It seems like the work of angry Luddites: Twenty-seven cell phones have been strung up from the Contemporary Museum's ceiling. The phones aren't dead, though - their tiny screens are bright and flickering with videos of a woman's flesh: snippets of her knees, feet, lips.
It's hard to know what the woman herself, the French artist Beatrice Valentine Amrhein, is saying about the phones that make up her multimedia sculpture. Are they technological intruders? Or natural extensions of her own body?
Many of the pieces in Cell Phone: Art and the Mobile Phone, the first museum exhibit of its kind in the country, explore such provocative ambiguities. There's text-message animation and a cell-phone sound garden. There's a projected photo collage made up of images sent from viewers' phones.
"Cell phones have so much potential as sites for artistic pieces, as messages and communication tools," says Irene Hofmann, the Contemporary Museum's executive director and curator for the show, which opens this weekend. "Artists are commenting on this technology and subverting it."
More than mere networking devices, cell phones increasingly serve as platforms for self-expression for a wide spectrum of artists. The phones are becoming integrated into art forms ranging from architecture to poetry to opera, where they are used in ways that manipulate and transcend their intended functions.
New technologies have always been fodder for artists, Hofmann says. But rarely has there been an invention with so much expressive power as the cell phone, which comes packed with cameras, both still and moving, sound systems, and screens for text display, along with the ability to broadcast to a limitless audience.
Nor is there often an object that becomes culturally ubiquitous in such a short period, says Richard Ling, author of The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone's Impact on Society.
"It really is an icon, a symbol of our age," he says. "So it forms its own aesthetic," and becomes something that fascinates artists.
It seems as though every existing art form has been touched by cell phone technology. There are online galleries of cell phone screen art and photography; short movies have been shot on cell phone video. Dozens of musical pieces are structured around ring tones, and at least one cell phone karaoke opera has been arranged, with called-in musical contributions from bystanders. Cell phones' exteriors inspire design from fashion to skyscraper architecture, and their software recently reinvigorated an ancient Japanese poetry form, the tanka, which happens to lend itself to text messaging.
The phones have inspired new art forms, too, such as a composition style that's restricted to 160 characters - the maximum length of a text message. Whole novels are being published exclusively in text message form, and new breeds of urban narratives tell the story of a place via cell phone as users wander through, receiving cues from the landscape.
And there is a rising sculptural format that involves calling, or being called by, wireless-compatible artwork, which may take the form of birds or plants or a buoy in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. The pieces often appear to communicate: The plants - actual living greenery - might relate information about the quality of their soil, for instance. The birds - cell phones covered in feathers, perhaps - might chirp out a ring tone.
The dark side
Of course, these works aren't necessarily celebrations of the technology, says Scott Campbell, a telecommunications professor at the University of Michigan who teaches the social consequences of mobile communications.
In fact, some pieces seem to treat cell phones as sources of paranoia and even terror, particularly the global positioning systems that may allow unknowing callers to be tracked. A recent Japanese horror flick, Pulse, and a Stephen King novel, Cell, explore these topics more overtly, but some of the art made with cell phones touches on the same themes.
"It's the way this technology has worked its way into our lives," Campbell says. "A lot of people feel like a slave to it. Perhaps what people are doing is taking control and appropriating it in new and distinct ways.
The Contemporary's cell phone show, which runs through April, includes a wide variety of projects, such as the "Cell Phone Disco," where the gallery walls are lined with LED-filled panels that light up when stimulated by the electromagnetic radiation of viewers' own phones. There's a recorded "telesymphony" and a display of animated text messages that convey startling news such as "I cheated on you" or "Your dog got hit by a car."
Several pieces explore artwork's relationship with its audience, some asking for contributions from museum patrons. This weekend was to bring a Baltimore showing of "TXTual Healing," an interactive street performance piece where passersby send text messages to a computer, which projects them in speech bubbles on building walls.
"With a lot of these, the audience actually becomes part of the work," says Joe Reinsel, one of three artists who created "Cell:block," a piece that asks Baltimore residents to e-mail in cell phone photos, which become part of a stream of images pro- jected onto a gallery wall.
"This isn't one of those things where you put work on the wall and that's the end," says Steve Bradley, another "Cell:block" creator who also contributed the show's buoy sculpture, which people will eventually be able to call up to monitor conditions in the Chesapeake Bay. "This goes beyond the gallery. I'm very interested in interacting with the audience."
But that audience may already view cell phones as creative media without any prodding from artists. Ordinary cell consumers are discovering ways to express themselves that are more significant than stick-on phone bling. Through its new tattoo feature, for instance, Motorola encourages customers to design artwork that can then be etched on the cell phone, and other companies such as Skinit.com make original photos into cell covers. Some cell accessories, such as an ivory case from China that supposedly took three craftsmen more than three months to carve, double as modern masterpieces.
"The phone is a mobile form of expression moving with you," says Andres Zapato, a design instructor at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "A lot of the stuff that goes on, customizing ring tones and wallpaper, is kind of primitive compared to the kind of multimedia integration that's coming. But it all comes down to self-expression, what you can do with this tool to make it say something about you."
Indeed, some consider the unadorned phones themselves to be pieces of art. Last year, New York's Museum of Modern Art acquired several Japanese cellular handsets for its permanent collection, and this month, techies scrutinized the look of the new iPhone with the pickiness of art critics. Like painting or sculpture, the devices inspire visceral reactions and even aesthetic bliss.
"The iPhone is so beautiful in a way that it is art," says Vincent Nguyen, editor of several cell phone Web sites, including one dedicated exclusively to the new Apple product. "It is seamless. It is a piece that flows, with no interruption."
As cell phones become even more compact and essential, professional artists will be inspired to further tease out our relationship to these increasingly beautiful machines, says Kathleen Cumiskey, a social psychology professor at the College of Staten Island who studies the impact of mobile technology on human behavior.
"Phones are getting smaller, and with Bluetooth" - the technology that lets phones be worn as tiny earpieces - "they're getting integrated into our physical bodies," she says. "In art, there will be more of a focus on pulling that apart and figuring out where does the real me begin - and if that even matters."
Simultaneously, though, Zapato predicts, there could be a creative backlash against these tools that are swiftly becoming staples of civilized life. Artists will want to investigate the symbiosis of man and cell, he says.
"I can see more of a retro thing happening," he says. "I can see someone making a phone that emits smoke signals, or something."
Actually, someone has already tried. In England last year, two designers apparently set up a system where bystanders could send text messages that would be translated into puffs of smoke. And now the next big thing in messaging is rumored to be Morse Code.