Artists as Researchers in Wireless Communication


Stephen Wilson, Professor Conceptual/Information Arts, San Francisco State University.[1]


Artists as Researchers


The arts are searching for an appropriate role in an era dominated by technological and scientific research.  While some merely use the new gadgets, others become researchers themselves.  They challenge conventional research agendas, undertake their own investigations, and even invent new technologies. My book Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology[2] surveys these artists and the implications of their work. 


Currently there is great interest around the world in exploring the value of artistsı involvement in the research process.  Several major policy studies have promoted the idea ­ see for example the U.S. National Academy of Scienceıs report ³Beyond Productivity: Information Technology, Innovation, and Creativity²[3]. Also many governmental and private arrangements have offered support to this involvement of the arts in research  ­ for example the Artists in the Lab Program[4] (Switzerland) and  the Interactive Institute[5] (Sweden).  The rationales for this involvement have been both pragmatic (better ideas) and global (enrichment of culture). This essay explores art as research approach as it pertains specifically to wireless communication. It analyzes some core cultural issues in wireless communication that stimulate artistic interest, offers a preliminary survey and taxonomy of examples of artists working the technology, and explores some emerging technologies that are likely to be culturally significant in the next decades.  How are artists helping to shape research agendas in wireless? What new research areas call for artist involvement?


Why is Wireless Communication Culturally Interesting?


Often cultures find themselves blinded by the trajectory of their own technological development.  For example, technologies such as telephones, radios, cell phones, and gps get invented, become products and industries and then get so integrated into life that no one asks any more why they were invented and what cultural problems they solve.  Artists can serve an important reflective function by asking questions about the underlying assumptions and motivations for particular technologies and by creating works that explore unorthodox aspects beyond the utilitarian. These questions can sometimes lead to new ideas about how the technologies might be used and even to the invention of new related technologies.


The goal is to "denaturalize" things that are taken for granted.  A branch of critical theory called "media archeology" devotes itself to this agenda.  See for example, Oliver Grau's  Virtual Art[6],  Doug Kahn and Gregory Whitehead's Wirlesss Imagination[7], and several of Errki Huhtamo's articles (for example ³On The Archaeology of Interactivity²[8]).  This section tries to revisit the origins of interest in wireless technologies.


Wireless as Subset of Telecommunications: 


At its heart wireless communications is a variant of telecommunications (communication at a distance).    As a tool for understanding wireless communication, it is useful to consider what motivations empower telecommunications in general.  When human communities lived in close-knit tribal culture there was not much necessity for telecommunication.  Distance communication became important as people traveled and strayed from home. They traveled for a variety of purposes including exploration, migration, affiliation, exploitation, and dominion.   They were curious about the Other.  They wanted to explore other places and meet other persons. Stories and mythologies told of significant happenings, wonders to behold, and dangers to avoid beyond the known.  They needed to expand in territory and resources sometimes through migration and sometimes through warfare.  They built empires.  As communities spread out it became important to know of distant events and to keep connected to people who had moved.  It became important to know how the explorers and warriors were doing at the frontiers.  These twin motivations of curiosity and domination serve as an underlying source for telecommunication.


In traditional societies telecommunication most often involved physical transmission of messages ­ for example, runners, pony express, carrier pigeons.  They devised other methods that used other physical media in order to send messages faster than could be carried by messengers ­ for example, drums, smoke signals, fire, and mirrors.  Finally in the nineteenth century, people learned how to draft the then mysterious electromagnetic force to send messages over wires.  At first it was short distances with the electrical forces resulting in bubbles in liquids, deflections of magnetic needles, or other indicators.  Later it got refined into telegraphs and telephones. 


Observers were quite amazed when actions in one place could cause something to happen in a distant place. Also it seemed to happen instantaneously, at the same moment the sender sent it (prior to understanding about the speed of light.)  When the experiments started, the sender and receiver were within eyesight of each other.  Quickly, however, experimenters realized they could send the messages distances of many miles ­ ultimately beyond the distance traveled by previous methods such as smoke signals or optical telegraphs.  Quickly developers expanded to communication between cities or even across the ocean.  They expanded to include voice. 


