Art Finds a Mobile Home

Article ImagePeople already create, distribute, and consume mobile information and entertainment in the forms of news, music, and games; now art has gone mobile too. Several organizations are harnessing mobile technology to bring art to the masses and to provide artists with new outlets and creative forms.

Leading the way is the Digital Museum of Modern Art (DMOMA), a museum existing exclusively in cyberspace. Over the last months the museum has showcased the work of some of its best-known artists in a series of "cellphone exhibitions."

According to W. Logan Fry, the museum's founder and chief curator, mobile offers a perfect medium for art because it allows users to bypass elite gallery systems and experience art on their terms. Admission is airtime for the viewer, and artists can exhibit their work for free. This egalitarian approach to art and access has its roots in Fry's personal conviction that art isn't limited to a particular space or place in time. "All art can be reduced to a sequence of binary bits—zeroes and ones in endless succession," Fry says.

In his view, art is a personal experience that belongs to the individual, making it well-suited for delivery via personal mobile devices. Moreover, mobile empowers artists from all over the world to access viewers from all over the world—and vice versa. "We essentially enable people to have an art exhibition in their pocket," Fry says. "They can access it when and where they want, whether it's a bus stop at midnight or in the office during the day."

Steven B. Smith, one of the artists featured in the DMOMA cellphone exhibition, was at first discouraged by device limitations such as resolution and screen size. He's now convinced that mobile is an ideal channel for art consumption. "It allows the viewer to become immersed in the experience because there's no one and nothing between the user and the art," Smith says. "There is no distraction."

Smith, who also is a musician, sees additional advantages in mobile distribution beyond offering users portable art access. Phone features such as 3-D displays and surround-sound will enhance the quality of the user experience and allow artists to create new art forms. He says, "You could combine artwork and music and other (stimuli) in totally new ways because the audience would be able to enjoy works in totally new ways."

Indeed, 3-D phone features, already gaining traction in the Asia Pacific region, will be showing up in U.S. and European phones beginning later this year. But the excitement is about more than another set of phone features; it's about a subtle but powerful shift in the way content will be marketed and consumed.

Simon Weitzman, founder of 3GXmobile, a company that helps companies create a presence on the mobile, believes a better audio experience will allow artists to "connect emotionally to visual content." Weitzman, who comes from the world of film and music, believes that 3-D technology can boost the appeal of art and entertainment content as well as compensate for screen-size limitations. "If the sound is larger-than-life, then the images don't have to be."

Advances in mobile technology offer fresh, innovative channels for artistic expression along with ways to reach new audiences. This is the guiding philosophy at Nokia, Finland's global mobile phone manufacturer. To this end Nokia has launched Connect to Art, a cross-art project to bring art to mobile phones and mobile phones to art distribution. The project goes beyond art access to allow users to actually download art objects to special model Nokia phones.

To keep the supply limited, and thereby ensure users download only genuine pieces of art, only 2,000 copies of each object are available. The Nokia project counts eight artists, each of whom has created audio-visual works of art that draw on the advantages of new media and mobile phones. It recently received the NYFA Inspiration Award in recognition of its support of art and artists.

"We believe that life is going mobile," says Johanna Jokinen, a Nokia communications manager involved in the project since its launch last year. "We also see mobile as the great equalizer that will allow artists from all over the world to make their art available to a larger audience."

Juha Hemanus, a Finnish opera director who has made audio-visual art available for the project to distribute, also believes that technology democratizes access. "Much art is in galleries or in private collections. Mobile makes it possible for anyone to see art. It's no longer a privilege for the few."

Changes like this also will impact how we perceive, value, and interact with art, observes Douglas Rushkoff, a communications professor at New York University. "Because art is no longer a physical thing, it has a disposable quality to it. When something is temporary, artists are going to have to create more of it."

Rushkoff believes artists serious about mobile will need to offer a "steady stream" of content. "I don't think people will pay $35 to get art on their phone, but they may pay $135 to subscribe to two months of images from certain artists," Rushkoff says. "People will think of it in terms of ongoing relationships with an artist or a collective."

START SOMA, the San Francisco gallery for emerging artists, is taking precisely this approach. It has launched START MOBILE, becoming the first retail art gallery in the world to sell new art for mobile phones. Plans are to offer more than 1,000 works from more than 100 prominent emerging and underground artists in bundled packages of downloadable images. Each image costs $1.99 and users can pay via credit cards and premium SMS, charged directly to their phone bill.

To make the art available to a global audience, START SOMA has teamed up with technology providers to develop a delivery platform that allows for optimized display on more than 200 makes of handsets. In addition, the service will have advanced DRM features to enable users to share their art content.

"Bringing together more than 1,000 pieces would be impossible because of the space and resources it would require, but I can do that with mobile," notes John Doffing, gallery founder and curator, adding, "Mobile demystifies art and brings it to a bigger audience."