By Michele Leight
There is a line in a famous song that goes "accentuate the positive" that perfectly describes the exhibition "Talk To Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects," on view at The Museum of Modern Art.
Featuring 200 objects and projects "imagined," in progress, and already part of our lives created by some of todays most cutting edge designers, "Talk to Me" is a stimulating adventure and a welcome affirmation that technological advances have not cut the heart and soul out of today's "coolest" inventions.
On the contrary, today's designers are actively taking on many of the very real problems that face us individually and as an inter-connected global family, and they are doing it with grace, commitment, humor and real style. Organized by Paula Antonelli, Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, and Kate Carmody, Curatorial Assistant, The Museum of Modern Art, and sponsored by Huyndai Card, a GE partner, the show is on view from July 24-November 7, 2011.
Problem-solving is an essential component of good design, and "imagining" possibilities is the first step. Some designers are able to realize pleasurable, life-enhancing and practical things that, in some instances, have already become a part of our lives - like ATMs and Metrocard dispensing machines - while others are experimenting with complex projects that have the potential to improve the lives of millions of people. There are several designers that are focused on giving back to the "community of mankind" in ingenious and heartening ways, and there is even good news for parents that might be exasperated with their children's video-game addiction: a fun and healthy game they might actually approve of and perhaps even play themselves - called "Being Animal," illustrated here.
From its inception, MoMA has been supportive of innovative design and designers. In recent years MoMA presented "Safe: Design Takes On Risk" (reviewed at www.thecityreview.com/safemoma), and "Bauhaus: 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity," (reviewed at www.thecityreview.com/bauhaus), which documented the close connection between MoMA and the now legendary school in Germany that exerted a huge influence on art, architecture and design. "Talk To Me" acknowledges that the baton has been passed to a new generation of designers that must now incorporate technology into its design strategy, an exciting and challenging phenomenon that has universal potential, appeal and applications. Regular visitors to MoMA's permanent design collection will recognize the I-Pod that was included with other "innovations" in the Museum's famous design collection many years ago. That tiny "gizmo" has since become a global "must-have" for millions. There are projects and objects in this show that also have the potential to become universal "must-haves," no matter how futuristic and "fantastical" they may seem to us now.
Despite cutting edge technology, the influence of "art" is keenly felt at this show. While many of these objects are practical - and potentially life, health, energy, or environmentally preserving and enhancing - they are also beautifully designed.
The scale of everything is becoming "lilliputian" (to borrow from "Gulliver's Travels"), and reverence for the imagination and good old-fashioned storytelling is ever-present. This may come as a surprise to those that often (critically) define today's youth by their prolific, even addictive, use of technology. The artistic helmet from "Being Animal," featured here, bears the same exquisite attention to detail as a work of art or art object - like an Etruscan or Samurai warriors helmet - while its components are entirely contemporary. Its overall effect is pure magic.
The fantastic "dog-helmets" and related technological aides in "Being Animal," (2007), require virtual and "real" participation - a fusion of fantasy and technology that represents a giant leap forward in gaming from the early video games that revolutionized leisure time not that long ago. "Becoming Animal" also banishes "couch-potato syndrome" (every parent's worst nightmare), because it requires players to move around. No more sitting inert, staring like zombies at a screen, pressing buttons on a hand-held device. Early video games look endearingly quaint compared with a gaming "ensemble" as sophisticated as this, that includes animal masks, a TV monitor, projections, microphones, speakers, camera-recognition and custom software:
"In Being Animal, participants are invited to interact with Kerberos (or Cerberus), a digitally generated version of the mythic three-headed gatekeeper of the underworld, and with each other. Participants wear dog masks made of heavy silkscreened paper and are guided by three actors wearing special masks of Perspex and wood. Kerberos responds with sounds, facial signals, and gestures to the behavior of others, based on their movements, displaying love, hate, anger and other emotions, and each of the creatures heads behaves autonomously. This installation, which bridges the real and the virtual, was developed for the Faster Than Sound Festival in Suffolk, UK, in 2007." (Exhibition catalogue)
In an increasingly technological and fast-paced world, the imagination is an endangered commodity. This is not lost on many of the designers whose work is included in this show. It is heartening to see the imaginitive aspect of "play" incorporated so brilliantly in gaming, where millions, especially children, invest so many hours of precious time. Without deploying the "imagination," there can be no artful play. The act of putting on masks evokes the excitement of a costume party, Haloween or a masquerade - that magical feeling of pulling hats and capes out of the "dressing-up box" of youth, and disguising ourselves as something or someone else. This is "live-action" role playing, in Hollywood jargon, at its most creative and healthy. It is not possible to play this game sitting down.
