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MoMA Preview: 12 Brilliant Projects That Explore How Tech Helps Us Talk

“I try to collect interesting and inspirational case studies of a particular moment in time,” says Paola Antonelli, curator of Talk to Me, at MoMA.

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If you listen carefully, deep inside MOMA’s remarkable new show, “Talk to Me: Design and Communication Between People and Objects,” you can hear the sound of a mournful howl. A wounded baboon? A lonely chimpanzee yearning for its mate?

Turns out it’s Lucy, better known by her family name, Australopithecus Afarensis, the Ethiopian hominid generally considered to be the mother of humanity. Or rather, it’s what she might have sounded like, if her vocal organs had been preserved along with her skeleton. Designer Marguerite Humeau, from London’s Royal College of Art, took the skull of a chimp (close to Lucy’s size and shape), replicated what her soft tissues might have looked like, printed them in 3-D, and hooked them up to an air compressor. Turn the switch and bingo! A 3 million year old voice from the grave.

“Talk to Me” is like that — a dazzling exhibition of 200 surprising gadgets, videos, apps and games, both serious and playful, that illuminate our increasingly intimate relationship with objects. MoMA design curator Paola Antonelli whipped up a Tweet storm last month at the Aspen Ideas Festival when she suggested that we ‘start treating museums as the R&D departments of society.’ This show, she says, is an example of just that: “I try to collect interesting and inspirational case studies of a particular moment in time, that together can be a baseline for where design can go in the future,” she says.

Antonelli suggests we “start treating museums as society’s R&D departments.”

A side effect of the process, she says, is that people working in disparate disciplines, in far flung corners of the globe, often find each other through these shows. As with Antonelli’s previous exhibition, “Design and the Elastic Mind,” the simple validation of having a piece in a MOMA show gives them confidence in their work, and many end up collaborating on projects in the future.

A year and a half in the making, “Talk to Me” began as a blog on the MoMA site that asked visitors to nominate objects. It was not only a way to create community around the idea (and thus be true to the show), but to keep curators from missing innovative but less well-known projects in a rapidly evolving field. ‘From very start, we put everything we were seeing and reading up on the blog,’ says Antonelli. “When somebody would submit an idea, we’d post a link to a thank you page with their name and a link to their blog. We even had a ?Tasty Morsels” button with the weirdo stuff.?

The blog became more than just a way to organize curators? thoughts; it eventually changed the very nature of the categories themselves. Originally, Antonelli and her curatorial assistant, Kate Carmody, envisioned a sort of instinctual grouping ” interfaces, games, etc. ‘But we discovered it didn’t work,’ says Antonelli. ?Instead we realized the logical order was by who’s doing the talking.”

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The exhibit, distilled from some 1500 nominees, is organized into six sections.

Objects” features physical objects that aren’t just communicative, but often interactive, among them a Bug Plug that monitors a user’s energy usage; a wifi dousing rod; and a lamp that let’s you “strangle” it to alleviate aggression that may have built up from watching violent media.

I?m Talking to You” is a group of objects that range from the practical to the lyrical: a range of interfaces that help the socially awkward, a pair of eyeglasses that allowed a paralyzed graffiti artist to keep tagging, and shoe extenders that make everyone 6 ½ feet tall.

Life” investigates the meaning of, well, life, through projects that are both mundane — a chart showing how to brush one’s teeth ? to transcendental: a prayer rug equipped with a GPS that lights up when it’s aligned with Mecca, and a news scroll that alerts nuns in an English convent which world issues need their prayers.

City” aggregates a variety of interesting projects that have arisen from designers attempting to get a better handle on how technology can improve the urban experience, from Stamen’s gorgeous, data-driven “Prettymaps,” to a German ticket kiosk that lets users report problems at the same time they pay for parking.

Worlds‘ explores not just the shrunken globe brought about by new technology, but virtual worlds that have sprung up with their own civilizations. BBC Dimensions allows viewers to transpose data from landmark events ‘ the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, the pyramids of Giza ” over one’s own city, as a way of gauging their scale. ‘Hello, World!’ is a large scale Semacode mowed into a wheat field in Germany. Fly over, and you can “read” its message on your smartphone.

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Double Entendre‘ is the most meta of the categories, explaining the need and desire to understand one other. Sort of like what would happen if Martin Buber’s ?I and Thou’ were an iPhone app. ?It’s the beautiful essence of being human,” says Antonelli. Designers in this section wrestle with communication issues our advanced technologies have spawned: privacy and ubiquity; violence stemming from false identities; the hazards of unregulated expression. The objects in this section are sometimes unsettling, always engaging. There’s Aruliden’s sex toy chess set, a set of digitally generated dog masks that mimic Cerberus, the gatekeeper of the underworld, and Sputniko!’s Menstruation Machine, a metal device that simulates a woman’s monthly period (the single most controversial piece in the show, says Antonelli.)

This is not an exhibition that you can cruise through, looking at beautiful pictures, occasionally reading a wall plaque, and moving on. Many of the objects reward interaction, whether it be organizing a game of Tentacles that begins on the ground floor, tickling and chatting with the “Talking Carl” iphone app (and exhibit mascot) as you stand on line, or purchasing a special custom-designed “Talk to Me” MetroCard, created by Antenna Design’s Masamichi Udagawa and Sigi Moeslinger. Keep an eye out for Kacie Kinzer’s Tweenbots as you stroll around the galleries: these little cardboard robots, armed with flags, will be roaming the museum, asking for directions. And, if you’re hungry, be sure to watch the Poke-designed BakerTweet, which will announce when something yummy is popping out of the MOMA café’s oven (follow it yourself on @MoMABakerTweet).

Each object in the show will have its own hashtag and QR code, allowing visitors to bookmark the object and get more information on it on the exhibition’s website, www.moma.org/talktome, in the galleries, or at home.

“There’s a density to a lot of these objects, a lot of layers,” says Antonelli. “You can spend 5 minutes ” or 5 hours.?

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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