The perceived magic of this act of sending messages beyond eyesight via electricity is significant.  It is important that anyone trying to explore the cultural core of wireless remember the magic of the moment.  It is one of the first realizations of ancient dreams of transcending time, place, distance, gravity, and the physical limitations of the body.  It is the beginning of being able to act at a distance and even of being in two places at once.  Previously, these were the province of the gods or of magic.


Wireless:  Cutting the Cord


In spite of the momentousness of electricity-based wire communication, wireless communication takes the exploration into even deeper symbolic space.  Marconi and other researchers demonstrated that electromagnetic pulses could carry messages without wires. Previously, there always was that wire reminding everyone of the ultimate physicality.  Without the wire there was no telecommunication.


The freeing from wires did more than just add convenience.  To early observers the voice or other messages seemed to come out of nowhere.  Many thought communication was from the spirit world or from God.  Some connected them with stories in the Bible of disembodied voice such as God talking to Moses out of the burning bush. 


Quite quickly researchers moved from demonstration projects to serious communication across the oceans.  Although wireless was originally conceived as point to point communication like previous wired forms, new models of one to many (as in broadcast radio) were quickly developed.  Wireless introduced important innovations ­ mobility, flexibility, anonymity, spontaneity, democracy   It decreased the importance of place. Both senders and receivers were free to move about instead of being fixed by the ends of the wire.  It introduced even more anonymity than wired communication.  Both senders and receivers could be unknown.  It introduced spontaneity.  Anyone with the appropriate technology could initiate a session whenever they wanted.  Once the technology became more developed and less expensive, it democratized telecommunication.  Anyone could use it without relying on access to the infrastructure of wires.


Perhaps even more profoundly wireless gave people direct access to the mysterious electromagnetic forces that physicists had started working with in the latter part of the previous century.  Physicists had uncovered an unseen world of elementary particles and forces.  Moving away from the physical objects of everyday life, scientists presented aspects of the world that worked differently.  Wireless presented a set of real experiences that depended on that world.  How could these energy fields fill space and yield effects while invisible and not palpable?


Since the beginning of the century, telecommunications have expanded into great industries.  Telephone, radio, and television have spread over the earth.  These technologies have become dominant industries and carved out their own cultural niches with their own audiences, aesthetics and critical communities.  Some believe that television and radio have become the most dominant art forms of the twentieth century.  They have been mostly ignored by the fine arts mainstream, except for a few experiments. Anyone interested in wireless as an art form would do well to consider precedents established in radio.  See my book Information Arts (MIT Press, 2002) for more details of these developments.


New wireless technologies have emerged ­ for example, cell phones, SMS, GPS, and wireless computer communication. Great interest has been aroused among cultural analysts and artists.  Why is there interest now when radio did not generate much enthusiasm?  The current generation of wireless in some ways realizes some of the promise of the earlier generations.  For example, even though radio technologically provided opportunities for flexible one-to-one communication, (for example, ham radio, radio phones, pirate radio, etc)  it was mostly dominated by broadcast.  Now, technologically sophisticated, relatively inexpensive cellular and wi-fi  promise increasingly cheaper, mobile, flexible, spontaneous, decentralized and universal communication of anyone to anyone.  Researchers promise rapid improvements in bandwidth, penetration and forms of media supported. The linkage with the Internet promises access to information as well as persons.


A related wireless technology, Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) is a electromagnetic wave based technology that allows people on the earth to read their exact location (within 3 meters) through triangulation of signals from multiple satellites. When combined with outgoing wireless technologies such as cell phones, GPS allows others to track people and objects (for example, parolees under house arrest, children wandering in a theme park, movements of buses). Developers are moving rapidly to develop new forms of location-based services and entertainment.  GPS is a unprecedented technology that raises fascinating cultural issues such as its military origins, surveillance and psychological geography that cannot be fully analyzed here. See my book Information Arts for more analysis. 


