Using Mobile Phone Technology to Transcend Borders, Dimensions

By Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353,

San Diego, CA, June 4, 2009 — As they become more and more ubiquitous, mobile phones have made it possible to communicate with virtually anyone on the planet at any time. But one researcher at the University of California, San Diego, is taking the technology even further by using cell phones to prompt communication in unlikely places: The microscopic arena of nanotechnology; restricted border regions between nations; and even the realm of the paranormal.
Ricardo Dominguez
Calit2 Principal Investigator Ricardo Dominguez  will spend all summer in Spain engaging in a series of projects that will extend the scope of his sometimes controversial research. 

"For lack of a better word, we tend to call what we do 'artivism,' or the cross between art and activism, where art is always the predominant function," says Ricardo Dominguez, an associate professor of visual arts at UC San Diego and a principal investigator at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

Dominguez will spend all summer in Spain engaging in a series of projects that will extend the scope of his sometimes controversial research.  Along with several colleagues from UC San Diego and other institutes of higher learning, Dominguez will use cheap cell phone technology to make artistic statements about the many ways human beings 'cross over.'
"A lot of the work we do is about this issue of crossing over," explains Dominguez. "We're working at the cross-section between the social implementation of ubiquitous technologies such as the cell phone and new media aesthetics such as poetry and performance."

Electronic Poetry Festival

Dominguez began his sojourn in Spain late last month, when he took part in Barcelona's Electronic Poetry Festival, the largest conference of its kind in the world. Along with members of the Calit2-funded *particle group,* Dominguez and his colleagues explored "the question of nanotoxicology from a poetic disposition."

To call into question the unregulated use of nanoscale materials, Dominguez and his group created a series of multi-lingual poems they call "Illuminated Nanoscripts," which will they display, by way of handheld Pico projectors, onto the buildings and sidewalks along La Rambla, Barcelona's heavily trafficked central boulevard.

"We also connected a Blackberry to one of the projectors, which allowed us to download the latest news articles on nanotechnology in relation to products," adds Dominguez. "That way, we were able to develop new poems as we go. We also had members of our group wear lab coats, and we projected the poetry onto their coats." 

Explains Dominguez: "The main core of the question for our group is what unregulated products are being sold in the global marketplace. Because products are unregulated, they have no markings that indicate nanoscale properties. Right now, over 1,000 companies use nano-carbon 60 in their products, from Hugo Boss fabrics, to Maybelline 72-hour Lipstick, to diaper rash lotion. Our interest is in how we can use poetry and performance art to elucidate these kinds of questions."

Transborder Immigrant Tool

Also while in Spain, Dominguez — who leads Calit2's B.A.N.G.lab (short for "Bits, Atoms, Neurons and Genes") — will meet with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and activists from both Spain and Morocco to consider possible uses for the Transborder Immigrant Tool. Developed by the B.A.N.G. Lab, the tool pairs inexpensive Motorola cell phone technology with a global-positioning system and continually updated online data to orient individuals who are trying to cross dangerous international borders.

The tool was originally designed for use along the desolate "Devil's Highway" spanning the U.S.-Mexico border, but NGOs in Spain and Morocco would likely use it to assist those attempting to cross the sometimes dangerous waters of the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. 

"With the southern border of Spain, we're dealing with open water and ocean navigation," notes Dominguez. "We'll be looking into ways that a compass navigation safety tool may or may not be useful in that passage, and also the GPS availability within that navigation. The question will be: Is it a useful tool, or do we have to rethink it?"

Although the Transborder Immigrant Tool has not yet been officially deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border, Dominguez's group will conduct "dress rehearsals" this summer with various U.S.- and Mexico-based churches and NGOs that assist migrants with safe passage. Most NGOs counsel migrants to forego the dangerous crossing; however, those individuals who insist on making the trek will be provided with a $30 Web-enabled Motorola cell phone that will receive a constant flow of data from a remote server. That data might point border-crossers to nearby sources of water, parse out the best routes or trails, or suggest the coolest time of the day to traverse the desert.
Dominguez lectures about the Transborder Immigrant Tool
The Transborder Immigrant Tool, developed by Domingez and members of Calit2's b.a.n.g. lab, pairs inexpensive Motorola cell phone technology with a global-positioning system and continually updated online data to orient individuals who are trying to cross dangerous international borders.

