'Cell Phone': Art in the Palm of Your Hand

With "Cell Phone Disco," viewers can use their cellphones' signal strength to control hundreds of lights. (By Max Glanville)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2007

At some point during a recent tour of the Contemporary Museum's "Cell Phone: Art and the Mobile Phone," I started to become aware of two overpowering feelings: paranoia and technological inadequacy.

The paranoia hit while watching a short film documenting the performance of an interactive game called "Uncle Roy All Around You," by the London-based collective Blast Theory. It took me a few viewings to "get" how the game worked, but eventually it became clear. Players -- some sitting online in front of computer screens, with others walking the streets of the city armed with mobile devices -- try to locate a character called Uncle Roy by exchanging information with one another. Key to game strategy is the capability of such location-detecting technology as the Global Positioning System.

As the Contemporary's executive director and exhibition curator, Irene Hofmann, noted, we now have the ability to know where someone is at any given moment. Yikes.

The feeling that someone is looking over your shoulder first kicked in while I was playing with the interactive installation "Cell Phone Disco," by the Amsterdam-based collaborative Informationlab. (And, yes, if you're getting the feeling that a lot of the artists in this show aren't individuals, but groups with kooky names, you're right.) Using your cellphone's signal strength to activate panels studded with hundreds of red LEDs, "Disco" creates a visual metaphor for the invisible technology that follows us seemingly everywhere. It's eye candy as well as a little creepy. I also found myself a tiny bit jealous of the ability of Hofmann's wireless carrier (Cingular) to light up the board like crazy, while mine (Verizon) produced only a feeble trickle.

But my real tech-lust came while watching some of the micro-mini-videos commissioned, starting in 2004, by Nokia, the cellphone giant and -- no surprise -- one of the show's sponsors. Participants in the "Connect to Art" initiative include such art stars as William Wegman and David Salle, but I especially liked the interpretive dances to anger, love, joy, sorrow and fear featured in Finnish artist Kati Aberg's little clips (free and downloadable to your mobile phone, like the others, from http://www.nokia.com/art/mobile). Guess what though? They only work on late-model Nokias, such as the high-end N-series. (Note to Santa Claus: I've been a very good boy so far this year.) Grainier, lower-tech video is at the heart of Beatrice Valentine Amrhein's "Videos Lustre 027-2007," a sculpture consisting of 27 cellphones dangling, like a bunch of grapes, from an armature as low-resolution clips play continuously. Human anatomy is the subject of the work by the artist, trained as a painter, who clearly appreciates both the lovely, impressionistic visuals and the commentary on how mobile devices have become extensions of our bodies.

"Cell:block," by the Baltimore-based group URBANtells, lets museum visitors e-mail their own cellphone photographs to a constantly updated patchwork of images projected onto the gallery wall. I like the un-curated democracy of this high-tech "exquisite corpse," but when I was there, less than a week after the show's opening, the visual interest of the images submitted so far, was, to be charitable, less than compelling. I hope that, over time, that will improve as the database of images grows.

Another power-to-the-people piece comes courtesy of Paul Notzold and Frederico Hatoum, whose "TXTual Healing" invites visitors to send text messages in answer to the question "What are we afraid of?" A few seconds after hitting "Send," that word or phrase will appear on the wall, along with a photograph purporting to represent someone else who shares that fear. During my visit, a young woman sent in the words "Loving Mark," which soon popped up beneath a photo of a total stranger. Nice to know she's not alone.

That idea -- that we are all connected to one another in a world in which technology often seems to heighten our sense of isolation -- is actually the show's not-so-subtle subtext. Sure, there's a little bit of Big Brother in some of the ways cellphones allow us to be tracked. But it can also be empowering. In the end, that was the ultimate point of the "Uncle Roy" game, in which hundreds of players (all strangers) ended up making 12-month commitments to be available to one another -- by cellphone, naturally -- during times of crisis.

Not to be a corporate shill, but it kind of gives new meaning to Nokia's advertising slogan, "Connecting People." Whether we like it or not.

CELL PHONE: ART AND THE MOBILE PHONE Through April 22. Contemporary Museum, 100 W. Centre St., Baltimore. 410-783-5720. http://www.contemporary.org. Open Wednesday-Sunday noon to 5, Thursdays until 7. $5 suggested donation; $3 students.

Public programs associated with the exhibition include:

Feb. 22 at 6:30 Gallery talk. Steve Bradley, James Rouvelle and Joe Reinsel of the Baltimore-based collaborative URBANtells talk about their work and lead a performance of their interactive photo installation "cell:block."

March 1 at 6:30 Curator's talk. Curator Irene Hofmann leads a tour of the exhibition.

March 15 at 6:30 A demonstration of new interactive, cellphone-based works by students from Maryland Institute College of Art's Interactive Media department.

March 31 from 1 to 2:30 Tactical Sound Garden Toolkit Workshop. Artist Mark Shepard walks participants through the steps for setting up, configuring and listening to a virtual soundscape in downtown Baltimore. Visitors are encouraged to bring a WiFi-enabled laptop or PDA to the March 31 event (and, naturally, their cellphones to the other events).

© 2007 The Washington Post Company