The Art of the Cell Phone

Toymakers, admen, and the avant garde

In a dim corner of a downtown Baltimore art gallery, there's a peculiar piece called Cell Phone Disco. The artists -- an "Amsterdam-based new media collaborative known as Informationlab" -- set up several grids of red LED lights, which are supposed to light up if you walk by them while making a phone call.

I say "supposed to" because try as we might, neither I nor anyone with me could get the system to work as advertised: Lights periodically flickered on or off, but their behavior didn't seem connected to anything any of us was doing. I suppose this might have been a deliberate artistic statement on the frustrations of losing your signal. But I doubt it.

Informationlab's installation is part of an exhibit, Cell Phone: Art and the Mobile Phone, that's on display at Baltimore's Contemporary Museum through April 22. I found it diverting enough, though not as diverting as it is to walk through a toy store or to watch a bunch of Super Bowl commercials. To see this show is to see a series of artists not quite managing to be as innovative or clever as the people who make games, ads, and other ephemeral products of the early 21st century. Cell Phone Disco is basically a toy -- one of those elaborate electronic toys with inscrutable instructions. As an aesthetic achievement, it is somewhat less successful than my 18-month-old daughter's Double Fun Giggle Ball: a Janus-faced sphere, half Ernie and half Bert, that shakes and laughs when she squeezes it.

Even more telling was the series of cell-sized videos called "Connect to Art," the Finnish phone company Nokia's attempt to play patron. Since 2004, Nokia has invited video artists to create brief clips "made expressly for viewing on mobile devices"; these are not just on display in the Baltimore museum but can be downloaded from the company's website and kept on your own phone like a little Mona Lisa in your wallet.

I've long believed that the first criterion when judging an experimental film or video should be Is this more interesting than watching a screensaver? So I'm not sure what to make of a mini-movie that's expressly designed to be a screensaver. I'll just note that these tend to be 20 seconds or less in length, just enough time to establish an image (as Ai Weiwei does in Candles) or to tell a joke (as Osmo Rauhala does in The Nature of Numbers, which feels like an existential beer ad). Their extreme brevity keeps the clips from getting dull. But with a few happy exceptions -- notably some entries by the late Nam June Paik, the godfather of video art -- they're too short to be interesting either.

Or maybe the problem is length and width, not time. Small may be beautiful, but squinting is hard on the eyes. These were supposedly designed with the cell phone's tiny display in mind, but even so most of them would look much better blown up to TV or cinema size. (Indeed, one of Paik's contributions was recycled from a piece he did for a larger screen in the early '70s.) Some of the images in Nokia's pamphlet about its project look nicer than the videos they're taken from, simply because they're larger. The average amateur YouTube clip, crude and stupid though it might be, displays more innate awareness of the demands of a very small screen than most of the "Connect to Art" videos.

In a more ponderous show, these flaws would be fatal. Fortunately, most of the artists don't pretend to be aiming for anything more than trivial, playful fun, and a few of them manage to hit the target. (I got a chuckle out of Angie Walker's Clip.fm, which translates sentences like "Your dog got hit by a car" and "I have crab lice and I am an alcoholic" into text-message animations.) The trick is not to think of the crafts on display as art that fails to make a substantial statement. Think of them as toys and games that no one would mass-produce. Then go to Toys R Us and pretend you're in an especially lively avant-garde gallery.

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