State of the Artists
By David Pescovitz, Thu Apr 22 12:45:00 GMT 2004

Research laboratories are the avant-garde art galleries of the twenty-first century. That shouldn't come as a surprise though. Art is a lens through which engineers can raise tough questions about the science fiction that they create, and we inhabit.

Do we drive technology or have we become just passengers? How do we navigate a reality where the lines between the virtual and real are blurred? What is our relationship to our environments, and each other, in an increasingly mediated world?

These questions have been at the heart of electronic art since its birth in the 1960s. It was then that Bell Laboratories Telephone engineer Billy Kluver collaborated with future-minded artists like John Cage and Jean Tinguely on groundbreaking works incorporating, and often critiquing, technology's state-of-the-art. Of course, that tradition continued through the dawn of the digital age and the emergence of the Web. And now it's rising in the vast spectrum of wireless telecommunications.

Local Hertzian Culture

In fact, you'll see it in the sky if you look above London's National Maritime Museum during next month's lunar eclipse. Hovering above the 17th century Queen's House, a surreal electric "cloud" of mobile phones and helium balloons called Sky Ear will connect participants with the electromagnetic ether surrounding us.

"The electromagnetic environment is a physical space, but it's beyond our tangible sensing," says Usman Haque, the experimental architect behind the project. "Technology like mobile phones are making us more aware of it, but we have no idea how it looks or sounds."

To get acquainted with the hidden mysteries of the wireless spectrum, Haque built a 25-meter net of 1,000 helium balloons. The balloons are embedded with mobile phones and tiny sensors that measure the levels of electromagnetic radiation at various frequencies. Readings from those sensors trigger colored high-intensity colored LEDs within the cloud. As police radios, television signals, distant storms, and other radio transmissions alter what Haque calls the "local hertzian culture," the cloud flickers in response.

Of course, like any architect, Haque is interested in how individuals interact with the space he's working within. Visitors to the installation are invited to call the cloud phones directly. What they'll hear are "sferics" and "whistlers," the ambient symphony of radio waves that would be our perpetual soundtrack if, as NASA puts it, humans had "antennas instead of ears." Of course, calling a particular phone alters the "hertzian topography" in that region of the balloon cloud, affecting its glow. "You can enter into something like a conversation with the cloud," Haque says.

Collective Cacophony

While Sky Ear encourages mobile phone users to become intimate with the electromagnetic spectrum, Family Filter's simpleTEXT multimedia performance urges us to reconsider how wireless technology affects our interactions with each other.

"People bring mobile phones into public spaces, but they separate you from that space," says co-creator Jonah Brucker-Cohen. "The phone rings, you answer, and you're immediately taken out of the conversation or experience that you were in."

Scheduled to be performed next month in Gent, Belgium, simpleTEXT is a multi-screen spectacle driven by audience participation through mobile phones, PDAs, and laptop computers. Audience members submit text messages that drive a speech synthesizer, the real-time generation of cacophonic music, and a cut-up barrage of images.

"I'm interested in people using mobile tools for large-scale interaction in a public space," says Brucker-Cohen, a Research Fellow in the Human Connectedness Group at Media Lab Europe. "We want the people involved in the performance to feel that they've used their input devices to contribute to a collective output."

simpleTEXT is only the latest of Brucker-Cohen's artworks exploring the complex relationships between humans and networks. Last year, he created Wi-Fi Hog, a system for hijacking public access wireless hotspots. The inexpensive laptop-based system enables anyone to jam a Wi-Fi network, permitting only his or her packets to flow freely into the node. The work, Brucker-Cohen explains, was a reaction to "the battle over free wireless spectrum where corporate pay-per-use and free community networks are fighting for signal dominance in public spaces."

"Wi-Fi Hog is really tactical media tool for controlling and subverting any claims of ownership," he says.

Haque and Brucker-Cohen are not the first, nor the last artists to employ mobile technology as both the media and the message of their work. From a telesymphony of ringtones to SMS-controlled public art, the intersection of art and mobile technology is one of today's most fertile grounds for creative expression and social commentary.

"I think that art recently has reasserted itself as a creative research tool," Haque says. "It is artists who are these days best able to explore the changing relationship of people to their environments, interactions between people and objects, between objects and spaces."