Commercial interests promote the ultimate convenience of 24/7 anytime, anywhere communication and information access.   Theorists suggest that the future implications are a bit more complex.  For example, the Critical Art Ensemble[9] suggest that wireless could be seen as the ultimate exploitation, shackling workers to their jobs wherever they go.  Others such as Howard Rheingold in his book Smart Mobs propose that wireless will nurture a new kind of ³smart mob² democracy in which citizens can rapidly mobilize to achieve political and cultural goals without the need for cumbersome political infrastructure. 


Smart mobs emerge when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation. The impacts of smart mob technology already appear to be both beneficial and destructiveŠ.

The people who make up smart mobs cooperate in ways never before possible because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing capabilities. Their mobile devices connect them with other information devices in the environment as well as with other people's telephones. [10]


Stimulated by both the new possibilities and the dangers, artists are exploring wireless technology.  They are creating works that explore the cultural implications of the present and the possibilities of the future.  They are showing aspects of the technology perhaps not even realized by the researchers who gave birth to the technology and as a result helping to shape future research.  Analyses of this art can benefit from keeping in mind the cultural issues underlying the history of telecommunication and wireless. 


Survey and Taxonomy of Wireless Artists


This section offers a brief survey of artists working with wireless technology.  It also attempts to introduce some preliminary categories as a tool for further analysis.  Because there so much new work rapidly appearing, this survey must be seen as only suggestive.


Radio: Most contemporary artists and theorists interested in wireless usually mean new technologies such as cellular or wi-fi rather than anything older.  They seem to want to forget about radio.  But radio is the grandfather of all wireless. Theorists such as Bertolt Brecht  (e.g. in "Let the listener speak as well as hear") expressed hopes for empowerment potentials of radio similar to what current artists express for wireless.  Historically artists seem to have yielded radioıs cultural ground to the governmental and commercial interests that have dominated for so long.  Hopefully, the new interest in wireless will also include a revisiting of radio. Several features make radio interesting. Radio is extremely cheap, widely distributed, easily used by people all over the world without any technological sophistication, and does not require a prior subscription to a network (for example, cell phone provider.)

Starting with the futurists, some artists have tried to introduce cultural experimentation into radio. See Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whiteheadıs Wireless Imagination for details.  Contemporary experiments   include various forms of KunstRadio[11] throughout Europe.  Artists have experimented by introducing culturally challenging subject matter and by taking advantage of its collage, real time, dispersed potentials. Expensiveness and technological complexity of broadcast radio have been barriers to artistic involvement. New technologies have brought these barriers down. As a result some artists are trying to reclaim broadcast through pirate or free radio (unlicensed broadcasting), mini-FM (inexpensive local FM transmitters ­ for example, Tetsuo Kogawa[12]), and integration with the Internet (for example, interactive real time audience participation such as Horizontal Radio[13]).


Visualizing the Electromagnetic Cloud: What is this field of emanation that surrounds us?  What is it filled with?  What are its dangers?  Some artists have attempted to create works that allow audiences new ways to perceive these transmissions. For example  Simon Penny in Lo Yo Yo  created a sculpture in which rocking rods access different radio stations based on their changing positions[14].  Christian Terstegge created Radio?Active in which sponges with embedded receivers soaked up emanations.  In Skyear[15], Usman Haque launched balloons with electronics which picked up the electromagnetic melange of signals as they ascended.  British musician Scanner is famous for his sound works made of intercepted cell phone conversations.


Other artists attempt to focus even more fundamentally on the electromagnetic fields, calling attention to their omnipresence and sometimes to their dangers.  For example, Haruki Nishijimaıs Remain in Light[16]  provided special butterfly nets which could capture 'electronic insects' (radio waves of sound) that filled space around participants and then visualized them. Catherine Richardıs Curiosity Cabinet[17] offered a fully copper plated room into which viewers could climb to protect themselves from electromagnetic fields.  Anthony Dunne & Fiona Rabyıs installation Placebo Furniture[18] called viewerıs attention to the ŒHetzian Spaceı by creating furniture that reacted to electromagnetic fields.


