Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Visual Arts

Volume XXVII Number 2
Spring 2005

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Leslie Sharpe
Leslie Sharpe
Photo © Tyagan Miller

digital art installation
Haunt>Pass by Leslie Sharpe
Photo courtesy Leslie Sharpe

Haunted and Handheld

by Lauren J. Bryant

Leslie Sharpe has something most artists don’t—a clean table. The surface of the large table in her studio at the Hope School of Fine Arts is completely clear. The studio walls are mostly bare, too. In fact, the whole space is surprisingly neat. The reason is this: “My work,” Sharpe says, “is less and less material. At this point, it seems almost invisible.”

Well, not entirely. Sharpe, assistant professor of digital art at IU Bloomington, picks up a diminutive personal digital device and pops out a two-inch sliver of metal encased in purple plastic. “The work is here,” she says, holding the sliver in her palm.

“Here” is a tiny memory card, and the work is from one of Sharpe’s multimedia creations, Haunt>Pass. Sharpe is a digital artist of the most contemporary kind. Using digital cameras and software tools such as Flash and Photoshop, she makes multimedia works that are viewed—experienced, really—by means of wireless technologies and mobile devices. Yes, this is art for cell phones. But forget about cell-phone snapshots. Sharpe uses sounds, words, and images to create unusual, provocative, interactive art.

Haunt>Pass, for example, is a “ghost story” for wireless handheld devices (commonly called PDAs). Sharpe created the work last fall for ISEA 2004, a major contemporary art symposium and exhibition held in Helsinki, Finland. The first part of ISEA 2004 took place on a large ship called the Silja Opera ferry. Sharpe took digital images aboard the ship, then combined them with sound and poetical text she wrote. Back on land, she loaded the creation onto PDAs located in the Wireless Experience exhibition area at Helsinki’s Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, which conference-goers visited during the second part of the symposium. The PDAs hung from the ceiling, suspended over a deep blue wave-shaped couch. Visitors reclined on the gel-filled couch to see Haunt>Pass on the PDA screens.

"I wanted to create something reminiscent of being at sea,” says Sharpe of the couch-recliner. As for what was on the small screens, Sharpe says the looping segments of Haunt>Pass are “about a ghost, in the form of an electronic signal, which is discovered haunting the ship. It jumps onto people’s devices.” As the Kiasma exhibition notes put it: “Haunted by its own memories, . . . the ghost relays the story of how it appeared on the Silja Opera. Occasionally, the ghost disrupts the story with memories of earlier electronic and physical disturbances such as naval collisions, . . . the bursts of first naval distress signals sent via wireless, the ‘pings’ of sonar, and ‘sensor ghosts’ on radar screens.”

Sharpe gives me a small demonstration of how Haunt>Pass worked. Loaning me her cell phone, she clicks around several times on her PDA. The cell phone in my hand rings, and when I open the new message, the screen fills with concentric circles like those of a sonar screen, set against a shadowy background. The word “found” runs across the circles in flowing red script.

This “passing” element—sending digital files to others’ cell phones and mobile devices—is crucial to Sharpe’s work. Unlike most artists, Sharpe encourages people to steal files from her multimedia creations, even change them and pass them on again. “It’s an urban myth kind of thing,” Sharpe says. “I want the work to take on a life of its own.

“That’s consistent in all my work,” she continues. “The work is focused not so much on an object, but on contingency, ephemera, and variability—how one thing can exist as or evolve into another form. My work may go elsewhere and take on another life. Even when I make an ‘object,’ I may rework parts to exist differently in different settings or situations.”

Sharpe is keenly interested in using her art to explore how mobile technologies and wireless devices—cell phones, PDAs, and more—are changing human behavior, even the very meaning of what it means to be “present.”

“Think of our mobile phones,” she says. “They have become not just a means of connecting to others but a physical extension or component of our bodies and behavior. These technologies are changing our perceptions of what it means to be situated and embodied.”

But Sharpe—a recent winner of the Nabi Prize, an international award for wireless art—doesn’t contemplate such cyborgian thoughts with dread. “I see these technologies as something we should embrace,” she says. “We should embrace their power to allow us other ways of understanding and experiencing our world, our relationships with each other, and who we are. It’s a radically different way of understanding the world, but a very rich one.”

This futuristic conceptual thinking may seem incongruous coming from someone raised in the remote reaches of northern Canada, but the grandiose, snowy landscape of her youth encouraged Sharpe to think big thoughts. “There was nothing to do!” she says. “So I developed a very active imagination and creative skills.” She honed that imagination and her skills through years of working as an installation artist in New York and as a graduate student, then Faculty Fellow, in the visual and computing arts program at University of California, San Diego. She joined the IU faculty in 2004.

Along the way, Sharpe developed an interest in narrative and genre, particularly crime and film noir. In fact, as an artist, she considers herself a private investigator of sorts. “I’m always trying to look at what lies behind our experiences,” she says.

It wasn’t such a long stretch from crime and mysteries to metaphors of ghosts and hauntedness as a frame for her work. Sharpe envisions humans as “haunted” by the promise and potential of wireless devices, as well as by the devices themselves. In her artist’s statement, she writes, “I am haunted by devices . . . I drag the device everywhere, stuffed in my pocket, clutched in my hand, inserted in my ear . . . . My devices are haunted. These things that I carry project voices and words. I listen for their call. . . . What is this thing that wants to get out?”

Sharpe is creating two new ghost works at the moment. Passing SG 7777—named after the number of Guglielmo Marconi’s famous 1901 patent for improved wireless telegraphy—is based on a signal Marconi “lost” during his first transmission of wireless signals across the Atlantic. The work will be séance-like, featuring a central image projection with four handheld devices around it on which sections of the narrative will be installed. Again, visitors will be encouraged to interact with other devices (cell phones, etc.) that are not a part of the piece. Sharpe will show Passing SG 7777 at an exhibition of art about ghosts and other worlds that opens in Boston later this year.

The second ghost narrative work, The Spell of the Haunted Handheld, debuts this fall in Seoul, Korea. It concerns an important stream running through the city. The Cheonggyecheon stream was once an important center of community living but when it became very polluted, the city of Seoul built a road over it. Recently, in a city revitalization effort, the stream has been unearthed and reinstated as a center of community life.

When she won the Nabi International Wireless Art Competition, Sharpe also received a commission produce a new work using cell phones enabled with GPS (Geographical Positioning System). The commission is sponsored by Art Center Nabi with the assistance of engineers from SK Telecom in Seoul. Sharpe focused on the Cheonggyecheon stream because of its central location and rich historical and visual content, she says, as well as “the strong metaphor of disembodied ‘network’ flow invoked by the image of the stream.” In the work, the audience will access streaming multimedia narratives of text, video, and sound as their GPS-based cell phones lock into geographical coordinates along the Cheonggyecheon stream. Split into three segments, the narrative tells of a ghost who, unearthed by diggers in the restoration process, wanders from the watery stream through network streams onto the audience’s devices.

For all of her work dealing with things ghostly, immaterial, and invisible, though, Sharpe still counts herself as a visual artist

“We’re not going to stop looking at things,” she says emphatically. “There’s far too much pleasure in that.”

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.