The Seven Sirens (trailer)
HD Video. 1minute 55seconds, 2016
HD Video. 1minute 55seconds, 2015
HD Video. 5minute 8seconds, 2016
Archival Pigment Print Mounted on Board . 40"X50" . 2014
Archival Pigment Print Mounted on Board . 45"X25" . 2016
Archival Pigment Print Mounted on Board . 24"X32" . 2016
Oil on Canvas . 40"X24" . 2014
Dot Matrix Printer, Cell Phones, Custom Software . Dimensions Variable . 2013
In Response to Missed Calls Dr. Dennis L. Sepper
Professor, Dept. of Philosophy
Professor and Chair, Dept. of Human Sciences in the Contemporary World
University of Dallas
There was not much to see at first as I walked into the exhibit “Missed Calls” (January 12 to February 2 at the Reading Room, located across the road from the main gate to Fair Park). The space was starkly white, trimmed in black; on the wall opposite the entrance were three cell phones, arrayed in a line a bit more than five feet above the floor; on the right were three framed computer printouts, each displaying ; in the center of the space was an Epson dot-matrix printer on a pedestal, with fanfold paper spilling over onto the floor. Tech, but certainly not high-tech.
As it turned out, this was only the hub of the exhibit. The “spokes” were the electromagnetic signals that communicated with the three cell phones, and they extended out to different locations in the Dallas area where the three phone numbers were posted. My wife in fact noticed one of the postings the previous weekend in the parking lot of Half Price Books on Northwest Highway near Central—a bumper sticker attached to a light pole, with the legend “Public Confessional” along with one of the phone numbers, in black lettering. A person calling the number would ring one of the three cell phones in the gallery and hear an invitation to leave a message. The message was then transcribed to text by Google Voice and printed out by the Epson in the gallery. The messages will be compiled and bound into a book as an archive of the experiment.
Experiment is exactly the right word, but in what? Kris Pierce, who created the exhibit, remarks that it is part of “an investigation of technology and information and its influence on human behavior and quotidian activities.” I teach in a program in the human sciences at an area university, and it occurred to me that if a student had proposed this it would have needed approval from the university’s Institutional Review Board, to assure that no human beings or their privacy were harmed in the making of the exhibit. That says more about federal regulations than about the work, and since I assume that Mr. Pierce did not have NSF or NIH funding there isn’t a problem!
That may sound like my purely individual response, but I think it actually calls attention to the intended framing of the exhibit: the intersection of various human and technical planes of meaning, making, and play. The activity at the hub is the phone’s ringing and flashing, a wait, and then the stirring and rattle of the Epson as the printed text emerges and the wide ribbon of paper descends to the ground. Reading the text (on the last day of the exhibit) wasn’t easy. The current output, to which I added two calls, was only partially legible because of printer ribbon fatigue, and I had to kneel to look at older and more readable messages: a mix ranging from the nearly sublimely poetic, through the mundane, to the confusing and even the unintelligible. Some people left recipes read from cookbooks; others performed a short act of existential drama or recited lines of poetry; and there were remarks for which I’m sure you just had to be there. Google Voice handled recipes well enough that you might have a chance at whipping up something edible, though “olive oil” came out variously as “Ali bro” and “all is well,” and mesclun greens became “mess coming greens.” With the dramatic moments, uttered passionately into the phone (I had a chance to hear some of the voice messages), you wouldn’t want to entrust your life’s affairs to transcription. The message that Google Voice rendered “Your mother told me you were no put some of the going to let me time and I in July and I just don’t know what I’m gonna do you know how much your honor. Hmm” I heard as “your mother told me you were a no good son of a gun. You left me pregnant, high and dry, and I just don’t know what I’m going to do. You’re a rat, YOU’RE A RAT!” Not much honor there. “I’m so lonely. Please leave me a message” was turned into “I'm sorry I'm running late, please leave me a message. Bye.” There was something even more evocative in the printed “the fear of every day, the middle of a clear, my mind can comprehend,” than in the spoken “the fear of every day, from the devil that put me here, my mind can’t comprehend.”
Karen Weiner, who runs the gallery, suggested that there might be some connection to computational linguistics. This strikes me as exactly right, though less as an application or reflection of computational linguistics, or even a critique, than as evidence of what it produces “in the wild.” Computational linguistics, to put it as simply as possible, tries to understand the production of human language as a form of computation and then develops algorithms and routines to generate speech or writing in response to input (which can, of course, mean the input of a human being “conversing” with a device). Apple’s Siri is just one example, and probably everyone has read stories of her comic, absurd, and witty reactions. She is imperfect but improving, since she has ever more sophisticated power of Apple’s servers on her side (Siri thus does not work when the phone is not connected by 3- or 4-G or wi-fi). But those anecdotes conceal as much as they reveal, because they are confined to what the speaker wanted and said and what Siri replied. When all is said and done, Apple and the iPhone user want accuracy and efficiency: technical on the one hand, practical on the other. Using an app is a nicely limited task, with clear criteria of success and failure.
“Missed Calls” has wider scope. It makes us think of who is at the other end of the call and their situation. It makes us wonder about what difference it would make if the bumper sticker suggested not a public confession but (say) participation in an experiment or an invitation to a good time. We expect communications to be ever more instantaneous, but the exhibit actually produces a series of delays, neatly separating for us the various phases of technical transmission and processing. If Google Voice is nearly flawless in producing voice messages from emails, it is obviously still woefully lacking in the other direction. Yet the “errors” and glitches in transmission and transcription, when printed, compel us to make sense of the constantly evocative power of ordinary human language. We even struggle to decipher from the faded dot-matrix letter images something that satisfies our desire for meaning and euphony.
Whether the archived messages amount to a work of art may be doubtful. I think of it as more like “work product” that, say, artists make as they paint: sketches, daubs of paint adjoined or overlaid to note harmonies and disharmonies of color, photos of the different stages of the composition, and the like. The exhibit itself, taken as a whole, is the thing. The ordinary technology a decade or so out-of-date that is visible stands for the even more ordinary and low-tech human being; the hidden high-technology in the background, the cell transmissions and the cloud computing, show themselves in a decidedly more mundane, fragmentary, and even fragile output. A software developer might look at it all and see an opportunity for improving speed, accuracy, and polish. An artist is more likely to let the process show itself, to make evident the seams where technicians try to seamlessly join machine to machine and technique to technique, with human beings left to fend for themselves. “Missed Calls” helps us see the seams and how we are fending.
Oil on Canvas . 39.5"X30" . 2015
Three's a Crowd
Oil on Canvas . 27.5"X21.5" . 2015
The Red Telephone
Payphones, custom software, website . Dimensions variable, 2012
They Don't Think it be Like it is, But it Do.
Semigloss Magazine" . 2014
Granite Countertops and Stainless Steel Appliances
HD Video . 3min 36seconds . 2013
All copyright Kris Pierce 2010-2016.