09.09.2010 Steve Fagin Takes a Bow on Behalf of Cell Phone Stories

Today marks the conclusion of the experimental Cell Phone Stories. Ringmaster Steve Fagin reflects on the project:

On the process:

The fundamental idea that cuts across the entire Cell Phone Stories series is to not simply refigure the museum via remote technology but to use the museum and the technology as an opportunity to refigure the ways we conceptualize, order, scale and make tangible culture.

The conceit that the museum could provide both and art and larger-than-art opportunity has been with me since I saw Harold Szeeman’s Austria im Rosennetz show in, I believe, 1997. The show turned the museum into a carefully constructed junkyard: everything from fairground bric a brac, scraps of paper, larger than life cinema, Freud’s this and that, etc, etc. Szeemann really used the foundational fact that the museum was a cultural depository, and from that starting point did not simply reshuffle the deck of culture in a predictable manner, but provided a platform to rethink the entirety of a century’s history.

Each episode of the Cell Phone Stories series makes an acute contribution to this overall aim. The kicker, of course is the cell phone dimension. We no longer produce an epic history at an epic scale, but address the epic according to the conceit that you can hold the whole world in your cell phoned-hand. I will give a few examples from my own miniseries, Only For Dummies, Punctured Utopia of the 21st Century to illustrate how I wished to put these ambitions into play.

To a certain extent, these questions had already been in my work most specifically the feature length videos The Amazing Voyage of Raymond Roussel and Gustave Flaubert and The Machine that Killed Bad People. I’m sure it was this work that motivated Michael Govan to invite me to do a series on refiguring the museum and history. In the machine I had used the syntax of CNN to retell the histories of the television revolutions of the late 80s.  What I wanted to do is use elements of the procedure of Facebook: to juxtapose, displace, have people interrupt conversations, have them enter from odd angles. I was interesting in having people from very different worlds in one place, to quote, use video and photos, and operate under the conceit of friendship to tell one of the crucial stories of the 20th century; the hope and dream for heaven on earth, Utopia.

I selected examples that had a strong presence at LACMA: the Soviet Revolution, Hollywood and Bauhaus.  I focus on these variants of utopias highlighting different dimensions of the utopian project in each of the episodes; dramatic upheaval and radical change in the Soviet example, the phantasy and dreamlike immersive quality in Hollywood cinema, the  “Over the Rainbowness”, and Utopia becoming a school of practical implementation through the Bauhaus.

The largest difficulty I faced in using the Facebook conceit was that both its formatting and usage are in constant flux. At first, I thought I would be creating quizzes and games, but they actually went out of fashion during the course of the project. Something that came into play during the course of CPS was conceptual tagging on Facebook. For instance, you tag a friend in a song that reminds you of them. They needn’t have the song or even have heard the song.

An example I used was the exchange between Bertolt Brecht and Mayakovsky where Brecht sends a message to Mayakovsky saying that he has tagged him in a play—and that play is Galileo.There is a section in Brecht’s Galileo that embodied the pursuit of truth in face  of dire social and political  ramifications. In my cell phone example, Mayakovsky is “tagged” because his life seems to embody a similar dilemma albeit in a very different context than Galileo. Mayakovsky then gives his response via one of his poems. This type of conceptual tagging, a very different use of quotation, and the mobilization of the Facebook syntax for a very different semantics were things that worked out very well in my  Dummy cycle.

The choice in the series of using only common forms of cell phone software (jpg, email, Twitter, voicemail, Facebook, pdf) rather than inventing  new formats comes  from my belief that  creativity tends to be abandoned too soon in a form. All forms tend to develop extensive opportunities and options that then become standardized. That’s just good business. At the moment of standardization the options are at the maximum, but the variation of usage has become tiresome and predictable. My thought was that giving it another go, breaking down and refiguring usage of a powerful communication tool (in my example, Facebook) could yield tremendous creative opportunity.

Now that I’ve tried to lay out some of the epic ambitions of the  CPS project through the example  of my lunatic cycle, I’d like to focus on a few of the  particular achievements of the talented people that contributed to the series.

My fellow phonies had the  good sense to scale their pieces to the contractual usage time of the cell phone user. I will use each of their contributions to illustrate  a conceptual issue I feel they address very well. Of course, their pieces mean much more and other things , but I will leave that exposition to others.


