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08.31.2011
Review> QR This
Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects at MoMA.
Hello World!, a QR landscape by Bernhard Hopfengartner.
Courtesy MoMA

Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through November 7

Working my way around Talk To Me (TTM), the Museum of Modern Art’s latest design show, I definitely exceeded 140 characters. Pouring over maps that tracked 3:00 a.m. surges in complaints to 311 about sewage maintenance, listening to Japanese pop videos about menstruating boys, following Avatar, a video game character, along London’s South Bank, and taunting Talking Carl, I worked the room as if I were at a cocktail party thrown by the Mario Brothers. The unusual suspects are here.

I met a cast of variously pixilated oddballs, each figments of the most imaginative imaginations, each representing a chapter in MoMA’s latest account of the story of interaction design. The headline: There’s barely a keyboard in sight. Technology is dissolving into our everyday experience.

Before the exhibit opened, I’d been rooting for this show to take a definitive look at what interaction design promises – and threatens—now and next; anything to articulate properly to normal folks what interface designers do all day. By MoMA’s account, a tightly tethered, worldwide community is demo’ing their genius to each other on You Tube.

A broad survey of the current state of networked media, TTM is subtitled “Design + the Communication between People and Objects.” I wrestled with this subtitle. Design here seems like a prefix bolted on just because it ain’t a painting retrospective. And, hang on a minute, everyone knows that besides Billy the Bass, objects are dumb. They don’t communicate. They merely mediate communication that takes place between people. TTM is therefore a celebration of the means for, rather than the content of, communicating—a mediation of media.


Animal Superpowers, an interactive game by Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada.
 
 

It might seem incidental to differentiate between a slavish celebration of devices over content but a crack in the ground now becomes a chasm later. Seeing the show in the same week looters lit London ablaze, do I still see VR/Urban’s 2009 SMSlingshot the same way, as youthful urban japes, digital “happenings?”

Can I still marvel as benignly at Terada Design’s sophisticated dynamic display for the skin of N Building, a QR-readable Tokyo storefront, if the exhibit shows me material samples and a rendering of the facade but coyly stops short of revealing to me the retail message it displays?

I buy that this show advances its audience, provoking us to contemplate the behavior, no longer just the function, of media objects. But what’s captivating about these machines that talk back is the experiences we have interacting with each other, the systems of production and use, and the content we exchange, through them.

There’s a smattering of utility in the objects on display – “data viz” information design, useful apps, ATM and (again!) the MTA Metrocard vending kiosks, but there’s also a helluva lot of speculative, critical conceptual work.

Does that make this design? Sure, if video sketches of hermetic, slightly chilling, possible sci-fi futures is a stop that design is currently making en route elsewhere.

 
Immaterials: Ghost in the Field, by Timo Arnall and Einar Sneve Martinussen, illuminates the invisible.
 

Like war coverage, interaction design is usually hard to follow unless you’ve been close to the action from the beginning and you know which side you’re rooting for. No one can say for sure how it’ll all play out, so we keep looking to our correspondents in the field.

The expectation is therefore that you can still pay attention to a breadth and a depth here. If you are so inclined, you might even want to take two visits to really squeeze the pips out of the show. Or explore online before your visit to make a beeline for the things that capture your curiosity – SWAMP’s 2007 Notepads, each faintly ruled with the tiny names of civilians killed in the Iraqi war, or a close-up of one glowing module of realities: united’s programmable BIX display skin that covers Peter Cook and Colin Fournier’s 2003 blobular Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria.

Garnered from recommendations of practitioners in the field (full disclosure: I contributed to that early in the curators’ research phase), the emphasis here is, for the most part, on individual craftsmen and women.

Work by the many women in this field was well represented and remarkable, notably Louise O’Connor’s situationist folly Walk the Solar System and Bat Billboard, Natalie Jeremijenko’s collaboration with Chris Woebken.

TTM reconstitutes the celebratory narrative of humble artisans grafting away in a garret, this time tinkering and soldering. MoMA seems fine leaving it to industry awards to recognize corporate creative output. Otherwise, where’s the likes of a Nike+, of Twitter’s coverage of the VH1 awards in all this?

Tweenbot, a constantly roving bot dependent on the kindness of strangers, by Kacie Kinzer.
 

Actually it’s not entirely clear what standard was applied for selecting some work but not others. TTM is organized into five slightly jumbled sections, from self-explanatory to plain enigmatic: “Objects, City, Life, Worlds, Double Entendre, I’m Talking to You.”

The information architect in me thinks “apples and oranges,” a traditional curatorial lens that the work, as new interpretations of content, doesn’t quite fit. Mostly that’s okay. An established format brings the uninitiated along to introduce them to new stories.

But it might make more sense to classify clusters by the scale of experience: from one to many, solo interactions, dialogues, small groups, communities to crowds?

Or what about by the scale of display screens used for viewing content: a foot from your face (handheld screens, printed info graphics), two feet from your face (browser-based), ten feet (TV and gaming, maps), a hundred feet (billboards + buildings)?


The N Building's facade in Tokyo is covered in QR codes. Designed by TeradaDesign Architects, Qosmo Media, and Izumi Okayasu Lighting.
 
 

And there’s already so much to absorb. But I was slow to adopt the stop-and-click-for-more-info “QR codes” on every title card.

Chomping through my now-daily diet of snack-sized content—texts, Tweets, instant messages, news feeds—has expanded, rather than attenuated, my appetite for more substantial morsels of a full story, and, increasingly, I’m thirsting for analog. But the portion size here is a little out of control.

No demo left behind, this “snapshot” of where interactive media is today, as the catalog described it, is both panoramic and a little out of focus. As an enormous show-and-tell, like its Paola Antonelli-curated MoMA predecessors Safe in 2005 and Design and the Elastic Mind in 2008, I came away a little browser-beaten.

There’s a lot here, a haze of a hundred bright ideas, cheeky presentations, snappy concepts, clever conceits, grand narratives, imagined worlds, and funny looking objects each demanding my in-depth engagement.

At the same time, it was strange to take in piece after piece that mediates someone else’s experiences. It began to seem like filtered reportage at best, at worst, dispassionate, disengaged, depoliticized, dystopian. In contrast, one floor below, pieces in an exhibit of prints from South Africa are recognizable, memorable, shudder-inducing. That proximity and veracity seems relegated, muted at TTM, where the fantastical future conditional, possible worlds, game spaces, whole universes between the fictional and the real seem preferable, or at least prevail. But maybe I just prefer newspapers to sci-fi.

I wonder how this show, as a self-styled “snapshot” of an evolving body of work, will hold up as a time capsule? How these exhibits will age, which will reappear in subsequent retrospectives (Josh On’s They Rule, first shown at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, seems to be maturing nicely), and which will be cached as bookmarks to fade away, or worse, linger, only to be ridiculed in hindsight, as new improved versions trump them.

If you know all about interaction design, there’s plenty here you’ve already seen on blogs, You Tube, Twitter, at graduate shows. That’s a reason to see it, not to skip it. Intangible work conceived for co-creation and for distribution over a network are not natural candidates for a museum’s blockbuster exhibit. But while there is no convention, no equivalent to a specimen cabinet, it’s worth seeing the profusion of ideas here, trapped like butterflies for temporary display for at the show. They will thrive, released and dispersed on the placeless network, long after it closes. All the while, is the “me” in Talk to Me the machine or the person using it? You decide, all on your unmediated own.

Rachel Abrams

Rachel Abrams runs Turnstone Consulting, a strategic design practice, and is on the faculty of the Interaction Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts. She lives in Brooklyn.