Wireless Activated Events and Sculptures:   Artists have used the spontaneity and mobility of cell phones to change the relationship of viewers to artistic works, allowing the audience to affect the flow of events  Implicitly these works comment on hopes that distributed wireless will create a new kind of ad hoc empowered citizenry.  For example, Golan Levinıs Telesymphony[19] transformed concert hall passivity by creating a sound composition which incorporated rings activated by audience calls to cell phones. Sheron Wray and Fleeta Siegel charted a potential future form of theater with Texterritory[20] in which audience membersı cell phone conversations with each other and the performers shaped the performance. Ken Goldbergıs Teleactor[21] equipped a mobile agent with wi-fi and webcamera so that web visitors could vote on the next actions the agent should take as they moved through their world.  My Telepresent[22] installation/event enabled people to carry a device which automatically uploaded images to a web site as the holder moved in the city and also spoke comments from remote web visitors who were watching.  Each holder passed the Œpresentı on to another person at the end of the day.


Working within a public art context, Electrolandıs Urban Spectacle R-G-B activated the lights on a building so that cell phone callers could control the patterns. Rafael Lozano-Hemmerıs Amodal Suspension[23] enabled viewers moving about the city to control patterns followed by search lights above the city via SMS messaging. The searchlights even visualized coded versions of the messages.


ŒSmart Mobı Games:  Smart Mob theorists predict that mobile communications will enable new kinds of spontaneous interactions among people moving about the city ­ for example for political or entertainment purposes.  Artists have begun to comment on the positive and negative implications by creating mobile technology-dependent events.   For example Blast Theory explored the new abilities to track people in the city with Can You See me Now[24] , a virtual chase game  activated by tracing real runners moving through city and Roy All Around You, an event in which viewers helped people moving in the city to find a hidden uncle Roy. The group Operation cntrcpyô [25] mounted an SMS game to where participants competed to send virtual astronauts to Mars.  The UK Flirt[26] (Flexible Information and Recreation for mobile users) research group developed location based mobile games such as Lost Cat and Herd within the EU Research ŒIT for Mobilityı initiative. Commenting on both new relationships of people to information in the city and to each other, Yury Gitman and Carlos Gomez de Llarena orchestrated a wireless scavenger hunt called Node Runner[27].


Location Based Authoring (GPS): Artists are eager to investigate the new possibilities of GPS.  Some propose a new kind of interactive, location based authoring in which audience reflections about particular places can be amalgamated and made available to others who traverse the same places. For example Teri Ruebıs Trace[28] allowed hikers near the Banff Art Center in British Columbia to leave and hear reflections on transformation and change linked to elements of scenery they encountered. Hoshi TakuyaŒs Spatial Memory Architecture[29] invited people to link text with particular locations in the city.  The Urban Tapestries Project[30] was created by a research group investigating location based methods for facilitating social annotation including text, sound, and images.


Other artists focus on crafting location based events without annotation.  For example, Iain Mottıs Sound Mapping[31] offered a sound composition that activated as people passed through hot spots in the city. Stefan Schemat  has created several installations of location based fiction (for example Water and Osmotic Minds[32]) in which the stories unfold as people travel in the city.  Paula Levineıs Shadows[33] used GPS to map Iraq war events to physical locations in San Francisco by transposing exact geographical relationships.  My TransitTime[34] created a sound and video event that was activated by the real time movements of transit trains in San Francisco (as determined by GPS).  Links to many other GPS inspired artworks are available at my art and technology links page[35].


Future Developments in Wireless Technology


If artists are going to help shape research agendas and act as innovators, it is essential that they learn about emerging research long before it becomes commercialized as products.  This means they must tie into information networks outside of arts and media and face the challenge of working with technologies that have not yet been validated as art.  This section briefly surveys some wireless related areas of inquiry that are likely to be important in the future.  For more details on some of these technologies see my Emerging Technologies web site[36]. 


Wireless Everywhere on the Earth: Even though cell phones and wi-fi are available widely in technologically developed societies, these services are not available everywhere.  For example, there is spotty coverage in rural areas, many developing countries, the oceans, and deserts.  Developers are working on low-orbit satellite systems that will be truly available on 98% of the earthıs surface.  These systems (such as Teledisc or Immarsat) will allow people on the earth to access the satellite from portable equipment instead of requiring large antennas. 


