Me, My Cell and I: Can You Hear Me Now?

Signals from visitors' phones trigger LED lights to dance in the
Signals from visitors' phones trigger LED lights to dance in the "Cell Phone Disco" display at Baltimore's Contemporary Museum. (Contemporary Museum)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 17, 2007


A bunch of young men and women in the Contemporary Museum are wielding evolution's greatest gift -- opposable thumbs -- with an agility Darwin would admire. Digits fly as each person responds to the anonymous text messages being sent to their Nokias, Sony Ericssons or LGs.

The barrage of questions are part of a one-night-only performance of student-made, cellphone-based artwork. Called "Mood," it is the creation of a trio of Maryland Institute College of Art students.

Willing museum visitors are handed business cards upon entering the gallery telling them to send the word "mood" as a text message to a particular phone number in 240 area code. A few seconds later, a text message pops up on their mobiles. It comes in the form of a question.

"3/15/07 6:00 pm . . . Text: How at home are you right now? 1 -- very little, 5 very much"

This visitor decides the situation merits a 3.

Another text follows. "Are you very careful to whom you express your love?" There are five others that amount to a telephonic version of eHarmony. As numeric replies accumulate in the artwork's computer, a real-time image screens the word "MOOD," which changes color along with audience disposition. Tonight, the mood of these 70-odd visitors, many MICA students and their supporters, is predominantly blue.

Turns out this very current media art is based on that old hippie staple, the mood ring. Like that just-for-kicks bauble, "Mood" doesn't make claims to empirical analysis. In fact, Michael Ries, a 33-year-old MICA senior who is one of the work's authors, explains that "everything comes together and washes out." By the law of averages, one person's good mood cancels another's black one. The data collected in "Mood" collapses into a familiar bell curve. Ries and his two collaborators, Yeohyun Ahn and Joel Bobeck, hope to create an ever-expanding databank for future cellphone works.

Though cellphones are tonight's subject, they are just one example of interactive media -- others depend on the Internet and other electronic links -- that make up the ferment that is today's technology art scene.

It is in its infancy. At least partly, the art is about connecting with strangers. For many contemporary art theorists, art is no longer an object or even an idea, but a relationship. Interfacing via mobile devices is a way to spark those relationships in the gallery. And the ubiquity of the cellphone gives the medium a certain populist edge.

If nothing else, we have our phones in common.

"Mood" was performed at the museum Thursday night as part of the Contemporary Museum's larger "Cell Phone: Art and the Mobile Phone" exhibition, which runs through April 22. The show includes artists and collectives manipulating mobile phone technology in a variety of ways; Golan Levin conducted a cellphone symphony while Amsterdam-based collective Informationlab captures visitor phone signals that trigger dancing LED lights.

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