With funding from The Fine Foundation, The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust commissioned the Netherlands-based artist collective, Informationlab, to create Cell Phone Disco, the city’s first art+science interactive installation.
“The notion of ‘Lighting’ the Cultural District is in our current five-year strategic plan and also our upcoming three-year plan,” says Murray Horne, curator of the Trust’s Wood Street Galleries. “Cell Phone Disco will serve as an anchor for other potential installations that will illuminate the pedestrian pathways throughout the District.”
Cell Phone Disco joins a list of other notable lighting installations curated by The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust: Sign of Light (1999) designed by Robert Wilson and Richard Gluckman, Wall of Light (1999) by Robert Wilson and Flow (2004) by Erwin Redl.
In 2006, architect Ursula Lavrenčič and information designer Auke Touwslager created the first version of Cell Phone Disco, an installation which transforms a part of the electromagnetic spectrum into another frequency range – the range of visible light. Their fascination lies with the transmission quality of the mobile phone; its presence beyond the shell of the device.
Every single mobile phone transmits radio waves in order to connect to a network and everyday millions of people around the world are broadcasting their private conversations. Here we are witnessing a unique moment in history, when transmission is no longer exclusive domain of broadcasting companies. Mobile phone connectivity became just another layer of urban landscape and substantially changed the electromagnetic topography of the environment. Cell Phone Disco has been embraced by many art galleries and museums, but with the installation in Pittsburgh, it is finally positioned in the public space where it generates a glimpse at the dynamics of the omnipresent mobile phone traffic.
For this first outdoor, site-specific art installation of Cell Phone Disco, the intersection of Tito and Exchange ways was selected for its high-volume of pedestrian traffic and the very long sight line down Exchange Way. The artists note in a statement, “We find it very interesting that in this way you can observe from a great distance electromagnetic clouds that people passing by are (unintentionally) producing.”
In order to reach the sensitivity that corresponds the urban scale and situation, the artists and a team of engineers developed a concept where an advanced receiver continuously scans input from 16 antennas along the 16 by 16’ grid. The data of the electromagnetic radiation is fed to eight processors that are embedded in the digital display. The computed values at any given point are represented through 2,304 individually controlled LED lights. What was once invisible is now detectable through the visual senses:
“We wanted to present a visualization of the electromagnetic space and blend it with the physical environment. We have enveloped the display in a two-way mirror, so when there is cell phone activity in the vicinity the light cloud appears on the top of the reflected image of the alley. In this sense the installation is a fusion of the invisible digital reality represented by LEDs and the analog world as it appears in the mirror,” the artists note in an emailed statement.
“When people see the installation and make a phone call, after they are finished, they may see the phone no longer as an object in their hands but something that is larger, something part of a much bigger invisible architecture,” says Mr. Touwslager.
Ms. Lavrenčič adds, “I hope people will enjoy walking through the alley and that Cell Phone Disco will become a natural part of the alley. From an architectural perspective, it is very interesting to see how an intervention like Cell Phone Disco can change how people move through the city.”