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Mobilising phone art

Anna Davis

Anna Davis is a new media artist working with video, performance and interactive technologies. She is currently a PhD candidate at the iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research, University of NSW.

Usman Haque, Sky Ear (2004), outdoor installation Usman Haque, Sky Ear (2004), outdoor installation
photo Shade Abdul
Despite persistent rumblings from the scientific community that our brains are mutating, and the cries of long-suffering commuters forced to endure infuriating, one-sided conversations, it seems that mobile phones are here to stay, with global handset sales predicted to reach 730 million in 2005. The latest must-have gadget for consumers is the ‘3G phone’, or third-generation wireless phone, designed to receive and send high-speed multimedia. Its popularity has increased as handsets have become cheaper, with bigger screens and better cameras. The incredible uptake of ‘moblogging’ has also fuelled sales. The humble blog has evolved into the ‘moblog’ (mobile web log) which allows people to instantly publish texts, photos and videos online from anywhere, at anytime, using nothing more than mobiles connected to the internet ( Moblogs, 3G phones and other technologies that allow easy creation and publication of media are pushing a phenomenon called Life Caching, defined by as: "collecting, storing and displaying one’s entire life, for private use or for friends, family, even the entire world to peruse" (

Art as content

This new trend has left telcos with wallets bulging and an eagerness to take advantage of the growing demand to create and consume ‘mobile content.’ But it’s not only the commercial sector that’s getting excited. The potential for making art designed for or using mobile phones was recognised early by artists. Sections of the business community are now looking at this art as potential downloadable content. Nokia for example has a ‘Connect to Art’ site where consumers can download works by artists such as Nam June Paik straight to their mobiles.

Watching artists and telco marketing executives happily mingling at the Mobile Journeys forum in Sydney, I had the feeling I was watching 2 worlds collide. There was definitely something in the air, that distinct whiff that often accompanies new media and its colonisation by various interest groups. Perhaps mobile technology will be the catalyst for that ever elusive link between media artists and a permanent income stream? Money was certainly on everyone’s mind judging by the chatter overheard during forum breaks. One artist to another: "People are making mobile phone web sites in Japan and being paid 80% of every download profit by their telco. There are over 44 million mobile subscribers there; can you imagine the money you could make if you made a cool site?" One telco executive to a marketing executive: "In Japan there are over 44 million imode subscribers all paying download costs to their telco NTT docomo. Imagine the dollars we could make here if we could just harness some decent content."

Art as an earner

The-phone-book Limited is a UK group determined not to let commercial interests monopolise the mobile revolution. Their mission is to educate artists on how to create innovative content for mobile phones and maybe make a dollar while they’re at it. Ben Jones and Fee Plumley of the phone-book were recently invited to Australia to participate in a series of interstate forums and workshops by The Mobile Journeys Consortium, a group of not-for-profit bodies interested in developing mobile content skills in Australia. Having attended one of the phone-book’s Sydney ‘Making Movies’ workshops organised by dLux media arts, I can tell you their enthusiasm for mobile-phone art is infectious! The workshop’s participants could only watch bleary eyed as Fee and Ben launched into high gear at 9am on the first day, so excited about sharing their goals for sustainable mobile technology artistic practice that they completely forgot to do their planned ‘get to know you’ exercise. Their approach to teaching mobile content creation was direct, practical, fast paced, accessible and fun.

"Right now is the perfect time to experiment, while the area is still yet to be fully developed", Fee enthused. "It’s like a chicken and the egg situation", Ben suggested, "people think there’s no market for their content, but sometimes there’s no market because there is no content being produced yet." One of the phone-book’s key tenets is that the mobile platform is a new interactive display format, different from cinema, television, video and computers. It needs new content created specifically for its particular parameters. "It just doesn’t make sense to re-purpose old materials", said Ben, "mobile video must have its own grammar!" He suggested we are at a point similar to the beginnings of cinema, before film’s grammar was standardised.

Phone art manifestations

Film festivals have begun including sections for mobile-movies in their programs (eg Adelaide and St Kilda Film Festivals) and numerous ‘mobile’ art exhibitions, festivals and ‘locative media’ events are being held worldwide, including last year’s ISEA with its themes of networked, wearable and wireless experience (RT63, pp34-35). ISEA2004’s introduction declares that "mobile devices are turning from communication media to become expressive media, sites for arts, social engagement, and...entertainment."

