Art by Telephone and other Ideas from Adriana de Souza e Silva

“Telecommunications-based art is primarily concerned with connecting distant and contiguous spaces.” – Adriana de Souza e Silva

Adriana de Souza e Silva gives a brief historical account of telecommunications-based art, highlighting the transition from the original telephone (used as a voice transmission communication device) to mobile phones being used as a bridge between the physical and virtual worlds of the new hybrid space: a space where both the virtual and the physical world are engaged simultaneously. As we begin to see the telephone in this new light, telecommunications-based art has shifted from the creation of material things to the creation of interactive contexts.

Early examples:

Laslo Moholy Nagy,1922, claimed to have created enamel tile paintings by dictating the pattern over the phone

Laszlo Moholy Nagy

Art by Telephone, 1969, Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art Exhibit where the museum recreated artists’ telephone descriptions of their contributions.

Art by Telephone show catalog

Stephen Wilson, 1992, “Is Anyone There” , a computer calls various pay phones in San Fransisco and holds brief conversations.

Currently cell phone ownership is nearly universal, exceeding PC ownership, in most places. In her article Re-Conceptualizing the Mobile Phone – From Telephone to Collective Interfaces, Adriana de Souza e Silva suggests that the younger users are the first to adopt new uses of new technology because they are not hindered by preconceptions of its use based on older technology.  She makes the comparison of film being at first considered and created as a combination of photography and theater, and television being at first understood as a combination of radio and images, to the modern cell phone still being viewed in relation to its static land-line predecessor. These examples make clear how our perceptions can effect the way we imagine and create for new platforms, and how important it is to re-imagine everything all of the time.

She gave a brief history of people’s perceptions of the mobile phone. At first it was viewed as a substitute to the cordless phone, and rarely used outside of the home. It was considered rude to speak on one in public. It was later seen as a great tool in case of an emergency, and became a truly mobile device. Over time business planning and social conversations became acceptable ’emergencies’ for using the phone in public, although excessive use is still considered rude. For young people today it is a creative social tool.

She rejects the idea that mobile phones are a source of social isolation for their users through several examples where the phone conversation was shared socially. She suggests that in some instances there is not a significant inherent social value distinction between digital and physical social engagement. For example, people’s tendency to read on trains suggests that it is always an awkward social place, and connecting socially via phone in that situation makes you more social.

She also argues that by connecting remote physical and digital contexts to the space the phone enhances the social space. She explains that now that our phones are much more than two way voice devices, but “always connected” computers, their ubiquity creates a hybrid universe, a space where each person is engaged with both the digital and physical worlds, using the mobile device as the connection between them.

I don’t completely understand the loose connection she seems to draw between social spaces and hybrid virtual/physical spaces. Although it is clear that the non stop virtual connection alters our perception of space, it seems that it alters it inconsistently and individually for every person, therefore separating us contextually. As I agree that it is enhancing the space and expanding it by adding remote social and informational contexts, one could say that it expands the individual’s space, and thus takes us further away from each other. She uses the flash mob example of creating social situations via mobile phones quickly, but I think this is a superficial example. Because of their purely virtual origin, such events seem novel, and are overshadowed by the remainder of the effects of non stop connectivity on our social functions.

I believe that her rejection of the argument that mobile phones can lead to isolation from social and physical spaces  seems inconsistent and incomplete, and mostly really unnecessary. There seems to be this defensive streak among the people who create location based / mobile applications that compels them  to claim that mobile interactive media can enhance and encourage social behavior. But I  believe there is a not-at-all-fine line between the way we interact virtually and face to face. It is clear from my own experience, and the many times I have heard others express this, that excessive time spent in the virtual world makes eye contact and sustained conversations more difficult (if not frightening), at least at first. I think we need a new word for this new kind of “social” because it seems to manifest itself in the physical world in very anti-social and narcissistic ways, but is in no way irrelevant, invalid or uninteresting. The development of online communities and increasingly available long distance communication is similar to the development of the phone, film, and television. As they transformed in function and image we created a new way to understand and use them, and the same has happened with socializing. The physical social and online social are now almost completely unrelated.


One of the examples she cites of context-creating interactive art, more appropriate to our new concept of the mobile phone, is Blinkenlights, 2001, Interactive computer display by Chaos Computer Club, in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz building. According to her, creating interactive spaces and contexts is more about the social behavior and uses of mobile tech than it is about creating material things.

Blinkenlights by the Chaos Computer Club, Berlin, 2001

It seems that the most social part is the joint discovery and experience of this material manifestation. However, the “interactive”/participatory part does not seem particularly social. I don’t see how the cellphone interactivity makes this piece more sociable than it would have been had it just played pixelated movies, drawings, cartoons, or messages. I think it actually is more isolating because it physically requires that your attention be given to your interaction with the phone. There is no worse conversation starter than fondling your iPhone.