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Real Time: Interview with Dean Terry

Interviewer: Rachel Clarke

Dean Terry
University of Texas, Dallas

Real Time Mobile Art Exhibition on Vimeo
Real Time Mobile Art Exhibition Essay

Tell me about the premise of the show, and briefly describe the process the artists underwent for the duration of the show.

Real Time attempts to challenge the way the audience and a selected group of artists produce and think about their work in a mobile context. It started with the question: “What kind of art can you make on a mobile phone in 30 seconds?”

When the show opened there was no art for a couple of minutes, save for a few test pieces. Then the artists started following “the rules.” The rules were (a) they had to make everything on a mobile phone, (b) no more than 30 seconds per piece and (c) at least one per day and (d) they had to send it from the device to the Dallas Contemporary where it was scaled up and projected on the walls. Every new piece that came in was time stamped and added to a loop that ran endlessly. Each artist was encouraged to interpret the constraints differently and to utilize any conceptual frame they desired.

By providing this restrictive structure, I hoped to highlight how time and mobility affect the process and status of art making and it's resultant product, and how artists might work under the same conditions that millions of us live in every day. I often refer to this kind of mobile enabled work created in atomized bits over time, often under pressure, as microart.

Can you talk more about the artists you selected, what particular aspects of their work or their approach to art-making made you gravitate towards them? Please talk about particular artists.

I selected artists who, with a couple of exceptions, had little or no prior experience working with a mobile phone as a device for art making. It was an experiment to see how they dealt with the restrictive conditions placed upon them and how they restructured their process within these constraints.

This show was the third in a series of new media exhibitions at the Dallas Contemporary and, like the previous shows, we chose a combination of national and regional artists.

For the regional artists, I chose the inter.sect group because they had experience of working in a mobile context and an interesting collaboration process. They responded to interruptive text prompts sent to them by Christi Nielsen, the group's founder. In doing this they do what we all do every day: deal with continual disruption and scattering of our attention.

Bart Weiss has a long history of conventional filmmaking and festival curation and I wanted to see what would happen when you put someone in a position where they are unable to plan or control the environment. Where an entire piece is 30 seconds or less. Where there is no editing. Bart excelled at this and was very enthusiastic throughout. Many months later, I see the frogs he shot.

I also chose Marjorie and Ludwig Schwarz because of the work on their web site, they were already doing what I was calling “microart” - very small, short, informal pieces. They trained their cat to meow Cindy Lauper’s Time After Time, what else can I say?

I was interested in Kirsten Macy because of her history of performance and spoken word work. Her piece for the show hangs on a voice performance that is an excellent example of her spoken work (

Both the Schwarz's and Macy have performative elements in their work which I thought fit perfectly with the mobile experience. Whether or not you are on camera, there's a performative element in mobile video. At the very least, every movement of your hand is recorded. And these movement are amplified when scaled up large as they were in the Contemporary space. Second, and this is evident in other work in the show, when you record in public you are performing, in a way - unless you are being clandestine, which has its own interesting aspects.

Marisa Olson did a piece in a psychiatrists office waiting area that plays on this. I chose Marisa as one of the national artists also because of her performance work, which I thought would work well in the spontaneous, improvisational context that mobile media encourages.

Doreen Maloney sent me a couple of excellent ideas early on, and based on that I was excited about her participation. Her idea was to record auto accidents. This struck me as disturbing, challenging, possibly wrong in a number of ways, and perfect for a mobile oriented show. The ubiquity and portability of mobile video is a big part of what gives it its power. Scenes from the London bombings, comedians losing it, and politicians going off script and ending up on YouTube are early indicators of the explosive / casual nature of the format.

Leslie Sharpe had extensive experience with locative media, and a very strong visual sense that resonated with me immediately. I wanted to see how she would interpret the conceptual frame of Real Time. In my view she produced many of the most compelling visual images of the show, in particular images of cold, snow-swept Canadian landscapes being reformed by development and other marks placed on it by people and their machines.

Given what you describe as our limited attention span, what do you think makes for captivating cell phone art?

Making mobile art is more than just making smaller, shorter videos. It's also more than making something that is just another attention thief. This is old media / broadcast thinking that quickly loses it's effectiveness in a mobile context.

I think mobile art needs to take fully into consideration the mobile context, which includes both technical capabilities and the social matrix. Ideally it will concern itself, to some degree, with the metadata of location. Over time there will be more and more microlocal data available for mining as well as creating. So the “picture” that is taken is more than just a compressed collection of pixels. The simplest example is what many cameras already do: geo tagging. That’s just the camera knowing where it is in a crude kind of way. Mobile devices will know more and more about their context and I think compelling mobile art will take advantage of this.

Regarding attention, rather than making work that targeted itself at attention starved viewers, the work in Real Time was work that came from victims of attention starvation: the artists themselves. The 30 second, once a day requirement artificially highlighted this condition.

The approach of this show resulted in work that was more about process and a collection of bits of media rather than discrete objects. I suppose you could make beautiful 15 second art-somethings (I have tried this in previous shows) that people would enjoy but that was not our focus here.

You talk about the “emerging mobile culture”. How do technologies change or affect cultural expression? What does cell phone art say about our culture?

In an overworked society - one where we live to work rather than work to live, extended periods of uninterrupted creative time are a luxury. Mobile art, as I have framed it here, is the art of the hurried, exhausted, overworked, time encumbered American.

