Cell Phone-Person

586737_300On my phone, I can store hundreds of contacts, dozens of messages—both text and voice—I can take photos, videos, and surf the web. But can a mobile device, such as my cell phone, store inspiration? Does it hold objects of historical, artistic, and/or scientific significance? Is it a genuine platform for discussion and representation of the human condition? Put more simply, and yet ultimately more complex: can a cell phone be a museum?

Most pro-Tweeters and social network-mongols—who would text yes to any and all of the questions above—will point to the Iran election as the tantamount example of mobile technology meshing with social and political phenomena to enact positive, realistic change. This is difficult to argue, as is the often belabored fact that such technology has radically altered the way in which we communicate. In Japan, for instance, the keitai shosetsu, or the “thumb novel”—a literary publication broadcast solely to cell-phones—has gained incredible popularity, with sites like Maho I-land generating millions of amateur novels, many of them going on to huge successes as tangible books.

Both the Iranian election and the keitai shosetsu would lead one to think that mobile networking may have a place within the world of museums. But as a casual user (and I believe that drug terminology is appropriate) of Twitter and Facebook, the main issue is not whether a cell phone can be used as museum, but how often the muses are overwhelmed by oblivious, shameless, and not-so-shameless marketing.

Which brings us to LACMA’s latest venture: Cell Phone Stories, a three-month-long chain of stories—much like keitai shosetsu—not told in first-person or third-person, but in an all-together new mode of narrative: cell-phone-person. Artist Steve Fagin conceived the project, and brings together a diverse grouping of commissioned authors, ranging from actor Rainn Wilson, to chic designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, to supply the tales.

Sounds interesting enough; I’m a huge proponent of using literature as art (LACMA’s other, less-publicized project, Word Without Pictures, is borderline brilliant), and the idea of telling your story walking is appealing to me (and Jonathan Lethem).

But there’s an odd catch. All of the stories/essays have to revolve around LACMA.  I suppose this is to bring up the idea that a museum is not just a building—after all, one can be mused anywhere—yet I can’t get over the idea that it’s all a clever marketing ploy.

The first story to appear publicly as a part of the Cell Phone Stories project was one by performance-artist Rich Bott. It began at 1 PM on May 29th, and combined brief text messages with even briefer cell-phone videos, which can be seen here. The initial installment: “Jacques Debierue sculpture reported missing STOP LAPD on the scene STOP Continental operative Richard Bott on the scene STOP.”

Clearly Bott was setting up an absurd art-heist mystery of some sort (by referencing a fictional sculptor), though I don’t claim to understand the repeated usage of “STOP,” which continued throughout his hour-long “text-performance”—a sort of hard-boiled detective story that had him speaking to a “wise-cracking lamp,” getting tips from a nude “prostitute” in a Picasso painting, and finally catching the thief and recovering the stolen sculpture. The problem is none of this was very clear at all, and any sense of drama that could be generated from the natural cliff-hangers of episodic text messaging was lost in translation.

Furthermore, I didn’t get to see, or even imagine, much of the museum at all. To me, the magic of a museum is the same magic of a church or a mosque or a synagogue; it’s a temple. When you walk into the LACMA, or the MOCA, or the MET, or the MOMA, you enter into a different frame of consciousness. You’re supposed to temporarily let go of the world of money, and traffic, and work, and advertising, and yes, cell-phones. There’s a reason why they’re not allowed. And while I love the idea of a global museum, or even a museum of the imagination, LACMA’s Cell Phone Stories has yet to provide one.

Cell Phone Stories runs until September 6, 2010, and can be accessed by texting “LACMA” to 67553, or by visiting their Twitter account at http://twitter.com/LACMA.

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