TALK TO ME: Design and the Communication between People and Objects

MUSEUM OF MODERN ART | JULY 24 – NOVEMBER 7, 2011

It’s been an exciting summer in the world of technology. In July, a judge refused to dismiss the Google Street View class action lawsuit alleging that Google secretly captured WiFi data while scanning der Welt; at the end of the month, an AOL account holder sued Google for “intercepting” her emails to Gmail users and serving ads based on their content, presumably with consumer data-mining implications for her as well. Meanwhile, with impeccable timing, MoMA opened an exhibition celebrating today’s technological miracles—through the innocent filter of “design.”

Talk to Me teems with the usual suspects: games and toys, urban planning, ergonomics, and random creativity. It’s a strange, small show whose interest—and commonality—seems to be that it represents mostly experimental art school work from a wide range of First World Western societies, including the Western satellite nation of Japan. In this regard, Talk to Me is a curatorial success, putting New York museumgoers in front of current work from the U.K., Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Poland, Portugal, Italy, Austria, Canada, the U.S., Japan, as well as Lebanon, Israel, Venezuela, Taiwan, and others. Whether senior curator Paola Antonelli and colleagues were shooting fish in a barrel in selecting these pieces or digging deeply to locate them, they have assembled an idiosyncratic collection that is undeniably arresting, if almost entirely empty.

The trouble with Talk to Me seems to be one of conflation: the equation of design with idea, the confusion of invention with art, and the attribution of meaning to method. (It isn’t so.) The ludicrous explanatory prose doesn’t help: “Designers search for the meaning of life in their own empirical and suggestive ways.”

First off, this is a show about invention, not beautiful “design”—in the sense that design has roots in form and function, as defined by MoMA’s own collection, as arising from professional genres, including industrial, interior/furniture/fabric, and graphic design. Few objects in Talk to Me are presented as such, that is, as objets d’art, whether they communicate this or not. Giving MoMA the benefit of the doubt, and granting that it is heralding an emerging trend—the interaction of objects with people through electronic means, many of the pieces exhibited involve virtual (via screen) rather than physical interaction. A hybrid example—the MetroCard machine—is unlikely to be a candidate for MoMA’s permanent collection anytime soon.

Talk to Me may be interesting to visitors who haven’t read Popular Science or gaming zines, but its gee-whiz, kitchen sink approach, organized into vague categories—“Objects,” “I’m Talking to You,” “Life,” “Worlds,” and “Double Entendre”—leaves the impression of Capital I Inchoacy. To be honest, WTF would’ve been a more descriptive title. Perhaps Talk to Me is simply a reflection of our entropic times, in which there are no rules, no values, and no judgments, and we are avid, addicted consumers of the novel. In this world, life itself is experienced as a computer game. Those on display, tellingly, aren’t the ones you know: the first person shooter megasellers, the virtual social media societies (recently dubbed “the electronic hallucination” by political activist Chris Hedges), the Second Lifes. What Talk to Me does present is a callow, obscurantist sandbox that occasionally veers into the World of Art: Sputnikoi’s “Menstruation Machine—Takashi’s Take” (2010), and Martin Baas’s “Sweeper’s Clock” (2009), the former a gross neofeminist provocation and the latter a piece of clock-running trivia (as in running the clock on one’s life while wasting one’s time looking at it) on par with Christian Marclay’s Venice Biennale Gold Lion-winning “The Clock,” which pales compared to R. Luke DuBois’s loopy compression distortions.

Given its creative focus, the strength of Talk to Me is its fearlessness. Detrimentally, Paola Antonelli denied that the show is “utopian,” but it is—in that it celebrates play, creativity, randomness, and experimentation for their own sakes. So measured, many of the pieces in Talk to Me succeed. Sissel Tolaas’s “Berlin City Smell Research” (2004), which presumably collected odors in Berlin, might have practical, public health applications—or not, but it doesn’t matter. And those daunted by Rubik’s Cube will be disappointed to learn that Konstantin Datz’s all white “Rubik’s Cube for the Blind” (2010), requires alignment of Braille characters for successful solution (a Duchampian cube of sugar cubes with automatic success would’ve trumped it). On the other hand, many pieces provide solutions to problems you didn’t know you had: a Muslim prayer rug with a pattern that glows brighter as it orients toward Mecca; Keiichi Matsuda’s “Augmented (hyper) Reality: Augmented City 3D” (2010), a visual labeling/filing system that identifies everything (presumably everything commercial, that is) in one’s surroundings. In this respect, Talk to Me most closely resembles Kenji Kawakami’s hilarious, satirical book 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu—except that MoMA probably wouldn’t appreciate the connection. Did I mention Lucas Maassen and Woody Veneman’s “Singing Chair” (2010)?

The corporate pieces from GE, JetBlue, and Barclays in Talk to Me were inappropriate and gratuitous, and didn’t deserve museum legitimization. They were, thankfully, sequestered at the end of the show, along with the MetroCard machine. Although neither Google nor Facebook made the show, they might’ve, given its curatorial gaucherie: It’s probably no accident that these lowest common denominator, transaction oriented interfaces reflect antipathy toward aesthetic information design.

Talk to Me’s stunning amorality shone most egregiously in Emily Read’s and Chen Hsu’s unironic “Homeless City Guide” (2007), a series of updated hobo symbols to help the homeless navigate the many rich offerings available to them in modern urban society. There are other choices: a) Let Them Eat Cake, b) give them free Androids with hotel and restaurant apps (and some “fun” “friend follower” ones), c) remove this item from the exhibition now, and d) actually address the problem of homelessness. Jeroen Beekmans’s and Joop de Boer’s “Gentrification Battlefield” “game” (2010), wasn’t much better.

Puzzled as to whom Talk to Me might be designed to speak, this critic encountered other creatures of the media—one from a home décor magazine and another from a product placement publication. No doubt their advertisers will be pleased that the Museum of Modern Art is working for them, helping them serve up ads for “unuseless” new consumer products, as Google so well knows. 

Contributor

David St.-Lascaux

DAVID ST.-LASCAUX is a poet and author of the upcoming memoir My Adventures with la Belle Jeune Fille; L'Oubliette, or Plan A; and e*sequiturs. Website: Interrupting Infinity-davidstlascaux.com.

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