2 West 13 Street
Room L1106
School of Art, Media & Technology
Parsons the New School for Design
New York, NY 10011


“1000 Cell Phones”

1000 Cell Phones, FIGMENT 2009, Governors Island, New York City

Photo by Ryan Hale

1000 Cell Phones, Synthetic Times 2008, National Art Museum of China, Beijing

David Carroll, Benjamin Bacon, Sven Travis and Haiyan Huang with students and faculty from Parsons (New York), Academy of Arts and Design, Tsinghua (Beijing)

USA and China, 2008, mobile media installation


Visualizing Invisible Identities

Emerging out of an institutional collaboration between Parsons The New School for Design (New York City) and the Academy of Arts and Design at Tsinghua University (Beijing), the interactive artwork, 1000 Cell Phones, exposes the invisible conversation that constantly occurs between the networked devices we carry throughout our nomadic urban daily life.

The installation consists of multiple displays that playfully visualize and animate discovered Bluetooth devices within its situated space. Devices are represented as abstract discs in dimensional screen space, colored by transcribing the devices’ unique identifiers (MAC address) to distinctive colors (RGB HEX value).  This simple but evocative effect emphasizes how an ID number expressed as a one-of-a-kind color not only makes visible a distinguishing feature of our portable networked device, but also reshapes its obfuscated technical datum into an aesthetic and coherent design object. It asks us if this machine identifier expresses our persona and personality, perhaps without our knowledge and complete understanding of the implications.

1000 Cell Phones at FIGMENT 2009

In addition, discovered device names animate across the screens, emphasizing the transient nature of the tracking devices we carry, unwittingly broadcasting a unique identifier for anyone or anything willing to listen. In most cases, these names are the default brand and model of the mobile device, but many users customize their device name to a moniker even more revealing and interesting to contribute towards the installation. By installing the artwork in a social space, such as a café or lobby, 1000 Cell Phones captures the unseen dialogue between mobile phones and laptops broadcasting their Bluetooth identities while owners lurk and socialize. When participants realize how their device names render on the displays, they often engage in the intervention by altering their settings to affect the textual content on the visualization. In these moments, the conversations between the invisible and visible, technical and aesthetic, surveillance and dissemination, machines and people all become intertwined in a simple but enjoyable expression.

The mobile media installation, 1000 Cell Phones, developed out of a collaborative partnership between MFA and BFA Design & Technology faculty and students at Parsons The New School for Design and Information Design graduate and undergraduate faculty and students at the Academy of Arts and Design at Tsinghua University. The Parsons team, led by David Carroll, designed the initial concept of the artwork and built the core custom software tools, including the Bluetooth scanner, device database server and Flash visualization engine, in New York, before visiting Tsinghua in late May 2008. Then, in close collaboration with Tsinghua academy faculty and students, the artwork was completed and refined for its debut in Beijing. Indeed, Parsons and Tsinghua faculty and students co-authored certain crucial aspects of the visualization and interaction software code.

1000 Cell Phones debuted at Synthetic Times 2008, National Art Museum of China, on June 6 through July 3, 2008 as part of the international new media art exhibition and Beijing Olympics Culture Project.