The Language of Objects

Kacie Kinzer, Interactive Telecommunications Program, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. Tweenbots. 2009. Cardboard, paper, ink, batteries, motor, and wheels. Photo Credit: Kacie Kinzer

Many serious and portentous things could be said about the exhibition Talk to Me</a>. I don’t intend to say any of them.</p>

I’ll leave it to others to pontificate about the practical real-world implications of the objects and systems and games and technologies that Paola Antonelli and Kate Carmody have gathered, or to relate the show to the ongoing conversation about techno-promises of efficiency, data parsing, info-tracking, transparency, and convenience.

What I’m most drawn to about the show is its spectacular range of high imagination. It’s not the naïve, kitsch-fated imagination that we now associate with the heyday of the World’s Fair (or with its contemporary descendant, the trade show). It’s the kind of imagination that provokes, entertains, subverts, amuses, and changes the way the viewer thinks not just about the future, but about the present. Best of all, many of these objects express narratives and critiques—often at the same time—that transcend the bounds of the plausible, by design.

It would be an understatement to say that I like that sort of thing. My own interest in imaginative responses to the material world has led me into projects such as Significant Objects (co-founded with Joshua Glenn), which entailed recruiting creative writers to invent stories about thrift-store geegaws, and the Hypothetical Development Organization (co-founded with G.K. Darby and Ellen Susan), which envisions implausible futures for neglected buildings, visual “stories” expressed in real-estate-style signage.

So I was thrilled to pitch in and help MoMA’s Laura Beiles organize The Language of Objects, an evening (on November 2) of speculative responses to such a richly imaginative show. We made a list of creative thinkers, writers, and storytellers, and our top four choices promptly agreed to play along: Kenneth Goldsmith, poet; Ben Greenman, author and editor, The New Yorker; Leanne Shapton, illustrator, author, and publisher; and Cintra Wilson, culture critic and novelist. In responding to Talk to Me, each has devised a wholly original creative work making its debut at our Language of Objects evening of words, images, audio, video, and, above all, imagination.

Sputniko! Design Interactions Department, Royal College of Art. Menstruation Machine – Takashi's Take. Video Installation, variable sizes. Photo Credit: Rai Royal

But before I get to the details, I’ll clarify what I mean about my attraction to the most imaginative material in Talk to Me itself. An example might help: artist/designer Sputniko! has created an object called the Menstruation Machine, which resembles a sleek metallic chastity belt, and is equipped with “a blood-dispensing system and electrodes” that can theoretically be worn by anyone who “wants to experience menstruation.” An accompanying video offers the implausible explanation that the device was created for a young man named Takashi, who wears it while out on the town, “occasionally doubling over in pain.” There’s a lot going on there, from externalizing a traditionally private element of identity to communication across age and gender to speculation about hormone manipulation making a familiar biological necessity obsolete. I’m going to guess that the Menstruation Machine will not become a commercially viable product, but I’m also going to insist that it’s an intellectually viable means of prodding the viewer with story-as-object, and object-as-story.

Yann Le Coroller. Talking Carl. 2010. 3ds Max, V-Ray, and Xcode software. Photo Credit: Yann Le Coroller

Here and there within the show you will find possibly the funniest collections of design objects (or any objects) ever assembled by a museum. (This is an exhibition, after all, that includes the ridiculous smartphone app Talking Carl, created by Yann Le Coroller and featuring a cute box-creature with an immense mouth and googly eyes, who does little but repeat what you say in a silly voice.) Not infrequently, the humor tilts a bit dark, or at least inspires a note of rattled nerves in the resulting laughter. As easy as it may be to get excited about the possibilities of communicative objects, it’s even easier to feel uneasy about the exact same thing.

This is reflected, for instance, in a speculative device named TV Predator, by Eva Rucki, Connie Freyer, and Sebastian Noel, which envisions a side effect of “smarter” electronics: a kind of jealousy and competition among gadgetry, leading this imaginary picture frame to “harass” a nearby television, changing its channels or disrupting its picture. Katrin Baumgarten offers up prototypes of The Disgusted Object—one develops goosebumps when held; another squirms as if it wants to escape—indicating the thing’s revulsion with its handler, presumably a human like you. Chris O’Shea’s Hand from Above project took the form of a giant screen mounted in a public place, broadcasting images of passersby; those who paused to see themselves must have been startled by the intrusion into the image of an immense hand, poking and assaulting pedestrians. Some fled. Others attempted to win the hand’s attention.

Much of what’s in Talk to Me deals directly with emotions—including, notably, anger. We’re all familiar with various “smart home” fantasies, for instance, but I’d never encountered one like the HomeSense Research Kit pilot program devised by Tinker London, which makes it possible to create, for instance, “a garbage bin that appears progressively angrier the more it is used.” Tim Holley’s Tio light switch, meant to teach children to conserve electricity, develops “increasingly angry facial expressions” the longer the lights are left on. Revital Cohen’s Flash software, Me Against the Machine, allows the user to click to “injure” his or her computer until “the screen bruises or bleeds.”

Perhaps I’m making the show sound cynical? What I mean to do is make it sound entertaining, because it is. (The fact that I’m most entertained by bickering household objects, pain-inducing fashion, and vaguely threatening appliances says more about me than about Talk to Me.) And much of it is actually very optimistic. But really this familiar paradigm (utopian vs. dystopian) misses the point. Whatever the show may say about the future, it speaks directly about the present, and does so with a dazzling display of imagination.

Alex Metcalf, Design Products Department, Royal College of Art. Tree Listening at Fermynwoods, Northamptonshire, England. 2009. Installation with copper, plastic, stainless steel, aluminum, glass, headphones, amplifier, and wood, dimensions variable. Photo Credit: Alex Metcalf

Alex Metcalf’s Tree Listening installations make it possible, through a sensory apparatus he devised, to hear the inner sounds of the apparently silent tree. The online project invites users to collaborate in fashioning a unique map of the city by submitting geo-located video clips. Nicholas Felton’s lavish infographics-as-autobiography 2009 Feltron Annual Report is among many examples of converting data into meaning.

This brings us back to The Language of Objects. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t describe the evening in advance, so you’ll have show up for the real experience. But it will entail highly imaginative responses to the communicative objects—talking back to Talk to Me, as it were.

This will include Leanne Shapton offering a “further translation” of those Tree Listening sounds. Ben Greenman will respond to the infographic creations of Felton and others with his own infographics. Kenneth Goldsmith will present a set of MyBlockNYC-built videos he’s titled “Broken New York.” And Cintra Wilson’s speculations on clothing-language, and its dialects, will talk back to the show’s creations that (like Sputniko!’s Menstruation Machine) could, theoretically at least, be worn.

In short, the program will be, in the true sense of the word, fantastic. Like Talk to Me itself, it’s a program that, we hope, uses imagination to enlighten. The successful narrative, whether expressed via words or a physical object or some thing built of bits, is the narrative that simultaneously entertains its audience and subtly changes the way that audience sees the world. This is the difference between information and story: both are motivated by what might be worth knowing right now—but only one is crafted to be worth remembering.

Tickets are now available for The Language of Objects, November 2 at 6:00 p.m. in The Celeste Bartos Theater of MoMA’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building. Visit the Talk to Me blog to read Paola Antonelli’s interview with Rob Walker.