Multitasking, or now metatasking, is a phrase we often use to boast of something we should be resisting. It's another way of saying you are letting yourself be taken advantage of, that you think you can do more than you really can because you feel pressured to do so. And with all the new technology tools you are given the illusion that you will better be able to manage the hundreds of diversions that micro slice your attention.

In relation to the show the point was not the time constraint itself, or the idea of one. Rather it was the framing and exploration of a particular kind of expression enabled and made possible by emerging communications tools. This is the kind of expression you do at a stop light, a line, waiting for someone outside a bathroom. This is the time and space we have left for art. Each “entry” in microart is a particle of process. It is expression compression.

You say the cell phone is an “ideal art machine”. What are the particular qualities of the cell phone and the imagery it creates that make it so ideal?

Mobile devices are potentially excellent art machines. They have, or will have, most the media generation capabilities of the desktop, plus some that move us beyond the desktop era. Things like location and ubiquity move us beyond the constraints and assumptions of desktop media creation.

Also, mobile phones are very personal devices and are present in intimate situations. They are always very close to the body (many people sleep with their phones, among other things). As a capture device they can be very close to another person and because of their commonness and size they are usually not objectionable.

Looking forward, emerging mobile devices will have an increasing array of sensors on them. Sound input, motion detection from accelerometers, GPS location, compass, light detectors, touch sensitivity, cameras, microphones. All of these are available as tools for interacting in a larger participatory data context than just a simple image or video.

Mobile devices also move us beyond the idea of the Internet as where the data is. On the traditional Internet you are where your browser is pointed (the domain). With a mobile device you are where you are standing, and increasingly are surrounded by an “Internet of things” and a rich context of place based data.

The nature of mobile imagery will be distinguished for some time, relative to dedicated higher resolution devices, but not as dramatically as in the past. Video will move to HD and other technical constraints will be overcome, but a quality gap is not the measure of impact or relevance to art making. What's important is the way it changes they way one produces and thinks about the nature of the result. Rather than saying to your self “I am now going to the computer to make art” you just hit record on the device that's already in your hand. There's no sitting down in a specific location in front of a stationary machine. Even laptops free us by a matter of degree, not to the extent of a mobile device capable of multiple media capture and manipulation. There's no sitting down, there's no going anywhere - you are already there.

All of this suggests an approach that would favor less formed thoughts, momentary impulses, a lack of refinement, spontaneity and tentative / iterative strategies. But then, as with any form of improvisation, practice improves the end product.

You describe the works as a “continuum of discrete pieces”, can you talk about the kind of continuum that emerges from this process. How does it speak differently to the notion of narrative than other film or video forms?

Microart as I construe it here is partly about accepting and exhibiting (mostly) failure rather than (mostly) success. It is about the composite and sequential effect of a large number of small bits that create a stream rather than fewer, individual substantive statements. Like most cultural productions in consumer society, individual entries may be trivial and disposable but the idea is that the cumulative, ambient effect is not.

In this iteration of mobile media there's no editing and the work is made in different locations 30 seconds at a time, separated by minutes, hours or days. There's little planning in many cases, though often a lot of thought goes into specific pieces beforehand. A whole day of thinking about an idea leads to a 30 second execution. In other cases the work is spontaneous and contextual. None of the works in the show are structured narratives, and the term can only be applied loosely. They are more like collections that are held together by author, style, and sometimes by theme and location. Of course someone could make a linear video or sequence but it misses the point of micro locative media as defined for this context.

The work seems to confront the viewer with a sense of urgency and immediacy, as we jolt through intimate glimpses of others' lives and experiences, familiar yet out of context. The effect is quite disorientating, and the viewer experiences both a sense of intimacy and distance. Can you address this aspect of the work?

This is not dissimilar to the experience of social media, where these “glimpses” by themselves are of minimal interest, but taken in context and in composite they become more meaningful. In Real Time, once a viewer understood the basic “frame” that the artist was working in, the individual bits made more sense. For Bart Weiss it was shopping, so every video was a decision, and analysis, a seduction, a critique. For Marisa Olson it was more loose, but generally confessional. Others had similar framings. This is not much different for how an individual microblog entry on twitter or a status update on Facebook, for example, is considered. Once the person’s general context is understood, the atomized pieces have a grounding. The difference is with this show the context was the artist’s approach and process and with social media it is the individual’s social media identity.

What are your thoughts looking forward, how will your next projects change based on what you’ve learned here?

My thought process with mobile ideas has moved from an interest in the actual quality and nature of mobile images (when the images were really poor) to ideas about time and pressure, performance, and ubiquity (this show) to ideas about place / location, intimacy, disposability, place based conversation and social geo mapping (the next show).

My next curatorial idea will be a conversation rather than a broadcast. There was a public screen in Real Time where anyone could submit but it was not integrated and none of the artists conversed with each other. In that sense it was conventional single author art with no collaboration.

The other thing is that the videos in Real Time are not disposable. They are still precious, special kinds of art objects in some way. This is hard to shake. I've recently been thinking of mobile media in a more disposable sense, where what is created has meaning in a particular context and location, in a social graph and networked conversation. I plan to explore this idea further in future events.

Contact info for Dean Terry
twitter & flickr ID: therefore