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NY Times: At ZeroOne, Paintings Are So Last Century PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michela Pilo   
Aug 07, 2006 at 09:53 PM

SAN JOSE, Calif.

ON Tuesday a small fleet of homing pigeons will be released from a plaza near the San Jose Museum of Art to fly back to their trainer about 10 miles away. But these are not your average birds. Each will be carrying, in a tiny nylon backpack, some very small equipment that gives their journey a larger purpose: a global positioning system unit for tracking their latitude, longitude and altitude; a pollution monitor for gauging carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides; and the fundamentals of a cellphone for sending this data to a Web site.

The artist-activist Beatriz da Costa calls the resulting Web site a “pigeon blog,” as though the birds themselves were keeping a travel diary obsessed with air quality issues. “A lot of countries have used pigeons for surveillance during war,” said Ms. da Costa, who teaches art and engineering at the University of California, Irvine. “We’re doing a form of surveillance too, only not for military purposes. Our goal is to track levels of pollution in the environment.”

The release of the homing pigeons is one of the most highly anticipated events scheduled for ZeroOne, a new weeklong citywide festival of exhibitions, interventions, performances and talks by artists working with technology that opens on Monday. As with the pigeon blog, several of the artists are tapping into the power of cellular networks and phones to create highly mobile and interactive projects.

Of the roughly 130 submissions chosen for the first edition of ZeroOne, about a dozen make use of cellphones. But this is not the kind of artwork that simply dances across the small screen of your flip phone, the way an Ashlee Simpson video might. The artists draw on a wide range of cellphone features, from text messaging to Bluetooth scanning, to make their projects more collaborative.

In the case of the pigeon blog, the ultimate collaborators are the birds. For the other projects, most of which are grouped in an exhibition tent near the San Jose Convention Center, the collaborators are the visitors, who can use their own phones to participate directly in the artworks.

“Of course we react to a painting when we look at it, but it can’t react back,” said Steve Dietz, the director of ZeroOne. “A lot of digital media, though, is about a kind of feedback loop. The piece behaves differently according to different inputs.”

When it comes to the question of whether all of this activity, not to mention the inevitable technical challenges, is better suited for a science fair than an art exhibition, the ZeroOne participants land squarely on the side of art.

Some point to the visual component of their work, whether a concrete block or a mapping program, as having its own formal appeal. And almost all say that their intent is not to bring another geeky-cool device into the universe but to change the way people look at the devices they already own.

“My biggest fear is that people will think of the pigeon blog as these cool gadgets put on birds,” Ms. da Costa said. (Her second biggest fear seems to be igniting the wrath of animal rights activists, judging from the months she spent scaling the birds’ equipment down to 37 grams.)

Or, as Drew Hemment, an artist from Manchester, England, said: “Yes, the technology can be exciting. But this work is really about challenging the way we interact with technology.”

Some of the projects in ZeroOne are adventures in site-specific storytelling, known in the field as “locative media.” By dialing one number from the streets of San Jose, callers can hear recorded stories from local residents about sites of historic or personal interest as they walk past those locales. By dialing another number from within the city’s light rail system, callers can access a “sci-fi erotic” narrative by the New York artist John Klima that will unfold differently depending on your particular train route.

For his sprawling story Mr. Klima cooked up a strange cast of characters, including a modern-day incarnation of St. Joseph of Nazareth, for whom the city was named, and a cross-dressing bicycle acrobat who is based on a historical figure. But the plot varies with your stated romantic orientation and inferred location. Once the computer program at the other end of the line identifies where you are and where you’re heading, it will start dropping in chunks of story that incorporate a McDonald’s, a church or a public urinal that are visible from the train window.

The story will become more erotic the longer you listen, Mr. Klima promises. “There is a huge amount of narrative that gets pulled together on the fly,” he said. “Everything I do is complicated and baroque. It’s all a game with a complex set of rules.

Some projects take audience participation one step further, allowing people to add voice, text or images to an artwork in progress. By dialing up another project, Cellphonia, a caller (presumably but not necessarily from the area) can join the chorus of a current-affairs opera. The libretto for that day, based on news feeds from The San Jose Mercury News, is voiced one line at a time; all the caller has to do is echo it back into the phone. The performance is recorded and automatically mixed with other voices. Later a caller can download an MP3 file of the song for playback on his own phone.

