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LACMA’s ‘Cell Phone Stories’ Has Origins In San Diego

Rainn Wilson as Dwight in the hit NBC sitcom, "The Office."
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Above: Rainn Wilson as Dwight in the hit NBC sitcom, "The Office."

Most Americans know actor Rainn Wilson as the socially-stunted Dwight from the NBC sitcom "The Office." But as of tomorrow, he'll be known as the guy who hates the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Wilson will "hijack" the LACMA Twitter feed and spend the weekend tweeting his reasons for hating the museum. He's calling the tweetathon, (with passionate venom in all caps) "I HATE LACMA."

To get to the bottom of this unusual tirade, one has to leave the vicinity of the venerable LA art museum adjacent to the La Brea Tar Pits, and head south to San Diego, to the campus of UCSD.

Wilson's tweets are just one part of a bigger series of "stories" about LACMA, spearheaded by UCSD visual arts professor Steve Fagin.

A sketch from fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy (Rodarte) for LACMA's "Cell Phone Stories."
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Above: A sketch from fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy (Rodarte) for LACMA's "Cell Phone Stories."

Fagin is enlisting artists, authors, and celebrities to create stories about the museum and its collection for one platform: the cell phone. The series is called, simply, "Cell Phone Stories." According to Fagin, "it's meant to bring the museum and the collection alive."

All of the story creators are using today's media tools to structure their stories, including Facebook, Twitter, and email. So even though Wilson is tweeting, the individual tweets will be delivered to subscribers' cell phones.

Fagin's involvement started in 2007, during a meeting with LACMA director Michael Govan. Embattled and struggling to shake comparisons to east coast institutions, Govan asked Fagin to brainstorm new ways to experience the museum and its collection.

Shortly after his meeting with Govan, Fagin was having drinks with his friend, novelist Barry Yourgrau. Yourgrau told him about his latest gig writing novels disseminated and read on cell phones in Japan.

In fact, Yourgrau was the first American novelist to write for Japanese mobile phones, but the genre was already wildly popular there. Cell phone novels have become big business in Japan, especially with teenage girls, who both author and consume them.

Chapters, composed of short sentences and bits of dialogue, are sent out by text messages that arrive on cell phones. They are downloaded in short installments.

Fagin loved the idea of using the cell phone for storytelling, especially as a new way to explore a museum and contemporary art. Govan liked the idea too, so Fagin began assembling his team.

Each author came up with a different persona and narrative for their cell phone stories - but all of them respond, in some way, to the LACMA environment.

Fagin thought it would be fun to hear from someone who "hated" the museum, and Wilson (who is a LACMA member, art collector, and adept tongue-in-cheeker) was the celebrity who agreed to use Twitter for that project.

Other stories have included fashion sketches (transmitted as jpegs to cell phones) by the designing sisters behind the Rodarte label, who used the museum's collection as inspiration.

Fagin is doing a series as well, using a mock Facebook persona to look at notions of utopia in contemporary art.

San Diego artist Adrienne Ferrari is also using Twitter for her contribution. She's created a persona named Jane Ditty, who obsessively tweets about aspects of the museum the average visitor might overlook.

Rich Bott is a visual and performance artist from San Diego. He kicked off the series with his project "The Texting Detective," based on a story by crime fiction author Charles Willeford.

Yourgrau also wrote a cell phone novel for "Cell Phone Stories." It's told from the perspective of someone who's never been to LACMA, and imagines what it might be like to visit the museum. You can read an archive of "Cell Phone Stories" here.

Because "Cell Phone Stories" took so long to get going (those first conversations were in 2007), Fagin says the project is less about the "new" of interacting with media on a cell phone, and has become a broader commentary on the ubiquity of cell phones and media platforms. Fagin says he's happy with the evolution because "there is nothing more tired and ragged than the concept of the new." Except, of course, when it's a new way of experiencing a museum.

You can subscribe to "Cell Phone Stories" by texting your request to LACMA at 67553. You will start receiving Rainn Wilson's "I HATE LACMA" tweets at 11am on Friday. "Cell Phone Stories" ends on September 6th.

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