Is Anyone There?
A Voice Activated Tour of San Francisco Via its Pay Telephone
For one week a computer telemarketing device makes hourly calls to selected pay telephones, engages whoever answers in conversations about life in the city, and digitally stores the conversations. The installation later allows viewers to interactively explore the city via a database of these recorded calls and digital video of life near the phones. It appropriates the often intrusive computer-based telemarketing technology and uses it in a new way, involving people who don't traditionally participate in the art world in an event that probes the diversity of life in the city and the relation of truth to fiction. 

Concrete Description: What is going on in the installation?

A Database of Calls to Pay Phones: Several locations in San Francisco were chosen on the basis of socioeconomic diversity and their significance to the life of the city. For a week a computer-based system with digitized voice capabilities systematically called pay phones in these spots, at a particular time every hour, 24 hours a day. It used intelligent response programming to engage passersby curious enough to answer a ringing pay phone in a short discussion and digitally recorded the conversations. The topics focused on the lives of those who answered and whatever they consider noteworthy at that particular location. At other times video was used to capture representative images of the locales of the phones and the people who typically spent time near them.

The Installation: An interactive video installation set up months later allows viewers to explore life near these phones by using this bank of stored sound and digital Quicktime video to selectively call up recorded responses and images. An interactive hypermedia program encourages viewers to devise strategies for exploring this information-- for example, using a spatial/temporal framework to choose to hear the record of the people who answered a financial district pay phone location during the midnight to 3AM period. Typical digital video of the phone locales accompany the recordings and digitally manipulated images become metaphors for information about the recorded calls - for example, dynamic colorizing used to indicate the depth to which a particular answerer went in a conversation.

Live Calls During the Installation: The installation challenges the safety of passive art viewership by shifting occasionally into real time mode and automatically placing live calls to the pay phones, linking the viewer with a real person on the street at the location on the screen.

What Conceptual Issues Does the Installation Explore?

Telecommunications & Telematic Culture: The telephone system is an artistically underexplored feature of contemporary culture. Telephones allow almost instantaneous linkage between people anywhere on earth. They enable new kinds of communication including linkages between people who wouldn't ordinarily know each other and the creation of unprecedented kinds of social interchanges such as wrong numbers, answering machines, telemarketing, and the like. Is Anyone There explores both the concrete technological possibilities and the poetry of using pay phones to overcome anomie in contemporary mass society.

Interactivity, Art Audiences, and the Safety of Art Spectatorship: This event challenges two common features of art viewing: the typically elite nature of high culture consumption and the passivity of much art appreciation. All those on the street who answer the ringing pay phones -- many who would be unlikely to attend any conventional art institutions -- become participants in this art event. The drama of their dialogue with the computer system is an essential aesthetic focus. In addition, the event systematically questions the safety of passive art viewing by requiring viewers to generate strategies to search the images and sounds of the stored calls. More radically, the event periodically shifts the viewer in the gallery from the safety of spectator to the challenging position of full participant. It places live calls to the phone that the viewer had been vicariously experiencing, and demands that the viewer engage in a real conversation with a live stranger.

Hypermedia and the Structure of Information: New computer systems enable the storage and non-linear retrieval of vast amounts of information including text, image,video and sound. These systems, which can dynamically adapt to the idiosyncratic inquiry styles of each individual user, raise questions about the most fruitful ways to organize, interrelate, and access new kinds of multimedia information spaces. Is Anyone There explores an innovative kind of "hypermedia" art in which the structure of information and the navigational interface design are as much the artistic focus as the images and sounds.

Artificial Characterization & Intelligence: Many fears and hopes are raised about the possibilities of computers simulating the full range of human intelligence and characterization. This event investigates some aspects of these possibilities by exploring how self revealing those who answer the phone will be with the various digital characters programmed into the computer device and how gallery observers feel about these exchanges.

Installation History: This installation shown at Art Show- SIGGRAPH, Chicago, 1993 and Ars Electronic , Linz,Austria 1993. It won Ars Electronica's Prize of Distinction in the international competitions for Interactive Art.

<<View Is Anyone There Quicktime movie documentation >>
(Note this is a 5.5 mb file - not advised for low-bandwidth)

Image documentation of the five pay phone locations (180k)

QuicktimeVR movie of what one could see as rotating 360' around the pay phone in Haight Ashbury(180k)


Stephen Wilson--Professor, Conceptual  / Information Arts Program, Art Department, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, California 94132

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