research design laboratory

SMS social media art installation: the theory

In her talk 'The Ways We Read and Write Now,' Rita Raley of UCSB uses various examples of SMS-based installations to make interesting points about how our relationship to écriture (writing, typing and so on) has been transformed, as highlighted by public and social art interventions. More precisely, Raley's work is on large public screens or displays that showcase text-based messages sent from largely random passers-by, as intentional art intervention rather than to commercial ends. In these art installations, text messages are pooled and showcased in real-time on a monitor for the public to see and become part of the city's broadcast points (See: Wi Journal).

Cityspeak uses their lab's custom Java library, NextText to display the text on a public screen:

This treatment consists of visually animating the text in such a way as to semantically reflect certain characteristics about the user’s input method and the local environment. The text is displayed in three levels. New messages fade quickly into the foreground, in a large font size. The background is composed of text from previous messages, scrolling right-to-left and upward. As the text transitions from being a new message in the foreground to becoming part of the message history in the background, it goes through the ’pixel eater’ in the lower-right corner. The pixel eater pulls new messages into it, creating a chaotic mass of jostling pixels. (Ref: Cityspeak)

Of special interest to me was Raley's use of the local (Montréal) OBX Lab Citypeak project, as one example of the kinds of social "ephemeral graffiti" Raley theorizes. Raley's work seems really focused not on the writing itself but on the practice(s) these kinds of social media interaction enable, including the boundaries of the form: real-time, live, eventful, refreshed, impermanent, not likely to return, and so on. These boundaries are what make the projects she investigates unlike Twitter, or graffiti, for example.

A really interesting moment of the talk occurred during the question period, when someone asked about the perceived anonymity of (and by) contributors, when in fact their personal data was being collected, simply by virtue of participants using their cell phones to submit work (which is necessarily attached to a phone number and thus traceable to a person). Raley's previous work is on surveillance so she was in a good position to address such issues, but it does (or should) remind us how something seeming as innocuous as participating in a social art project means once again surrendering personal data.