Mobile phone art (like new media art) is diverse. The term covers many modes of art practice and is not necessarily used by all artists to describe their work. It includes art made using the mobile phone handset as a production tool but not necessarily for exhibition on mobile phones. The most obvious example in this category is camera-phone photography and video, but it also includes ring-tone creations such as Dialtones, A Telesymphony by Golan Levin (USA), a concert in which sound is produced by choreographed dialing and ringing of the audience’s mobile phones. There is also art using the emerging language of text messaging. KeyPadPomes by Australians Lucas Ihlein and notsusan involved the collection of hundreds of incoming and outgoing SMS poems which were then transcribed and hand typeset before being silk-screened onto cardboard, cut into postcards and hand distributed with a mobile phone number attached so more messages could be collected for a growing archive. This work explores the intersections between old and new writing technologies and asks how the ‘miniature space’ of SMS text messaging informs and alters our used of language.

Mobile phone art also encompasses works made using other media that are then exhibited or distributed on mobile phones, such as games, music, screen-savers and mobile-movies. Mobile or micro-movies are often made with high quality film and video production values and then downsized for tiny mobile screens. Mobile phone art also entails large installation works like Phonetic Faces by Jonah Brucker-Cohen (USA), which allowed people to contribute their own digital photos to a public video display, and then influence the dynamic collage of mixed images using their mobiles.

Mobile phone technology is used in mixed reality gaming, as seen in works by Blast Theory (RT60, p26) and is prevalent within ‘Locative Media’, an emerging field of creative practice that explores place, location and social networks using portable, networked and location-aware devices (such as mobile phones) to create social interfaces and artistic interventions. Examples can be seen in the social experiments of Aware (Finland), who were also recently in Australia as part of Mobile Journeys.

Beyond the handset

My own favorite form of mobile phone art escapes the constraints of the handset and moves into the cityscape, enveloping remote and local participants inside socially networked yet anonymous performative actions and architectural installations. Blinkenlights (2001-2003) by the Chaos Computer Club (Germany) transformed a building in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz into a giant interactive screen. Each of the building’s windows was made into a pixel using lights turned on and off by computer. People were able to send text messages or play a game of ‘pong’ on the huge screen using their mobile phones. Blinkenlights created a deep sense of community and local pride in the downtown Berlin area; a huge party had to be organised so the "friends of Blinkenlights" could farewell their beloved installation.

Amodal Suspension, Relational Architecture 8 (2003) by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (Mexico/Canada) was another large-scale, city-based work utilising mobile technology. During November 2003 people could send short text messages to each other using a mobile phone or web browser. The messages were then intercepted and encoded as a flashing light beam sequence using 20 massive, robotically controlled searchlights. Over 10,000 messages were sent and the project had over 400,000 online visitors from 94 different countries during a single month of operation. The sheer volume of public participation turned the sky over Japan’s YCAM Center into "a giant communication switchboard." This light show could be observed locally, as a video or as a series of still images on a networked screen.

Sky Ear (2004) by Usman Haque (UK) is a mesmerisingly beautiful, event-based work that consists of 1,000 floating helium balloons, each one embedded with a mobile phone and 6 coloured LED lights. Enclosed in a huge net attached to the ground with long cables, the balloons are allowed to float into the sky forming a giant glowing cloud. Each balloon’s phone listens out for electromagnetic waves, communicating these signals to other balloons using infra-red technology. This causes fluctuating patterns of undulating colour to sweep across the balloon network. Viewers can use their phones to dial into the cloud and listen to the sounds of the sky. In doing so they change the electromagnetic environment, which in turn affects the colour and brightness of the balloons.

These art works explore the simultaneously public and intimate characteristics of mobile messaging. They scratch the surface of what’s possible with mobile phone art and related technologies. Each work allows the public to directly and discreetly participate in a dynamic visualisation of the information network that has infiltrated every aspect of our lives.

More information about Mobile Journeys and FutureScreen Mobile can be found at: and

Anna Davis is a new media artist working with video, performance and interactive technologies. She is currently a PhD candidate at the iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research, University of NSW.

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 28

© Anna Davis; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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