“So often people with cellphones to their ears are in their own world, cut off from reality,” said Steve Bull, a New York artist-programmer who developed the opera with two composers. “This will pull people back into the community, as they sing the community story and hear their voice in the community chorus.”

Another grass-roots collaboration is planned for Wednesday night outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in downtown San Jose. Adriene Jenik, who teaches computer and media arts at the University of California, San Diego, calls it “distributed cinema” because the project unfolds on six screens at once, with live performance as well. The scenes are inspired by a dark vision of public libraries circa 2030, when books are black-market commodities and the “attention authorities” apprehend citizens who lack the requisite “reading licenses.”

That’s when the interactivity kicks in, as the authorities recruit passers-by to photograph their neighbors with camera phones and submit the pictures to a database. These images feed a grid, a kind of lineup of suspects, projected on the largest screen. Audience members can also sign up to receive text messages on the futuristic library theme, written by the cyberpunk author Rudy Rucker.

“A lot of my interest in cellphones has to do with the intimacy of the device,” Ms. Jenik said. “We talk to loved ones on it, we cradle it, our identities are tied up with it. Stories coming to us this way can engage us in a different space.”

But of course any dependency has its dangers, and several artists in ZeroOne are bent on exposing the dark side of seemingly benign technology. Two projects, Blue States and LOCA, show how a cellphone can become a tracking device used to monitor its owner’s movements.

If a phone equipped with Bluetooth wireless technology is set to “visible” or “discoverable,” its 12-digit numeric identity can be scanned by another Bluetooth device in the near vicinity. So by carrying around your high-tech phone, you may well be leaving an invisible digital trail.

Blue States uses scanners and a computer program to render this trail visible, mapping a person’s movement within the exhibition tent as a set of dots and circles. Mark Pesce, a digital artist and pioneer in virtual reality, sees his team’s work not as surveillance so much as “a visualization program,” arguing that mobile phones provide a more accurate window onto social networking patterns than Web sites like

LOCA, meanwhile, is a surveillance project that talks back. A crew plans to plant some 30 Bluetooth scanners encased in concrete blocks at bus stations, in shops and at other busy spots in San Jose. Carrying a Bluetooth-discoverable phone within 25 feet of the scanners can trigger the receipt of a surprisingly intimate message like: “You walked past the flower shop and spent 30 minutes in the park. Are you in love?”

Such notes are not sent via text messaging but through a subversive technique called Bluejacking, in which a Bluetooth device’s name is replaced with a short message meant to be picked up by neighboring devices.

Part of the point is to catch people by surprise, jolting them out of their daily rituals with a Dada-worthy prank. Another goal, said Mr. Hemment, the lead artist in the project, is to show people how much data they may be revealing every time they turn on their phones.

“In an office you can shut the door for privacy,” Mr. Hemment said. “In conversation you can hide a facial expression. But with the new digital technologies, you may have no idea how much you’re giving away.”

If this sounds more like an educational project than a work of art, Mr. Hemment does not seem to mind. He said he doesn’t make hard and fast distinctions between the two: he considers LOCA a policy-minded research effort with the art serving as its public face.

Other artists in ZeroOne are also leveraging their projects for the sake of a social agenda. Ms. da Costa calls her pigeon blog “a blend of art and activism,” noting how difficult it is, Al Gore’s efforts notwithstanding, to draw attention to issues like pollution through the usual forms of campaigning.

“So much activism has the opposite effect of change, badgering the topic until we’re used to it,” she said. “But art offers a way of generating attention, a way of disturbing things.”

The ZeroOne participants tend to position themselves as conceptual artists trying to redirect patterns of attention and perception. “Beatriz’s work looks nothing like a Picasso painting,” Mr. Dietz, the festival director, said of her pigeon-blog art. “But it does look something like a Gordon Matta-Clark gesture, putting a chainsaw through a house.”

Then there’s the old chestnut that, at its onset, artistic innovation is always hard to recognize. “Once upon a time Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ were not considered art, or they were considered very, very bad art,” Mr. Dietz said.

Or, as Mr. Hemment put it: “Opera was once the art of the gutter. Now it’s the art of the elite.” And, curiously enough, it’s now coming to a cellphone near you.

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