In the Pulse Room, part of the exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, lights flicker to the beat of the heart of a person holding two metal rods. (Cathy Carver)

At Rafael Lozano- ­Hemmer’s new exhibit, the art comes alive but only if you follow one rule: You must participate. But don’t worry, you won’t be graded.

The exhibit is called “Pulse,” and it opened last week at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. It has three installations that create art by collecting visitors’ biometric data. (Biometric data is information that identifies your body. A fingerprint is one example.) ­Lozano-Hemmer uses electronic sensors to gather a person’s data and project it through lights, screens and water pumps to create art. He said the purpose of this exhibit is to show people that while we have our differences, we all share a heartbeat.

“What I like about this is that the art is fundamentally out of my control,” says Lozano-Hemmer, a Mexican Canadian artist.

“Pulse Index” is the first installation visitors walk into at the Hirshhorn. It is a panoramic view of 10,000 fingerprints that are collected from visitors through a microscope. When a finger is inserted in the microscope, a fingerprint scan will show up on the wall among thousands of others. Each time a scan is taken, it knocks an old one off the wall. More than 100,000 fingerprints have been part of this installation, which has traveled around the world.

“Pulse Tank,” the second part of the installation, uses visitors’ heartbeats to create rippling waves projected onto the walls in a light show. Scientists use ripple tanks to study how waves work.

“The light show is unique; it will never repeat the same thing because it is not a video. It’s all generated by amplifying the electrical activity of the heart,” says Lozano-Hemmer.


A girl holds the metal handles while watching a lightbulb flicker to the beat of her heart in the “Pulse Room” in 2010 in Manchester, England. (Peter Mallet)

Lozano-Hemmer was a chemist before he became an artist. When his wife was pregnant with twins, he listened to their hearts through an ultrasound machine at a doctor visit. He asked the doctor to place a monitor on each baby and noticed each beat was different. This inspired him to learn more about how technology and science can be visualized into art.

“Under all this work is the desire to see. I would like people to come to the museum with a sense of wonder to visualize data and metrics,” he said.

“Pulse Room” is the last installation. Visitors walk into a room filled with more than 200 flickering lightbulbs. When two metal rods are held with both hands, it records a person’s heartbeat. That recording is transmitted into a flashing lightbulb. The bulb blinks to the rhythm and speed of that heartbeat. The room roars and rumbles with sounds of different beats.

In the first few days, the heartbeats were a mix of those from Hirshhorn visitors and those who saw the exhibit this year in Seoul, Korea. But “Pulse” continues to evolve. Lozano-Hemmer said he’s excited to see how the unique biometric data from thousands of visitors will collectively turn into a masterpiece.

If you go

What: “Pulse” interactive exhibit.

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Independence Avenue and Seventh Street in Southwest Washington.

When: Through April 28. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

How much: Free.

For more information: A parent can visit hirshhorn.si.edu or call
202-633-1000.