"The main problem has been that people die of dehydration trying to cross the Devil's Highway," explains Dominguez. "But there are other factors at stake. We need to look at, for example, whether this tool will disturb the coyote (human smuggling) economy, and if maybe that's a good thing, since many of these people have been led by coyotes into bad situations."

Dominguez and his collaborators are also looking into ways to make the cell phone batteries last longer, such as employing wind-up charging technology, or instructing users to keep the phones turned off unless they have lost their way. Further emphasis is being placed on the importance of fresh data, and partner NGOs are being trained to update the information on the central server at regular intervals. Likewise, the team is making efforts to equip the phone with multiple languages, since more than 40 different dialects are spoken by migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone.

Considering that passage along most international borders is illegal without proper documentation, the Transborder Immigrant Tool is not without controversy. Dominguez says the tool and its deployment are not intended as a political statement, but rather as a new-media research project that combines a long-established aesthetic tradition (regional border art) with the UC San Diego artist's reputation for digital civil disobedience.

"We are, in the end, artists," Dominguez explains. "We're not trying to create 'effective' tools but 'affective' tools. One of the layers of the tool is a poetic interface — a series of short haikus that welcome individuals and offer poetic respite. In this way, the tool will not only serve as a guide toward sustenance and survival, but will provide another layer of poetic sustenance.  This adds another layer to the question of GPS technologies, which can now be named the Global Poetic System."

"With this project," he continues, "we wanted to bring new media arts into the space of non-urban research with the goal of creating an inexpensive safety tool. We've kept the project very transparent, so for the most part, the reaction has been positive."

Dominguez says that he and many of his counterparts abroad envision using the Transborder Immigrant Tool (or incarnations thereof) to aid migrants crossing border spaces around the world. To expand the use of the tool, Dominguez and his U.S. colleagues — who include UC San Diego visual arts lecturer Brett Stalbaum and Calit2-affiliated researcher Micha Cardenas, as well as University of Michigan Professor Amy Sara Carroll — have created, a Web site that catalogs open-source development code to allow for replication and custom design.

Passages: Benjamin's Ghost

Dominguez's summer in Spain will also mark a collaboration with  Professor Carroll on a project known as "Passages: Benjamin's Ghost," an endeavor inspired by a dream Carroll had about the Transborder Immigrant Tool and its ability to help people "cross over."

The ghost in question is Walter Benjamin, an influential Jewish literary critic, essayist and philosopher who died in 1940 in the French-Spanish border town of Portbou, after attempting to flee France in the wake of the Nazi occupation. Dominguez and Carroll will use mobile phone and GPS technology, combined with a custom-designed virtual algorithm, to create a "locative specter" that traces Benjamin's final hours after he checked into Portbou's Hotel de Francia, where he later committed suicide.

"I've always been interested in thinking about impulses beyond why we've created with mobile phone technologies, specifically around the issue of telephoning," Dominguez says. "With the "Passages" project, we want to recreate the day leading up to Benjamin's suicide and ultimately reconfigure his movements so that his ghost will be offered the final passage he was never able to take."

To visualize Benjamin's final hours, Dominguez and Carroll will create GPS "hot spots" for each of the places he visited in Portbou: The cafe where he sipped coffee, the Hotel de Franzia, the coroner's office, the Catholic cemetery where he was unceremoniously buried (and later disinterred), and the potter's field where he was ultimately reburied.

Dominguez says the project stems from a tradition in the locative media community of psychogeography, a playful, inventive means for exploring cities.

"One example of psychogeography would be the use of narrative hot zones, where you're walking and your cell phone would go off and say, 'A murder took place in the spot where you're standing.' It's a means for people to interact with the environment in a way that enables them to enter into a narrative by way of a particular location. We want to do the same sort of drift gestures with the 'Passages' project."

Adds Dominguez: "Once we've pinpointed the relevant GPS coordinates, the computerized algorithm will create an automated program that will send messages to our mobile phones, telling us which of these places we should visit. So instead of us connecting to living person via this technology, the idea is that we're actually connecting to Benjamin's specter."

Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353,

Related Links

Electronic Poetry Festival