You are not going mad. Objects may well be talking to you. And that's what MoMA's new design show hopes. The theme of Talk to Me—on display until November 7th and crammed with over 200 works from designers worldwide—is communication between people and objects. As design and technology have advanced we have apparently developed ways of interacting and communicating with them. Children, who once were content pushing square wooden blocks into square holes, now cry out for touch-sensitive screens and apps.
The premise works and is intensely entertaining. The only danger is that both the theme and physical experience of the show sometimes become overwhelming. You may not be going mad but you may feel like a feeble and fallible human in a much more advanced world.
Design and the Elastic Mind, MoMA's 2008 design exhibition, was the apt prequel and training ground for some ideas in this show. The psychology from then is still present in Talk to Me, but the languages uttered, seen and sensed really push us to the edge of the design frontier this time.
Many pieces are trapped between whimsy and work. Some, such as Emily Read's "Homeless City Guide," obviously have a conscience and pragmatic purpose, while others, like Sascha Nordmeyer's "Communication Prosthesis," are punch lines. Some are mean and sexy, exploring areas of communication that are sensual, elusive and sometimes dark. Karin Baumgarten's objects approximate goose bumps, Sputniko!'s "Crowbot Jenny" prefers to talk with animals through a robot crow, and another work will even physically simulate a menstrual period.
In keeping with curator Paola Antonelli's notion of "pancommunication"—everything and anything communicating in all possible ways—the show excels in its interactive features; QR codes and hashtags for every work, two websites, links galore. But in some ways this is too much self-reflexivity and ultimately distracting. In keeping with the foundations of art history that MoMA rests upon, the pieces that work best are visually engaging. Many plug themselves successfully into less digital and more natural communication modes.
Given the omnipresence of communication, looking becomes a luxury, one that thankfully rescues the viewer from the brink of overload and confirms we are not yet redundant as humans. With a bit of distance and wide eyes Talk To Me offers a fascinating glimpse into our bright, garbled future.
(Photos by Scott Rudd, courtesy MoMA)