"Being Animal" was created by Stephen Spyropoulos (Greek and American), and Theodore Spyropoulos (Greek and American), for Minimaforms, (USA and UK, est 2002). Like so many of the creative projects in this show, "Being Animal" is a "collaboration" that cuts across nationalities and cultures, reflecting globalization and our new-found ability to communicate universally in work and in play.
In the introduction to the impressive, almost dizzy, catalogue accompanying this show, Director of MoMA, Glenn Lowry writes:
"MoMA has always played a major role in repositioning design. The Museum has expanded design's representation - in shows and the collection, in our historical and contemporary programs and with recent exhibitions such as 'Safe: Design Takes On Risk' (2005) and 'Design and the Elastic Mind,' (2008), we have acknowledged that in addition to objects its reach includes visualization, commmunication, information, future scenarios and projections, scientific inquiry, and the design of interfaces. We have celebrated designs rich relationship not only with art but also with sociology, politics, technology and science, and we have reframed these relationships in a museum context. We have followed design as it has migrated into the digital and networked age and mutated to adapt to new conditions, establishing new criteria to appreciate them with exhibitions that placed them under scrutiny for the first time."
Among other useful and pragmatic objects and projects there are several spectacular "maps" in this show that look more like works of art than way-finders. It's Matrix, here we come! "Here and There" (illustrated above), by BERG, is especially imaginative:
"In this horizonless perspective, the streets of New York suddenly fold upward, creating a double view of the city. BERG's "Here & There" map of Manhattan is inspired by gaming technology, satellites, and, the desginers day, the idea that 'the ability to be in a city and to see through it is a superpower, and it's how maps should work.' The maps, created using sophisticated modeling software, start in the foreground with a three-dimensional image of buildings that extend into the distance, thus displaying remote areas of the city in plan view. This puts the viewer in two places at once, above and in the city, able to visualize urban space as a continuous medium. BERG has produced two Manhattan maps - one looking uptown from Third Avenue and Seventh Street, and one looking downtown from Third Avenue and Thirty-fifth Street. The designers hope in the future to explore how enriching the maps with local information, such as bus routes, might make them useful as way-finding devices. For now, the maps present a mind-bending visualization of the city - indeed, one that seems to belong in a dream." (Catalogue for this exhibition)
Health is paramount, and there are many incredible inventions and projects at this show that relate to mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. Sadly, it is not possible to describe them all here. Illustrated above (right), is "GlowCap," a wonderful solution for unreliable pill-taking. We all know someone in our family that forgets to take their meds as prescribed by the doc and that someone could even be us. The "GlowCap" system by David Rose of Vitality USA reminds patients and communicates with pharmacies and doctors to ensure that prescription medication is taken properly. The exhibition catalogue describes how it works:
"GlowCaps fit most standard prescription bottles and, once programmed, use light and sound to signal when it is time to take a pill. The GlowCap knows when the pill bottle has been opened and keeps tract of the bottle's status via a wireless network. If the bottle is not opened at prescribed times, the patient receives a reminder by phone. GlowCaps also communicate with pharmacies about medication refills and sends regular email updates to family, caregivers, or doctors."
Concerned or curious about your household's energy consumption? Mayo Nissen has created a poster that visualizes a home's power usage over 24 hours and compares it to an average of data collected over four days. Recording the "spikes and lulls" in energy consumption encouraged the designer to try and figure out what the source of a surge in energy was: "was that spike at 3 am a one-off nightime cup of tea...and can boiling the kettle just once really use so much power?" are the kinds of revelations that change habits we havitually follow, without linking them to consumption of energy that, taken cumulatively, is hugely wasteful.
