Archive for June, 2009

three 12 second films

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Three 12 second films selected from the #secondhand show on Each was a response to a text prompt sent out by Christi Nielsen, the show’s organizer. These prompts were taken from twitter messages. At the beginning of each video you will see an abbreviated version of the prompt. I made a total of five videos for the show, and these are my three favorites.

Mobile Technologies, Intimacy, Collaboration, and Art - an Interview

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

This is an extended version of a two part interview conducted by Chris Jagers and published in Glass Tire.

People inherently care about communication, but why is “mobility” so profound?

Yes, but they also care about information and expression. Increasingly, these things are shared and related to place.  For a long time the online world (and its data and resources) was disconnected from the everyday world beyond the desktop. The traditional Internet experience assumed you were sitting somewhere and it didn’t particularly care where you were.  We normally consider the data we create and consume as being on a hard drive or “out there” somewhere on the Internet. This is because the Internet was designed around computers that didn’t move, and were unaware of their location in real world terms. Even laptops never established a relationship with physical place.  With the emerging generation of mobile platforms, everything has changed. With this change brings shifts in perspective and expectation about “where” our media is, and where we are. It also changes how we think of our connections to other people, and the nature of these connections. In a sense, you are carrying your network of people around with you all the time. You are co-present with them and able to share a variety of information, both intimate and environmental. In some ways this group is like an extension of your own mind. Thoughts and ideas can be developed in real time among a group of collaborators.

I keep hearing the phrase “mobile augmented reality.” What does this mean and what is a simple example of this?

Augmented reality is basically the idea being able to see overlays of information on the display of your mobile device. The information is geo located (specific to your gps location) and can be anything from pragmatic information, like who is in a building, to game content, to virtual art installations. All of the data is invisible until you look through your device, which detects where you are, where you are looking, and then overlays the appropriate images and text over the scene. When you look though the device via the camera virtual objects can be overlaid on real ones based on position and direction.

But augmented reality is also a way for artists to annotate the world, leaving their own images, video, text, conversations, and objects in a particular location. Our own project, called Placethings, is in development and will be a tool for location based art, cultural and historical content. For a 3D example, take a look at a new product called Layar.

What new hardware innovations are you looking forward to?

In terms of technology, some of the most interesting things to look forward to are the addition of a variety of sensors to the mobile device. This further contributes to the intimacy factor. We recently did a project with Ericsson where, working with our colleagues in the Computer Science and Engineering department at UT Dallas, developed a body sensor network. The network would transmit body data like heart rate, temperature, and other information though the network and to the web and mobile devices. The network was installed on people racing bicycles so they and their coaches could monitor body states and later, review the information to improve performance. These kinds of sensors, and many others, will be showing up as bluetooth connections to your mobile device. I think it is an interesting area for performance and installation artists to explore.

What are the biggest challenges to this wave of innovation?

Technology is not in short supply. Creativity and imagination are, particularly collaborative forms. A creative, collaborative environment is difficult to cultivate and all too easy to destroy. Our struggle is to encourage a climate of openness and shared knowledge in an environment that integrates people from different disciplines both inside and outside the university.

Creativity can be applied in a number of ways. I was trained, like many who may read this, as a fine artist. This is a particular form of applied creativity. The way I learned it it was a solitary effort and people often protected their ideas.  Even the layout of the studios where I went to to graduate school (Claremont in California) were like silos, focused on individual achievement. Solo work will continue to be important, but our charge is to work in the emerging media space. Doing this successfully requires a shared form of creativity. In the new Arts & Technology building we are designing on the University of Texas at Dallas campus there are no solo spaces. Everything is about enabling group work, public spaces, and encouraging serendipitous encounters within the community.

I am involved as of this writing in a collaborative art and performance project that takes place online in social network sites like twitter and The group, called inter.sect is run by UT Dallas MFA graduate Christi Nielsen and involves responding to text and video prompts sent over twitter and 12 The artists, many of whom have another primary form of work, respond and post videos and audio from their mobile devices.

Art making is usually thought of as Intimate. Mobile devices are usually thought of as a mass consumer product. But you combine both, so what kind of status does the mobile phone have for you?

The mobile phone is the most intimate piece of technology most of us have. It is with you  - and very close you  - all the time. It’s with you in the bathroom, next to your bed (or in it), everywhere. How does it feel when someone touches your phone? This intimacy distinguishes the mobile experience from the work-like, static desktop experience where you are in a fixed location, indoors, working on software that is unaware of anything but itself, and on an Internet that does not take into account where you are or who is around you.

The mobile device is potentially a powerful art making machine. It captures and manipulates images, sound, video all while tracking your social network and location, which connects you to place. A lot of art over the centuries is about place. Artists have an opportunity to think about place in new ways, creating a layer of digital information that the mobile ecosystem exposes.

Artists who may have had no interest in new media art in the past may find new kinds of ideas possible. They may use the mobile device as a kind of sketchpad, taking photos, recordings, voice notes, archiving web links and messages from friends. My friend and colleague John Pomara, a painter, uses a small camera this way and has worked it into his process, with some very compelling results.

You don’t have to go anywhere to “make art” when a mobile device is your tool. You are always already there. Students often ask me how to get better at photography and video, for example. In addition to learning the history and theory, what I tell them is to take hundreds (or thousands) of photos and videos per day. Most of them have phones or small cameras that do this. I advise them to have the device ready to record within a few seconds - not at the bottom of a bag or pocket. Take advantage of it’s immediacy, which is part of it’s intimacy.

