Endless Talk

A new exhibition explores the great flow of information traveling between physical places and electronic ones.

Talk to Me
Through November 7
Museum of Modern Art

New York City

For a couple of months prior to the opening of MoMA’s Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, I’d been having conversations with experts about the “city of the future” and what that phrase might still mean. According to them, the old visionary dream of the twentieth century—a high-tech city built from a tabula rasa, in which everything will be shiny, automated, and new—is pretty much over. Instead, old cities, familiar and grimy, the products of centuries of bright ideas and good intentions gone wrong, will simply acquire more of these layers. The computer networks that we now take for granted, for example, have already altered the texture of urban life. Even commonplace artifacts like transit passes, such as London’s Oyster card or the Dutch OV-chipkaart, can act as gateways, connecting virtual cities of data to real cities of people, buildings, and infrastructure.

It’s not so much that we’re building new, high-tech physical environments, although sometimes we are. Or that we’re living more of our lives online, although we surely are. It’s that our lives in the physical world and our lives in the digital world have become increasingly interchangeable. The screen is still there, but it’s permeable. We’re already living in the city of the future, and it’s a retrofit of the city of the past.

At its best, Talk to Me (on display until November 7), organized by Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s senior curator in the department of architecture and design, and curatorial assistant Kate Carmody, is a significant marker of this particular moment. It’s an exploration, not of communication between people and objects, or even of the give and take we still sometimes call “interactivity,” but of the seamless flow of ideas and functions back and forth between physical places and electronic ones. The curators call it “a holistic combination of purpose and meaning.” This seepage has become so commonplace that it no longer seems worth labeling one sort of environment as real and the other unreal. Indeed, the truest symbol of this show is not any one of the myriad items on display, but the Quick Response (QR) code, the mottled black-and-white box that’s now a regular feature of advertising, printed on the museum walls under every single item.

Talk to Me, while wonderfully timely, is not what I expected. Given the title, I initially imagined that it might be about the conversations we have with machines. When I first walked into the gallery and found an animated creature named Talking Carl who repeats and distorts whatever you say to him, I was even more convinced that I was entering an exhibition in which I’d learn about that weird GPS woman who says “recalculating” if we ignore her directions, or the increasing layers of voice-recognition software that come between us and an actual human being when we frantically try to reach tech support at Verizon. There is certainly a rich design exhibition to be drawn from the history of conversation between humans and machines, from HAL 9000 to the present. But this isn’t it.

It’s also not quite the exhibition that Antonelli thought she was making, if we go by her remarks at the press opening. Explaining the impetus for the show, she cited an article she read about how “children expect objects to have interaction.” The implication was that inanimate objects could no longer be truly inanimate. She went on to recall a TV show in which someone waxed nostalgic about the “little things of awful taste in his grandmother’s apartment.” The point was that even mundane objects can convey tremendous meaning. But there are relatively few 3-D objects in this show, interactive or otherwise. And there are almost no mundane objects of the kind someone’s grandma would own. The closest thing to one of grandma’s possessions is New York City’s familiar (and utterly lovable) primary-colored MTA MetroCard machine created by Antenna Design, in collaboration with David Reinfurt and Kathleen Holman. It’s practically an antique by this show’s standards, dating from 1999. Most of the physical objects are the sort cooked up by design students to represent their brightest ideas, or prototypes, like the appealing BugPlug, a little white creature with an oversized pink mouth and eyes on stalks, which is intended to monitor and reduce the energy use of electronic products.

While physical objects take up one small corner of the show, the bulk of what’s on display can be found on screens that are two-dimensional and crammed with information. I got the sense that the designers featured at MoMA are all Edward Tufte’s children. This show is more about the visual display of quantitative information than it is about talk. Here’s a rainbow-colored chart tallying the questions fielded by New York City’s 311 operators. There’s a chart analyzing the linguistics of rappers. The incredible density of concept and data makes it a difficult exhibition to absorb. Even in the relatively sedate setting of a press opening, there was too much fine print and specificity to take in. On a normal day at the always-crowded museum, the QR codes, which visitors can scan with their smartphones to find a Web page about any given design, may turn out to be essential. Given that much of what’s on display was designed for the Web, it might be more rewarding to go home and examine these works online.

My favorite item in Talk to Me is the Sweepers Clock, by the Dutch designer Maarten Baas. It was one of the few works in the exhibition that, for all the accumulated technological prowess in the gallery, struck me as magical. It’s an analog clock face made by filming a pair of workers continuously sweeping garbage into the shape of moving clock hands for 12 straight hours. It keeps perfect time and beautifully conflates the physical and the electronic.

My frustration with Talk to Me is one I’ve had with past Antonelli shows (like Design and the Elastic Mind, 2008, and SAFE: Design Takes on Risk, 2005). The exhibition derives much of its buzz from prototypes and student projects. I get it: MoMA is an art museum, where rarity and exclusivity are valued more highly than functionality and practical value. Still, I’m always disappointed when I come across something like City Tickets, by the German designer Mayo Nissen, a kiosk that both dispenses parking stickers and allows users to report local problems like bike-lane blockage or graffiti. At first, I get excited by the logic of it and want to know where I can find one. Do we have them in New York yet? But then I realize it’s yet another student project. Honestly, I don’t think the speculative work on display at MoMA is so far ahead of the curve. Not in a world where London’s Oyster-card holders can log on to a Web site (www.chromaroma.com) and use the card’s data to turn their very real daily commute into a colorful online game. Not in a world where smart-phone apps now routinely “augment” reality, piling layers of information—directions to the nearest cool bar, architectural footnotes for that building on the corner—atop views of the city all around us. At this point, I’m more impressed by what’s actually being implemented on our cities’ streets and along our networks than I am by the speculative stuff.

The great virtue of Talk to Me is that it is so of the moment, but that’s also its flaw. It’s hard for a museum exhibition with a long lead time to get a jump on rapid technological and cultural change. It’s always a toss-up as to whether the museum gallery or the real world can offer a more inspiring, thought-provoking survey of the capabilities of the human imagination. Right now I’d say the real world—or the jumble of electronic and physical places that we currently regard as the real world—has the edge.

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