Haptics, Kinestetics, and Voice:  Wireless technologies often require people to use small devices that lack large screens and keyboards. The spread of these devices has accelerated research into gesture and voice interfaces in which people can use their bodies and voices.  Also, some researchers believe distance communication can be enhanced by conveying information directly from and to bodies ­ for example, by sensing body language or physiological conditions and by directly stimulating the receiverıs body.  They also believe this may enhance communication of emotional state.


Pervasive/ Ubiquitous Computing:  Visionaries describe a future for information technologies quite different from the present.  Instead of relying on discrete specialized devices such as computers, pdas, and cellphones, they see computing and communication capabilities embedded in the everyday objects and architectural spaces that fill life. The floors, furniture, walls, utensils, clothing, etc will all sense human actions and communicate with humans and each other (via wireless) to add to convenience and the texture of life.  Already, some experimental devices have been developed such as vital sign monitoring clothing for the elderly and wall construction blocks embedded with display capabilities.


Telerobotics, Telepresence, Unmanned Vehicles:  Researchers are working hard to expand telecommunications to all kinds of sensory modalities and to integrate robotics and telecommunications.  Telepresence aims to collect sufficient information about a place (for example, including rich sound, immersive 3D image, touch, and smell) that the distant visitor feels like they are actually there.  Using telerobotics, researchers hope to make a distant person not only able to know of a distant situation but also to act effectively.  For example the militaryıs unmanned vehicles enable distant telepresent controllers to wage war with vehicles from far away and space scientists create rovers which can act as surrogate explorers on distant planets.


Electromagnetic Fields:  For decades there have been warnings and health claims for electromagnetic fields.  For example, some evidence suggests that radio and other electromagnetic emanations may, among other things, disrupt brain function, cause cancer, and cause miscarriages.  Others claim that the fields can be beneficial for healing.


Alternative Power Sources:  All these mobile devices and communicating objects require mobile power.  Critics note that innovation in mobile devices has outstripped our development of batteries and the like to power them. Several inquiries are looking beyond batteries to try to remedy this. Flexible flat batters may enable the integration of batteries into the basic structure of objects ­ for example the case of a phone doubling as a rechargeable battery.  Portable hydrogen cells may one day make power out of water.  Beamed power may send energy over lasers or microwaves.  Capacitance based system may extract storable energy from the act of walking.


Teleportation: Teleportation is the ultimate telecommunication device.  Instead of transmitting messages, physical entities such as objects or persons may be sent instantaneously.  Currently, this technology is the stuff of science fiction but there are several serious research groups around the world investigating feasibility and possible technologies. For example, IBM researchers claim that the quantum teleportation of elementary particles is feasible.




Wireless is an important milestone in humanityıs attempt to escape the limitations of time, space, and the body. It rides on the back of invisible, not-completely understood energy fields that weave the universe together. In the bustle of everyday life most people using technologies such as cell phones forget to realize what a symbolic technology it is.  Within the hype of increasing convenience, they also forget its cultural complexity and its underlying narratives.  Its heritage includes both curiosity and dominion.  It serves purposes of affiliation, convenience, and exploitation.  Researchers are working hard to extend where it can reach, what it can communicate, how it can be incorporated in everyday objects, and eventually how it might send objects rather than messages.


Artists create works that reconnect viewers with some of this complexity.  They find ways to visualize the energy fields, warn of there possible dangers, and marvel at its mystery. Their events and installations demonstrate unanticipated ways of using technologies such as SMS, cell phones and GPS that can help suggest new research directions.  They help expand audience perspectives to realize that technologies often have implications and possibilities beyond the utilitarian uses by which they are most known.

[1] For more details about Stephen Wilson writings, art works, and contact information, see the website

[2] Wilson, Stephen. Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology MIT Press, 2002




[6] Grau, Oliver. Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion.  MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002

[7] Kahn, Douglas and Gregory Whitehead (eds). Wireless Imagination. Cambridge: MIT Press:, 1992



[10] Book summary for Howard Rheingold , Smart Mobs

[11] See my artists links for lists of artist projects























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