Fifteen billion SMS (Short Messaging Service) cell phone messages are sent globally, every month. It’s not hard to imagine that most of those are sent within in the UK. Perhaps as a response to the costly and inefficient regulation of telephone and internet service in the UK, the mobile phone has supplanted other forms of communication as the speediest, most desirable way to chat. SMS is everywhere. Candy bar wrappers prompt impulse buyers to "TXT 4 GRT PRZS," and everyone is producing *the* definitive SMS dictionary. Practically anyone over 12 years old, in London, looks as if her hand has been permanently modified by mobile-augmentation. These phones do not necessarily go anywhere near the users’ ears–unless, say, a friend has SMS’d them the latest Kylie Minogue tune.
It’s no wonder that artists have begun looking to SMS as a new mode of representation and performance. SMS is a relatively democratic and inexpensive way to make one’s mark on the world–as long as the author is willing to face the "overwriting" of one’s language, as expressed in the giddy grumble of Guardian SMS Poetry Contest winner, Hetty Hughes: "txtin iz messin, mi headn’me englis."
Performance artist Tim Etchells is up for the challenge. He recently carried out an SMS project, called "Surrender Control," under the umbrella of an impressive London Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) new media event series. "Surrender Control" sends 75 SMS text messages, over the course of five days, to participants who have subscribed by texting the message "surrender" to a server.
The first of the numbered messages is, like many to follow, witty and coquettish: "Put your fingers in your mouth." Eight minutes later, readers are encouraged to "Touch your ankles, feel the skin," while a bedtime message urges, "Put your hand between your legs." Most of the messages are instructional, as in "Do things slowly. If someone notices go more slowly," or the repeated "Make a mistake." Etchells says that it is not important to him that people actually follow the instructions or. "Perhaps what’s just as interesting," he says, "is to sit in a bar with friends, or ride the bus home, or sit with family in front of the TV and just consider for a moment what it might mean, what it might lead to, to follow a certain instruction."
Some instructions are hard not to follow, as in the one that arrives at 9am on day two: "Think about an ex-lover, naked and tied to a bed."
Others we may fantasize about following (see "Touch two people at the same time"), while others are more problematic–as in "Think about your weaknesses," or worse, "Don’t eat at lunchtime."
"There are certainly many instructions where the participants need to make their own decisions about how far they’re willing to go," exclaims Etchells. "To me that’s a part of the project. The instructions are proposals, invitations. But there’s undoubtedly an element of flirtatiousness and temptation in what I propose… People have to make their choices about what they’ll do and what they won’t do…"
While some no doubt simply chuckle at and delete Etchells’s messages, even the most fearless followers of his instructions may find numbers 6 ("Open your mouth as wide as you can") and 66 ("Steal something") difficult to accomplish. Over the course of the five days, the messages become more phenomenological ("Stare at THINGS. Don’t look at people") and less concerned with grammar: "Fingers in mouth."
Participating wordsmiths or others with too much time on their hands may feel an overwhelming desire to rearrange or combine some of the 75 messages. Adding messages 54 and 13 would produce "Take a small risk. Imagine tomorrow." A happy, if not cheesy, alternative to prompts like "Bite your hand until teeth marks are left in it. Then watch it till it fades," or "Drop something. Make it look like an accident." In general there is an obvious and largely successful attempt to build suspense. For instance, day three bleeds into four with this thread:
23.00 hrs 40. Pinch your skin. Hard. Are you dreaming?
24.00 hrs 41. Are you dreaming?
01.00 hrs 42. Are you in love?
02.00 hrs 43. Do you love me?
03.00 hrs 44. Are you scared?
04.45 hrs 45. Are you awake?
Here, Etchells reveals the flair for drama that has brought so much positive attention to his work as artistic director of Sheffield-based experimental theatre company, Forced Entertainment.
"’Surrender Control’ is a response to the intimate context of mobile phone use and of SMS as a form of communication," says Etchells. The project challenges the norms of SMS communication, which is usually a one-on-one activity wherein people known to each other chat via abbreviated, personalized text. Etchells’s messages (which he resists calling narrative, preferring the terms ‘performance’ or ‘experiment’) are long, unabbreviated, and relatively anonymous. Subscribers know little about the artist as an individual, the messages are sent from a number other than his own, via a timed server, and Etchells does not know the subscribers, from whom he prohibits replies. He points out that "the brevity of messages and the ease with which they can be read, typed, or sent makes it more than possible to conduct real time and space social activities whilst simultaneously ‘conversing’ on SMS with another distant party." Texting, in this sense, allows the user a simultaneous presence in more than one space. "Surrender Control" creates a new, phantasmatic or fictional space wherein users who do not know each other explore social, normative boundaries and desires. Matt Locke, the former creative director at the Media Centre, in Huddersfield, calls these "traveling intimate zones." (Locke, who recently departed for a post at BBC, has become a bit of an SMS aficionado and offered Etchells a residency to refine "Surrender Control," last summer, as one in a series of Media Centre SMS efforts.)
SMS, in a sense, is just one among many technologies now used to explore the representation of new spaces or spatialities Practitioners in the fields of architecture, drama, robotics, narratology, and various incarnations of photography have, for some time, been focused on these explorations and have recently added not only the know well-known "fourth wall" or "hyperspace," but also fourth dimension, first reality vs. virtual reality, chronospace, one hundred and one definitions of "flesh," and other fun terms to our vocabulary of interpretation. A show on now at London’s Photographer’s Gallery (called "Re:mote") adds SMS to the laundry list of technologies employed in lively ongoing debates over the art historical fate, and aesthetic "value" of documentary and landscape photography in an age when our ways and means of understanding dissemination and distance have changed under the influence of life in networked, globalized culture(s).–A scenario to which many are resistant to "surrender control."
For now, Tim Etchells simply appreciates SMS as a technology that creates a culture that exists in new way, creates a new space and a new kind of interaction not happening before. "To create an art work for this context is an invitation, one could say, to whisper in the ears of strangers as they go about their daily business, to push the boundaries of what is possible or even permissible in this context."
Guardian SMS project (includes winning entries, criteria, and an SMS dictionary):
ICA, London, New Media Centre
Speakers Corner SMS project:
Other Media Centre SMS projects:
(click on area 1)
Photographer’s Gallery, London: