Mobile Technology Finds a Place in Art

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Claude Monet put paint on canvas to create his work and Auguste Rodin turned marble into sculptures. Rob Pettit prefers to work with a less traditional medium -- he collects discarded cell phones and creates installations with the devices.

Pettit developed an interest in using phones while attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Around the time he lost his phone in the fall of 2007, Pettit was searching for a subject matter his classmates were not exploring. He also wanted to start collecting objects that were diverse and preferably free. Pettit realized that using mobile phones addressed each area.

"The two clicked. I could get them from my friends. I started collecting more and more of them and no one was really doing anything with that at my school," Pettit said.

After soliciting donations from friends, he turned to the Internet to help him amass a few thousand cell phones. He placed ads on Craigslist and e-mailed companies that refurbished phones. Pettit did not receive many responses, but collected enough phones to help him create installations for an April 2008 show at his school.

Pettit's installations for that show featured several hundred clamshell phones flipped open and placed on their sides on the floor to form a large spiral.

"I was exploring different options on keeping them together. I found out that I enjoyed sitting there for a few hours or part of the day using gravity to get them to sit upright. It was endless hours just exploring what I could do with cell phones. I found that it was meditative. Those circles are a direct result of cataloging and separating them into piles. The spirals all started with working the center of design in my head."

Art is often created in reaction to current events and Pettit's work with cell phones shares that trait. The 27-year-old wanted to draw people's awareness to an object that did not always exist. Cell phones "penetrated everyone, everything. They were made and spread across the globe. I wanted to focus on changing times and technology, objects that signify change and how we interact with people."

A show Pettit participated in Albany, New York, during June 2007 highlighted that some people do not remember a time before mobile phones.

"This kid came [to the show] and said 'Wow that must be from the '30s,'" referring to an early Motorola model, Pettit said. "He was born in the '90s and there was a generation that already didn't know this didn't always exist."

Phones from assorted manufacturers and models have gone into Pettit's work. As for the kinds of phones he enjoys working with, flip phones prove easiest for stacking on their sides, although he would never own one.

"They all have different properties. Personally, I don't like flip phones, but if I have 300 of the same model, I can do different things than having 50 of the same phone."

After spending his college years in Boston, Pettit moved to New York toward the end of last year. Although his Brooklyn apartment lacks the space of his Allston, Massachusetts, studio, he still works with phones. He partitioned a section of his kitchen as a studio and uses the space to create smaller installations with phones. He develops larger pieces when he is involved with specific shows.

"As far as sculptures go, keeping 6,000 cell phones in my apartment is not going to happen," he said. Pettit stores his phone collection at a friend's garage in Albany and his sister's basement in Boston.

He also keeps a stash in New York. His closet, car and kitchen all double as storage facilities.

Mobile technology also serves as a muse for his paintings, which he has produced more of since moving to smaller living quarters. In one piece, he drew small cell phones and assembled them to create a work of two girls photographing themselves with a phone. These miniature cell phones are also featured in his other paintings, which include cell-phone towers and phones placed on top of maps.

Pettit, who has a day job building cabinets, is currently working on an art project involving his student loan and utility bills in an effort to highlight the economy.

"I like to use artwork as a way to reference what is going on in history," he said.

But he has no plans to stop creating art with cell phones.

"It all comes down to space. But I can see myself collecting cell phones for the rest of my life."

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