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Cell Phone Tries To Locate The Creative Output Of Technology's Invasion Of Our Daily Lives

RAISING THE BAR?: Baltimore Artist Collective URBANtells' "Cell:Block."

By Jason Hughes | Posted 4/11/2007

Cell Phone: Art and the Mobile Phone

At the Contemporary Museum through April 22

Featuring an international roster of both emerging and established artists, Cell Phone: Art and the Mobile Phone presents a range of recent works that explore how wireless technology is being utilized as an emerging art form. All of the exhibited works are intended to use specific features and technologies such as camera phones, video phones, global positioning systems, Bluetooth technology, ring-tone sounds, and messaging. By using this technology, several of the works naturally call for a high level of audience participation. In a few cases, this interaction is experienced in real time, while more than half of these interactive works exist, instead, as documentation from previous installations and performances. Although one artist uses mobile devices sculpturally, the remainder of the noninteractive works simply use the mobile phones' video features to present short video art clips.

As one of three major corporate sponsors for this exhibition, Nokia has sought to help artists find new ways in which to distribute their work and pioneer artistic creation. A primary example of this would be the Connect to Art initiative, where a collection of emerging and established artists have been invited to produce short films intended to be displayed on video phones. Many of the films on view at the Contemporary are intriguing pieces in and of themselves, most notably the works of Yang Fudong, Ai Weiwei, and Brian Alfred.

For example, Fudong's "One Knife, One Gun" trilogy features two young Asian men casually dressed in collared shirts and ties who eventually also wear removable long gray beards reminiscent of old kung fu masters. As the trilogy unfolds, the two go from encounter to encounter in city streets facing off with one another in a style that is closer to a butoh performance than martial-arts sparring. The costumes and engagement level suggest the layers of make-believe in everyday life and how people perceive themselves as participants within this daily practice. Weiwei's "Water Ink" simply films drops of black ink hitting the camera's lens, allowing the blotching ink to disperse in mesmerizing organic patterns that look like living cellular formations--perhaps a little tongue in cheek but visually captivating nonetheless. Alfred's "Radar" animation graphically illustrates the unseen "information" radiating out from the cellular towers that surround us, playfully and elegantly featuring technology's physical presence in our daily lives.

The downside to these--and all the other well-made Connect to Art shorts-- is that, first, in almost every case the scale and medium appears to be an afterthought for the artists. Secondly, bookending each and every clip is a plug for the Nokia Nseries phone (the device you watch the video on). As a result, the video art clips become more akin to internet advertising campaigns, further integrating art, life, and technology.

Beatrice Valentine Amrhein's sculptural work "VIDEOS lustre 027-2007" is totally composed of imagery shot with a video phone. This piece--a braided cluster of video phones hanging from the ceiling in a chandelier of short, pixilated clips featuring closeups of a woman's face and body--purposefully references that cell phones have become extensions of our bodies. While the work itself looks bluntly obvious, it does ask you to consider the extent to which digital technology has transformed how we produce images and the ways in which wireless communication has transformed our selves.

Probably the greatest potential and hurdle for this exhibition would have to be how the integration of wireless technology into our daily lives allows the audience to become an interactive component of the work. In many ways this exhibition is unprecedented because it doesn't rely on the audience's passive subjectivity to engage the work but equally depends on their level of involvement to proactively contribute toward the development of a project (provided they have a cell phone). This level of interaction is critical to the works of Golan Levin, Family Filter, URBANtells, Angie Waller, Paul Notzold, Mark Shepard, Steve Bradley, and Blast Theory. However, this is also provided that the audience can participate rather than simply watching or listening to documentation of a previous audio/visual interactive performance, which is how half of the "interactive" works are exhibited.

Several of these performances appear to have been interesting enough in their original context, such as Levin's, "Dialtones: A Telesymphony," which was originally performed in 2001 at Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, as a carefully choreographed concert using the audience's cell-phone ringers; or Notzold's "TXTual Healing," which consists of multiple word-bubble projections on the side of buildings that passers-by can send text messages to, subsequently creating an ongoing public dialogue. Unfortunately, the crux of each of these pieces--time, space, and experience--is disregarded completely as a post-interactive document, consequently downplaying how impressive these pieces may actually be.

On the other hand, Shepard's "Tactical Sound Garden Toolkit" really ups the interactive ante. With most of the interactive pieces featured in Cell Phone, the interaction doesn't go beyond sending text messages and waiting for the audio/visual results. Shepard's piece is essentially a parasite that feeds on the Wi-Fi network, in theory spreading itself across the globe as its participants feed it. By using Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices, participants can create "virtual soundscapes within the urban environment" by planting sounds or pruning existing ones. Once a "sound garden" is planted participants can listen to it by following a map through the city where these hot spots exist. Presumably, within cities where there is a dense network of wireless transmitters, someone could walk all day visiting various "sound gardens" spread across the city.

In many ways, Cell Phone was surely a challenge to curate and is equally difficult to recognize the value of at first glance. The strength of this exhibition is best expressed through the level of interaction and distribution that is intended within the works. Because the nature of each piece primarily relies upon the technical methodology of the medium, though, too often your experience is disregarded for inflated concepts and processes. While the mechanics have obviously become more complex, the application hasn't moved that far beyond the function of a remote control or joystick. Although cell phones and wireless technology have certainly revolutionized the ability to share information, this exhibition only begins to communicate the creative potential of this ongoing process.

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