The scale in the two  Barry’s’ pieces (Barry Yourgrau and Barry Gifford) is very interesting. On one hand, you have Barry Yourgrau, who is a type of conjurer. He puts nothing  in his hand, closes his fist  then opens his fist and a beautiful multicolored bird flies out. It expands into a story delicate and full of imagination. Barry Gifford takes something, puts it in his hand, squeezes it and squeezes it, makes it tighter and more compressed. When he opens his hand, it’s a compressed item but it’s also beautiful and radiant, as when Superman changes a piece of coal into a diamond. His work is both tender and Wild at Heart, and it’s this unique combination that makes it so special. I thought we ended up with two writers who were perfect in making the cell phone sing; different  like Tebaldi and Callas, but both beautiful.


Rich Bott’s live Twitter piece focused on resolution  of a detective story at LACMA. The piece interested me because the information we have about the detective story is accessed obliquely through the phone. There are jpgs, live video feed and these weird SMS and Twitter messages given in telegram mode. The audience receives occasional glimpses seen from  too close or too far, juxtaposed with fragmentary text messages that all take in in the very space in which we are standing. The result is a series of intriguing aesthetic fragments of the experience of the museum , but at the same time an interesting set of clues available to us to compete with the detective to solve the crime


Kianga Ford’s use of the phone message I find interesting  because it foregrounds that in mobile-to-mobile communication, location is extremely variable and the participants are subject to very different experiences and etiquettes. I almost always, when calling, try to figure out what type of situation the person I’m calling is in by picking up sound cues. Are they in a public space, there home , a restaurant, their car? Where they are radically changes what I say and for how long. In Kianga’s pieces, ideally, the user is situated in a  specific place in the museum and the message heard is coming from a space that  engages their space in an interesting way. In her Japanese piece, we stand in front of an object at LACMA and the message comes as she is walking in the place of origin of the object. Indeed, Kianga uses the phone as a platform for a “sound work” – her soundscape being both elaborate and riveting


Adrienne Ferrari’s series, Tweet Jane Ditty, uses a 40-something unemployed educated woman as the central protagonist who daydreams imagined Twitter conversations ala the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. They are not her wishes for success, glamour and sexual conquest, but what may be done and what might happen in LACMA’s non-art or not-yet-art spaces. What I wish to foreground about her piece is its use of Twitter to produce a colorful eccentric compressed “for users only” conversation. The side of Twitter that interests me is not it’s massive communicative potential but it’s ability to generate new ways of saying writing. Twitter can produce a rich poetic and uniquely expressive vernacular. At its best, this is thrilling, but it takes energy to unpack. We thought these pieces had a hidden treasure quality and we invite you to discover them in our archive on this blog.


Now the Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte produced the audience award winner of CPS. What’s not to like? What interested me in their piece was the sense of excavating the museum, digging into it’s bowels and transforming from LACMA’s holdings a series of ever-so-lovely contemporary Schemata designs even better than Cinderella’s little helpers convert the ever-so-yesterday into things worthy of the Belle of the Ball.  The capacity to conjure such elegance and transcendence from a “mere jpg” was a clear slam-dunk.


I feel the live Twitter piece of Rainn Wilson is best seen in relation to the comedy of Andy Kaufman, “omg  this is live and in public “! What is the limit of what can be said and done  in the name of  professional performance and in a live context? I felt Rainn Wilson playing off his  popular Twitter identity and moving it toward an Andy Kaufman dead pan “did he really say or do that?” was taking Rainn’s profile to an interesting edge. In an art context, one must remember that the boundaries of “good taste ” are an important component of what we now take as high art. There is a strong and diverse lineage of work that questioned the threshold of acceptability from Dada  through Surrealism and onward to (in a more American context) the work of Paul McCarthy. This going through a red light, past  the boundary of proper behavior, is what interested me in Rainn’s piece. The role of art surely includes pushing the publicly unsaid to the said in a challenging manner. It is also important to remember that, when originally performed,  the work of Dada and Surrealism was felt to be a success by the artists if it produced dramatic and even negative response — and it did. It is only now, decades later, that  we simply accept this  type of  contestation of “proper behavior” as a topic worthy of a museum context.

In closing I’d like to  thank my Cher LACMA Phonies, Amy Heibel, Erin Wright and Rita Gonzalez, for their support, initiative, intelligence and diligence on the series and thank all the contributors for their eclectic and intelligent responses. I’m very proud of the work done for the series.

–Steve Fagin


About cellphonestories

A series of narratives unfolding via mobile technology, commissioned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and led by artist Steve Fagin.
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