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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues




Interview by Nikos Kaimakamis for Mobile Magazine

Golan Levin, 26 October 2005.


At the beginning we would like to get to know a few things about you and your career. Who is Golan Levin and what his way of life is.

I'm an artist who uses electronic media. In particular, I write software in order to create new kinds of artistic experiences. These are usually performances or installations, though sometimes I create work which only exists online. I live in Pittsburgh, which is a friendly and inexpensive city, and I teach at Carnegie Mellon University, which is a good school for technology and art. I'm really concerned with educating young artists to be prepared for the 21st century, and although this could mean a lot of things, one of my main efforts is to get them to be comfortable with computers. This isn't so easy, since I can't even really say that I enjoy using or programming computers myself. One of the recurring themes in my artwork is the idea that using computers can be much more fun and expressive, and use the entire human body.


Do you have a mobile phone? How do you use it?

Yes, it's a modern necessity in many respects. In my case, it is the only phone I use. Neither my home nor my office at school are connected with land-lines. Last week I actually upgraded my mobile phone for the first time in two years. My new one allows me to get email, surf the web, write office documents and take pictures… pretty soon my office will be wherever I am.


Which are the conclusions you draw from Dialtones? Did it transform the way we hear and conceive the multicellular being you refer to in your Dialtones report?

Well one conclusion I had is that people identify with their phones in a very personal way, much more than I had expected. During our concert, nobody said to themselves, "hmm, the piece of plastic in my hand is making sound!" Instead, people thought: "Someone is calling me!" This seemed to be the case even though people knew that nobody was on the other end of the line - it was just our dialing computer. I think this was especially true because we were dialing people's own phones. Another conclusion we had, was that the real instrument we were performing was not the audience's mobile phones, but rather the mobile telephone network. It's very easy to place one phone call, but to place calls to 60 people simultaneously, is an altogether different thing. It means we had to perform the infrastructure.


It seems that you see mobile phones as a tool of art creation. Why?

It's important to understand the difference between the use of technologies as a tool, and the use of technologies as a medium. I would say that Dialtones was concerned with the idea that we are all carrying around these phones, which are conduits for images and sounds. They become conduits or media through which expression becomes possible, both for me and my friends as composers, but also for the people who use them everyday. The main lesson of media-based arts over the last twenty years, I think, is that any technology can be used as a medium in this way. And each medium permits entire new worlds of possible expressions.


Do you imagine ways that the mobile phones can be transformed into art symbols, or art ingredients? Is mobile phone art a form of art like sculpture, photography, music etc?

Currently there are many people around the world using mobile phones as an artistic medium. Some people are using them to make musical performances, like myself, or Jonah Brucker-Cohen, or Gilles Perring. Other people have made what I might call sound-art installations, like Tobias Trier, Peter Hrubesch, Craighead & Thomson, and Usman Haque. And some people have used them for something similar to theater, like Tim Etchell's project "Surrender Control", which involved sending SMS messages to the audience. Because these devices can be used to make sounds, images, text transmissions, voice transmissions, and even video, that there is no one such thing which is just "mobile phone art" - instead, it's a rapidly developing collection of related practices. It changes all the time because of the continually-expanding capabilities and social penetration of these devices.


Which ingredient of the cellular space of the future do you believe that is going to dominate the others? Is it going to be SMS, ringtones, images, or video or some new form mixing all of them?

In a year or two, telephones will be indistinguishable from computers: functionally speaking, they will become meta-machines that can be used for nearly any purpose that people have in mind. So it is impossible to say because all of these different activities will take place, and different communities of people will exercise a preference for one or the other. Knowing human nature, though, we can probably guess that pornography tailored to mobile phones will become a very lucrative business sometime in the near future. I also think that a major difference between phones and computers is that the phones move around in the world, and in principle they know where they are at any moment. Therefore we can expect to see many new kinds of information applications which are context-sensitive and location-sensitive. For example, asking your phone to show you where the nearby restaurants are when you're traveling in an unfamiliar city.


Do you believe that the handheld devices of the future (such as PDA's, smartphones, etc.) will provide us with new forms of art and pleasure? If yes, which ones do you foresee coming in the nearest future?

Again, smartphones and PDA's are really the same thing as phones, or they will be within a couple of years. I think we should expect that our phones will be able to do all of the things that the new "Video iPod" can do - play and record movies, music, video games, etcetera. But your question is about new forms of art. I definitely believe that media artists will explore this question and devise many interesting experiments, so: yes, we can expect new forms of art which occur only on phones. However, compared to movies-on-demand and (networked) video games, I would predict that these experiments will be pretty obscure!


Are there any future plans in your mind concerning our mobile universe? If yes, can you share them with us? Are you thinking of performing in Greece, since we are heavy users of our mobile phones?

I didn't want to become known as a "phone artist", so I have focused on other interests of mine since creating the Dialtones project. I do have a new project in mind which would look great in the city of Sparta, but it uses enormous lasers.


Should we stop being bothered by the sound of the mobile phone of the person sitting next to us?

I wonder if we haven't already become so accustomed to this sound that we are no longer bothered by it. That's certainly one possibility. In any case, I think that someday phones will be able to ask the local buildings if they ought to be quiet. Then the phones can regulate themselves accordingly.


Do you see ringtone composing as the future of music?

Actually, yes. Already we see some people producing albums of nothing but ringtones, like Ryuichi Sakamoto and the Hip-Hop group Timbaland. And I think we can expect to see totally new composers who build really successful careers from writings songs which are only ten seconds long.