The random sampling of objects and projects illustrated here give only some idea of the incredible strides that have been made in design with the advent of technology. Yet, as any visitor to this show will discover, there is no lack of appreciation for the things that are in danger of becoming lost because of technology - like the imagination, socialization and inter-personal relationships - which these designers seem committed to preserving. In an essay entitled "Nervous Systems and Anxious Infrastructures" in the exhibition catalogue, ("Talk To Me,") James Hunt writes about our civilizations changing infrastrucure:
"The first phase of infrastructure development, during the rise of the earliest civilizations, consisted of roads, bridges, tunnels, and sewer and water systems. These were mostly feats of large-scale engineering, resulting in physical systems of linear complexity that linked us together, caused cities to explode in growth, and inspired migration on a global scale. In the second phase, copper cavles and satellite dishes and then fiber-optic lines, server farms, transponders, and mesh networks catalyzed the flow of ideas, economies, and entertainment over the earth's surface with little connection to national boundaries or places of origin. The interconnection of the two first phases of infrastructure brings us to our present moment, in which we are designing systems that are soft, wet, emergent and adaptive. We are creating new forms of nonlinear complexity - ecologies, biological systems, fuzzy logic - that can learn, develop, respond, and create. These technologies will be spatialized - that is, they will be everywhere, dispersed into our environment and immediately at our fingertips."
James Hunt is a design critic and the founding director of the MFA program in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons The New School for Design, New York.
Already a part of everyday life in New York City, and illustrated above, are "MetroCard" Vending Machine, 1999, by Sigi Moeslinger, Masamichi Udagawa, Antennae Design USA, David Reinfurt, Kathleen Holman, MTA New York City Transit Team; Vending machine, steel and other materials, Interface: Director, Photoshop Illustrator and Visual Basic software; 79 15/16 by 41 3/4 by 26 inches
Some of the technologies in this show are already in use like the inter-active MTA Metro-card dispensers with touch screens at subway stations in New York City, and Jet Blue's self-service digital ticketing system, illustrated above.
Like ATMs, many machines are replacing human beings. This is the tip of the iceberg of the myriad machines we interact with daily, like cell phones, computers, TVs, microwaves, MP3 players, Androids, I-Pads and I-Pods, to name only some. Sometimes, our health - and even our life - can be dependent on machines. This is captured in a short firm entitled "The Posthuman Condition," by Revital Cohen, which is an interview with long-term dialysis patients. However, instead of showing the patients, their commentaries are illustrated by the machines that drain and recycle their blood.
The catalogue notes that "One disembodied voice alludes to the machines whirring and humming in the background, sayhing 'This is part of my body...it's there all the time'; another, describinng the unpredictable quivering of the machines tubes, says: 'You can almost see the blood almost pulsing, and even the pressure gauge twitches a little bit, the lines twitch as though they are alive.' Whether we choose to plug in or not, our coupling with machines has changed us, blurring the neat divide bwetween us and them.'"
"What a Hundred Million Calls to 311 Reveal About New York," 2010, is a brightly colored diagram using Illustrator and processing software by Wesley Grubbs (American) and Mladen Balog (Croatian) of Pitch Interactive (USA, est 2007). Not surprisingly most of the calls are about noise! Street conditions also rank high. This is a wonderful "visual depiction" of the kinds of complaints and issues that affect all cities, but native New Yorkers will especially enjoy examining it. Sadly, it is not illustrated here.
The proliferation of noise is pervasive in contemporary life. User-friendly, inter-active technologies now pop up everywhere. Images and symbols directing us through an activity or transaction can include voice prompts, and headphones are included with everything. When millions of people are engaged in activities that include sound, headphones become a huge consideration to ones neighbors, work colleagues, or family members that may have different viewing and listening preferences. Most people do not want to be enveloped in the beeps, voice prompts and I tunes of others. Without headphones, the noise generated by all the gadgets and gizmos present in every day life would drive us crazy. Thankfully, this exhibit did not sound like a gadget fair, it sounded like a museum, because headphones were provided with almost every exhibit, testament to yet another consideration by designers and curators that understand the stresses and strains of a crowded world, and the real "need" for quiet.
