When Al Gore invented the internet, people were uncertain about the possibly nefarious, even dangerous, repercussions of such a bizarre and incomprehensible new technology. But I like to look on the bright side. Two of the best near-standard bonus features in our portable digital devices are cameras in cellphones and mikes in MP3 players. If you can afford them, they democratize photography and sound recording, and in doing so create open arenas for artistic exploration.
In July, the L.A. gallery Sixspace presented SENT, the first major show of phonecam photography.
"What we're exploring is how the phonecam creates a world in which people view aesthetically," says co-curator Caryn Coleman. "Phonecams have the ability to capture the extraordinary, things you see on the street or in your backyard that aren't seen every day."
But it takes a good eye to pull beauty from the mundane, or at least to pull beauty from the hundreds of fuzzy close-ups of your drinking buddy's shoe. And this is the exploratory aim of SENT: to see what kind of stuff the 22 invited artists (among them Weird Al Yankovic!) could pull from the Motorola V600 phonecams the project provided.
In tandem with National Public Radio the organizers initiated the Phonecam Challenge, an open call for images displayed on plasma monitors at the show.
"We've already received over 15 megabytes of photography," says Coleman, no small feat when the pictures average a few kb per. Visit www.sentonline.com to see an online exhibit of phonecam works.
On a par with the ubiquity of cameras in phones is the near universal inclusion of recording capability in the latest crop of MP3 players. Most come with tiny built-in microphones that allow for decent sound recording, most commonly in wav format.
Though we buy MP3 players to listen to music, a built-in mike is a great tool for exploring audio. Again, a few too many fuzzy recordings will probably feature a drinking buddy's beer-lacquered prose. But the devices also provide an opportunity to create beautiful audio collages or capture the hum of the city or a friend's inspired guitar playing without having to lug along anything but your pint-size player. There's been no CD compilation of MP3-player-recorded ditties just yet, but it'll happen. And maybe they'll call it HEARD.
As we make greater use of our freebie gadgets, perhaps, like parasites, they'll begin to take up greater parts of their hosts. We'll start fiddling with the shutter speed on our phone as we call Mom. Canon has seen this future coming and recently decided to jump into an already crowded cellphone market.
Still, it should come as no shock that a new tech innovation has aroused fear in the hearts of many, most of whom worry about the erosion of privacy due to photocam ubiquity.
While the camera phone could no doubt swing up Marilyn's skirt with greater agility than, say, an SLR camera with a 300mm °zoom lens, and mikes in MP3s could capture sounds some people might want to keep to themselves, privacy zealots are misguided. Phonecams are an absurd target when you consider the array of thimble-size cameras that can be picked up at your local spy shop or convenience store.
Technology, like airwaves, big business and our digestive tracts, must be regulated. Those who use phonecams and other gadgets to facilitate criminal activity should, of course, be punished.
Meanwhile, unhampered by an unfounded digital backlash, the rest of the world will be free to explore the creative potential in a handful of increasingly popular cellphones and MP3 player accessories.