Downtown's "Cell Phone Disco"

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If I say the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's lastest public art installation looks better the further away you get, that's not an asthetic criticism.

"Cell Phone Disco," unveiled yesterday, consists of a large-scale aluminum frame mounted on the rear wall of the Benedum Center -- the brick wall bordering that alley (Tito Way) that runs from Crazy Mocha on Liberty Avenue toward the river.

It's lit by 2,304 individually activated LEDs, which glow red or go dark in response to the signals from nearby cell phones. The 16 antennae are mounted on the metal frame, but the call is coming from inside the building -- where the receiver and microprocessors are located.

The work grew from Dutch artists Ursula Lavrenčič and Auke Touwslager's fascination with mobile phones, and a desire to make visual the electromagnetic fields they create. A version -- credited to the pair as Informationlab -- was exhibited here a couple years ago, at nearby Wood Street Galleries.

At the unveiling, Wood Street curator Murrary Horne presented the installation as part of the Trust's ongoing plan to illuminate pedestrian pathways in the Cultural District using artworks. Others have included Erwin Redl's "Flow" (2004) -- those eight big vertical red bars on the Liberty Avenue face of Wood Street Galleries.

And indeed, the "Cell Phone" debut, held at 5 p.m., was puncuated by people leaving work and shortcutting to the bus stop or parking garage.

Up close, "Cell Phone Disco" doesn't look like much -- kind of like a malfunctioning LED readout, lights blinking in obscure patterns. The thing is 16 feet square, after all, and each point of light is quite distant from the next. From this vantage point, at dusk, the most interesting visual might be the funhouse-mirror reflection of the Federated building.

Meanwhile, you can't really see "Cell Phone" at all from Liberty Avenue, which runs only a half-block away.

To get the full effect, in the evening, retreat down Exchange Way, which dead-ends on Tito Way at the artwork and runs parallel to Liberty, toward 9th Street. I'd even suggest continuing across Ninth, about halfway to 10th Street.

Turn around, and with the nice perspective shifts created by the buildings, it's quite dramatic, sort of like a 2D electronic fountain, rippling up and down the Benedum's wall. At this distance, it should generate plenty of "what the heck is that?" from passersby -- even if to activate it AND watch at the same time from this spot, you'd have to send a buddy with a cell phone running to within range of the antennae.

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