In the chapter entitled "Double Entendre," Paula Antonelli writes:
"The noble goals of harmony, empathy, and true tolerance are why so many people have devoted their lives to helping us understand others, or at least whomever our local cultural conventions consider "other." History has prepared us for this moment with centuries of war, activism, and progress, nowever slow, in banishing taboos and embracing diversity. All the important twentieth-century movements of emancipation, equality, and liberation have proceeded in this direction. We also know we have a long way to go....This is why designers, whose focus is always centered on improving conditons for human beings, have become engaged in projects that require not only the classical elements of design education but also basic tenets of cognitive science. In previous chapters we have explored how the Internet and Wireless networks have created new layers of complexity and possibility in human communication. Designers are now taking on the communication issues these layers have presented, issues now central to our daily activities: negotiations of privacy and anonymity; the vehemence and violence abetted by the ability to hide behind false identities; the promise of new and unregulated means of expressions, connectivity, and revenue generation, and the responsibilities that go with them..."
"Touch Hear," is included in this chapter, (illustrated above), and its function is described in the accompanying text by Azzurra Cox:
"Looking up unfamiliar words while reading is disruptive, creating a break, however momentary, in narrative flow. The Touch Hear text recognition dictionary (unfortunately still a concept) renders the task bulit-in and seamless, requiring only the scanning of a finger implant over a word or phrase to bring up related information, such as meaning and pronunciation, into a small device attached near the ear. Touch Hear explores a way for technology to enhance human capacity in an everyday activity."
Our collective need for faith, religion, spirituality, worship - or denial of all of these - is acknowledged in this show, evidence that even cutting edge designers respect their importance in contemporary life. "The Messenger," 2010, (not illustrated), is a collaboration between Jae Yeop Kim (Korean), Ting Yuin Chien and Scott Liao (both Taiwanese) and Dustin York (American), at the Media Design Program Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, (USA, est. 1930). The designers were all born in the 80s, and they created "The Messenger" while studying the barriers between faithful and scientific outlooks, and it operates on the assumption that people pray when they are in need of help. The designers imagined a system where help can be provided and faith can create an opportunity for action, described in the exhibition catalogue:
"The user holds the device and prays into it, so that the prayer is recorded and then sent via satellite to a database that catalogues it. Scientific and faith-based organizations can listen in and try to provide help where it is needed, such as water in drought, or medicine for the sick."
However, the designers are quick to point out that "The Messenger' does not attempt to subvert or replace any God. Instead:
"It reinforces the idea that when we pray our community as well as our deity is listening."
"From Mouth to Mouth," (2006, illustrated above), is a digestible pill incorporating some part of the entire text of Liviticus (one of the five books of the Torah), which the designers suggest is a comparison between medicinal and religious "prescriptions," while also suggesting the idea that many people digest the same knowledge but interpret it differently. Readers will be pleased to learn that the capsules are vegetable based!
"Prayer Companion," 2010, (illustrated above), was developed for Nine Poor Clare Sisters at a monastery in York (UK) as a communication device that alerts the nuns to issues that need their prayers (in the exhibition catalogue 'war in Afghanistan' is the topic on the screen of the device). The Poor Clares have taken vows of enclosure since medieval times and have little access to the outside world:
"The device was designed specifically for the nuns and is the only one of its kind. 'Goldie,' as the nuns call it, sits on a table in a hallway that they often pass through, scrolling news as well as the feelings of anonymous strangers whose blog entries are aggregatred by the website We Feel Fine. The nuns have told Bill Gaver, of the Interaction Research Studio, that 'it has been valuable in keeping (our) prayers pertinent.'"
This prayer rug stood out in a show filled with dazzling innovations. The text in the exhibition catalogue explains how it works:
"A Muslim's prayer rug ensures that the space for prayer, which takes place five times per day, is clean and separated from othere activities. Soner Ozenc has created a rug that points the praying person in the direction of Mecca. He embedded in the rug a compass module that connects with the electroluminescent printing on its surface; the carpet pattern grows brighter and brighter as it is turned in the correct direction."