It’s interesting that location-based innovation is happening simultaneously with “real-time” communication tools, like Twitter.

Mobile changes how you think about time. I noticed at one point that I often only had 30 seconds at a time to make a video or take a photo or to write something. Having a couple of mobile devices with me all the time gave me a few options, all of them compressed in time. I called it “expression compression” and dubbed this manner of working and its results “microart” and described it as “microexpressions of the multitasker.” Last year I designed an exhibition around the idea called Real Time, which was shown at the Dallas Contemporary, and then travelled to the Pompidou in Paris via a mobile film festival. The idea was to subject other artists to this same restriction and time compression. So, with John Pomara, who co-curated the show, we gave them mobile phones with video capabilities and had them make 30 second videos every day for 2 months. The day the show opened, there was no art. The art came as people sent in the videos from their phones everyday. The public were also invited to send in videos. Everything was projected on walls at the contemporary and presented on the web simultaneously.

iPhone 3Gs?

As I write this, I await the arrival of a new iPhone 3Gs. For years, millions of people have had camera phones. Now millions of people will have video cameras in their pocket. But these are mobile video cameras that can record anything, anytime, and, more importantly, can be shared on the network instantly. They also record exact gps location. The commonness, ease and extent of transmission of this kind of video causes behavior changes, and this changes what video is and means.

So yes, the mobile experience is changing how we think of video. But it’s still fixed. It’s still linear, and not inherently interactive or participatory. But the conditions under which video is taken (or as I prefer to say, performed) are quite different, and I wonder if we are entering a post performance world. Being on film or video has gone from being special and rare to common and disposable. I have noticed that in a social media context the expectation and standards for performance and authenticity have changed. Being on video, in the past, meant “performing” because it wasn’t all that often that people were on camera: parties, events, etc. Now many people are “on camera” every day. Sometimes only for a few seconds. Most of the time, what they are doing is not special or particularly interesting. It is not interesting, but it is much more important socially. It may be that you are in someone else’s video nearly every day. And you may be aware of it or you may not. You are always potentially in someone’s camera lens. There are opportunities for artists to explore, critique, invent, and subvert this area.

Is your Mobile Lab research primarily for art, business or both?

We work in a university setting, which gives us the ability to not be under immediate revenue and business development pressures. This luxury is a benefit to our partners who are under these pressures. We try and look forward beyond the next quarter and anticipate future uses and implications of next generation technology. We spend a lot of time brainstorming, arguing, testing, and imagining not only how people might use emerging technologies, but how they affect relationships, social capital, and culture.  We take these discussions and formalize them into collaborative research projects. Some of these projects are for art, resulting in exhibitions, experiments, and tools that artists and others can use for expressive uses. Others have a business component to them, but also always a cultural aspect, a mindfulness about how what we are doing interfaces with society.

Can you talk more about the relationship between art and business?

Regarding art and business, there is a large amount of befuddlement and mythology surrounding the relationship between the two. (The idea of art as a part of business never came up in my two years in graduate school, not even once. It’s as if everyone is pretending that what we were doing was somehow separate from the rest of the economy).  Art is a business of course, it is a “content” business with a particular economic structure and a set of business models. Insofar as it’s model is based on scarcity and control it is threatened by the Internet.

How does this relate specifically to traditional artists?

One of a kind works will generally continue to follow the old model, but with significant changes in the power of artists to market their own work via the network. I know a couple of painters, Steven LaRose and Dennis Hollingsworth, that write interesting blogs and use other social tools to extend their community. One test is to type your name in Google. What comes up? Is it what you want? Do you have control over it? In my view, it’s your responsibility to control your search stream and online identity. In many respects, you are who Google says you are.

The challenge for art, like with other content businesses like music and media, comes when you have work whose native form is digital. You still see people artificially limiting their work to create rarity so that they fit into the conventional model. It doesn’t make sense. It is analogous to charging for content on the Internet. Better to give it away and reap the benefits of a larger audience.

Regarding the artists relationship to business, the applied creative thinking that artists provide is valuable to business culture, though you sometimes have to look for groups that see the value. It’s better to influence products and services early on than be frustrated or manipulated by them later. Diversity of perspective is a good thing, and it’s obvious when things are designed without it. We recently did an exhibition where Samsung provided phones to artists who then gave them feedback on the camera and communication functions.  The engineers there were very curious how what they had made worked in an art context.

What Macro changes do you see happening?

With an entire culture “creating” now - photos and video and all manner of content - it is an opportunity for artists to provide inspiration for new directions and to make critiques where needed.  All this is especially true in emerging technology where the developers often have little idea how their inventions will be used. Twitter did not anticipate many of the uses it has been put to (including 140 character novels, performance art, a protest tool, new forms of journalism, etc). Think of the role of Twitter in the recent Iranian uprising. The same is true of mobile technology. For example, I want an external bluetooth microphone for iPhone video documentary projects. Until someone in Apple’s hardware engineering understands this, it cannot happen. This is one of the key roles of MobileLab, to influence products so they are better creative tools.

There’s also the startup experience, which you, Chris, have experience with. I found intensive training as an artist was excellent, if not complete, preparation for building a startup. It takes every ounce of creativity, energy, and focus you can muster. I think of my experience in the dot com period as one big performance art piece. I was playing the role of “startup founder” in a highly fluid and exciting time and place. I see successful artists and successful startup founders I know as having very similar traits.