ON EXHIBIT NOW: ‘TALK TO ME’ AT MoMA EXPLORES COMMUNICATION & DESIGN IN OUR CULTURE TODAY

“DOES THAT REALLY WORK?”, ASKS AN INQUISITIVE ONLOOKER—ONE OF MANY CONGEALED AROUND ME—WATCHING AS I RECEIVE A FRESH METROCARD FROM THE EXHIBITION’S COLOSSAL MTA KIOSK. “YES,” I RESPOND, AS HE PRODUCES HIS CREDIT CARD IN ANTICIPATION.
TEXT Andrew Persoff

 

 

The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit “Talk to Me,” running through November 7, explores the communicative territory of design—one beyond form and function. Contemporary design, the exhibition presents, is driven by the need to communicate. Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design, writes in the show’s essay, “[the exhibit] thrives on this important late-twentieth-century development in the culture of design, which can be described as a shift from the centrality of function to that of meaning, and on the twenty-first-century focus on the need to communicate in order to exist.” Emotion, as a design attribute, plays an integral role in the dialogue that is user-object interaction. Designed objects are expected to emotionally appeal on some level. Brand identity, for instance, translates into interactive personality that directly speaks to an audience. Take the JetBlue interface featured in the exhibition, used for flight check-in. It presents itself as friendly, sophisticated and serene. What then of the MTA MetroCard Vending Machine?

The MTA Kiosk, conveniently located by the entrance of the main gallery, stands like a misplaced monolith at the heart of the space. Every tourist  and local cannot miss or fail to recognize the ubiquitous machine as it playfully displays “Welcome to Talk to Me.” Any visitor that approaches and uses the machine brings with them a flurry of passerby’s, enraptured by the functionality of the device. The crux of this exhibition is perhaps its ability to bring to light seemingly transparent ideas known to designers—to the mainstream. The wall text reads, “The MTA’s vending machine leads customers through the process of buying MetroCards in a manner that is efficient and no-nonsense, in a very New York spirit, suggesting colorful, never-boring transit ahead.” The presentation of these concepts, and of the machine itself, within the confines of a museum gallery invites the viewer to assemble previously overlooked ideas of objects and systems that pervasively exist throughout daily life. Is it a safe bet to call the kiosk a readymade?

The under-lit space accentuates itself with mechanical light, emanating from classes of monitors, panels, bulbs, and projectors. The overall impact is perhaps more resonant with a video game arcade than that of a white box gallery. The exhibition’s pixellated identity is subtly mirrored in the “lo-res” style of the blocky pedestals and dividers: their grounding shade of red navigates the eye and gives a sense of urgency to the works showcased. The website is no exception in consistency: the hyper-pixellated backgrounds for each page will make sure you won’t forget this is a digital exhibition.

 

 

The decisively touchable, interactive potion of the show—dubbed “Life”—features The Wilderness Downtown, an interactive music video co-produced by band Arcade Fire, firms Mr.doob, B-Reel, and @radical.media, and Google. The interactive experience, available online, asks the address of your childhood home to then furnish a personalized video using your neighborhood’s streets: a panning montage of a hooded runner dashing through your memories. I watched as enthusiastic Argentineans entered their home address in hopes of watching a tailored video, only to be turned down by an error message. Behind the wall is Happylife, an eerie (yet seemingly friendly) wall installation that analyzes visitors’ faces to “detect changes in mood and emotion.” Using biometric readings such as facial expression, eye movement, and pupil dilation; four color-coded, glowing dials rotate and change intensity to depict and predict mood. A monitor displays readings from the device’s camera, visually similar to a heat sensitive feed. Adjacent vignettes depict a scenario in which the device is installed in a family’s home to relay and predict each member’s emotional state. “We lost David 4 years ago, and the system was anticipating our incoming sadness. We found this strangely comforting.”, captions an Orwellian illustration of a nuclear family holding hands as they look towards the device. The designers hope to install a prototype in an actual family’s home to continue their research.

The sampling of exhibited projects make it clear—communication is vital to design. Antonelli describes the role of a contemporary designer as that of a “script-writer,” developing sets of lines for the dialogue between an object and its user. Whether an interactive music video, ticket dispenser, or emotion monitor, the conversation is always reciprocal. Towards the back of the gallery was a token of gold: Menstruation Machine by British/Japanese artist Sputniko! The aluminum, belt-like device simulates an average five day menstruation process on the active user. Exploring gender identity and biology, the artist paired the work with an explanatory music video which, explains MoMA, shows “what it feels like to be a girly girl.”

The MoMA, with its role as pedestal, sculpts value out of the mundane (an MTA Kiosk) and normalcy out of the exceptional (is a behavior-predicting household device far off?). “Talk to Me” bridges out of the museum’s storied collection of twentieth century design items to twenty-first century tools, demonstrating a progression from documentation to promise. With it, the exhibition shifts the focus to realign the future.

 

 

TALK TO ME EXHIBIT WEBSITE

MOMA.ORG

 

 

 

 






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