Hirshhorn is not gathering data.“As far as we know,” joked her 12-year-old son, Joshua.

Anderson Sullivan, 23, from the Navy Yard neighborhood, was more worried about washing her hands after touching the sensor that so many had touched before her.

Tilghman said she found it interesting that she immediately thought of security when she saw the fingerprint scanner, “which is a sign of the changing times — that we’re so paranoid these days.”


In the “Pulse Tank” room, visitors’ heartbeats are translated into water ripples via sensors. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
'Pulse Tank'

The second room, “Pulse Tank,” has three sleek-looking pools of water. As you place your hands or finger into the reader, your heartbeat is translated into subtle ripples. This unique pattern is projected onto the walls, giving the room a marine atmosphere.

Austin Wu, 24, a medical student at George Washington University, was struck by seeing “something that’s so basic physiology being incorporated into a piece of art.”

Here, no two experiences will look the same. The visualizations are constantly changing to reflect different combinations of pulses.

Victoria Lee, 26, an elementary art teacher who lives in Fairfax County, said she felt honored by the art. “It’s nice to see how you can still participate and be in the art,” she said. “I feel included. It means something to me in a special way.”


Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s "Pulse Room," pictured at the Musée d’Art Contemporaine in Montreal in 2014. (Richard-Max Tremblay)
'Pulse Room'

Last, you’ll enter the most visually dramatic area, “Pulse Room.” Walk through a pitch-black corridor with a grid of 211 hanging lightbulbs — not unlike a scene out of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” Each light represents one pulse. Listen to the sounds of the amplified collected heartbeats filling the space; notice their contrasting tempos.

Line up to hold on to the sensor, which adds your pulse to the collection. This process sometimes takes a few moments. (Wallflowers beware: As you wait for your pulse to be added, you may be the center of attention for a few more seconds than feels comfortable.) Like in “Pulse Index,” the earliest heartbeat is removed as yours is added.

Johnny Casiano, 25, from Northern Virginia, appreciated that at “Pulse,” “everything is based off your own identity — art is created off your own being. I think it’s in touch with how things are moving in modern times with fingerprinting and face recognition.”

If you go
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Pulse

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW. hirshhorn.si.edu.

Dates: Through April 28.

Admission: Free.