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.