How about a "Singing Chair," or rather a pair of luscious lips singing on a chair, as illustrated above? It is actually a lot of fun to watch a disembodied mouth move on an object designed to be useful, like a chair. It would not have had the same impact if it was projected on a wall. "Singing Chair" is a video by Lucas Maassen and Woody Veneman (both Dutch), that caught the attention of visitors in the narrow corridor leading to the exhibition gallery.
Humor and laughter are the greatest tonics on earth, and there was a lot of giggling and laughing going on in front of a large screen featuring "Talking Carl," a cute critter created by Vann Le Coroller using 3ds Max,V-Ray and Xcode software. Carl appealed to people of all ages, and his purpose is described in the exhibition catalogue:
"Carl is a box-shaped creature that responds to sound and touch. Playful and mischievious, he will repeat anything you say in a funny, high-pitched voice, with a big mouth that takes over his whole body. He laughs if he is tickled on the belly, shouts when he is poked in the eye, and growls when pinched, his uvula trembling. He is one of the most successful Android, iPad, and iPhone apps. Carl behavs in a manner similar to other app characters, such as Talking Tom Cat, but his simplified form is not intended to mimic any human or animal from real life, making him easy to love."
The photograph below tells an interesting story. For the first time in history, many children know more about technology than their parents. They grow up using technology, it empowers them and gives them confidence. Children have a natural affinty for touch screens, buttons and keypads, and easily follow voice prompts and directions via symbols and images. This daughter is teaching her dad how to have fun with Carl! And it is no secret that children often learn fastest from each other (below).
Today children can play a video game in which they fantasize about being someone or something else; they can socialize with friends on the internet (with adult supervision hopefully), or call their parents from school on their cellphones to let them know they are safe, or on their way home. It is true, children today are growing up dependent on machines, gadgets and gizmos, but they are also growing up inspired by and confident about trying new things, which will foster greater innovation in the decades to come.
For those who fear the human family is losing out to technology, this show affirms that good old-fashioned storytelling, stimulating creativity and the imagination, and encouraging spirituality and worship in all its manifestations, are front and center on the contemporary design agenda. Paula Antonelli highlights another fascinating and heartening aspect of contemporary design:
"Not all the projects are speculative; some are exquisitely pragmatic, and the one prompted by the most urgent conditions is also the most lyrical: EyeWriter - an interface that enables a paralyzed graffiti artist to tag buildings with his eyes - demonstrates that necessity and emergency can give rise not simply to particular solutions for extreme individual cases but rather to break throughs for society at large. This is not the only time that an idea developed to address a disability has provided the world with increased abilities. Digital technology follows the same historical rule."
In the exhibition catalogue, Kate Carmody outlines how "Eyewriter" was created by Zach Lieberman, James Powderly, Evan Roth, Chris Sugrus, TEMPT1 (all Americans) and Theo Watson (British):
"In 2003 TEMPT1, a Los Angeles-based fraffiti artist and activist, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which soon left him entirely paralyzed except for his eyes. The EyeWriter research project was born as a collaboration among TEMPT1, the members of Free Art & Technology (FAT) lab, the openFrameworks community, and Graffiti Research Lab (GRL), with support from the Ebeling Group production company, the Not Impossible Foundation, and the MFA Design and Technology program at Parsons The New School for Design, New York. The team equipped a pair of inexpensive eyeglasses with eye-tracking technology and custom-developed software that could capture TEMPT1's eye movements. From the hospital room, wirelessly connected to a laptop and laser-tagging apparatus installed in downtown LA, the artist can paint graffiti tags in color, which are then projected at a superhuman scale in real time - so that viewers see the glowing tag as it is created - on buildings. The hardware, software, and assembly instructions are in the public domain, so that the power of these cretive technologies is widely available, eventually leading to a newtork of, as the designers envision, 'software developers, hardware hackers, urban projection artists and ALS patients from around the world who are using local materials and open-source research to creatively connect and make eye art.'"
What a fantastically positive thing collaboration can be when it is creative, humane and technologically savvy...I left this exhibit excited and inspired, awed by the realization that the next generation of designers is already mapping out its desires and dreams.