Talk to Me at the MoMA

The latest assignment for my Concepts of Design class was to write a response paper for the Talk to Me exhibition at the MoMA. Let me just say that I feel incredibly lucky to live in New York City – home to some of the world’s finest museums. Sometimes I take it for granted that so much greatness is only a Metrocard swipe away, but I realize how fortunate I am when I’m walking around an exhibit and it is packed with people from all corners of the world, who are no doubt using precious time of their trip here to see a particular museum.

So what did I think about the exhibition?

Talk to Me features a wide range of objects from all over the world, including products, infographics, video installations and other pieces that all focus on communication between people and objects. The objects are organized by six categories: Objects, Life, I’m Talking to You, City, Worlds and Double Entendre. The room is densely packed with modular walls, objects and screens in a relatively small space. This makes for a slightly confusing and overwhelming experience. But perhaps this is intended, as it draws a parallel with the crushing amount of visual information we are bombarded with on a daily basis.

Overall, I enjoyed the exhibit. I most appreciated objects that combined utility, practicality and good design, such as the El Sajjadah (Somer Ozerc, Turkey, 2005), which is a prayer rug for Muslims that lights up when pointed toward Mecca. I also liked anything that raised important questions about the increasing role of technology in our lives, such as Hierarchy of Digital Interactions (David McCandless, U.K., 2009), a play on the USDA food pyramid which ranked digital interactions by distractibility in the designer’s life, with “wife closing laptop on my fingers” at the very top. Haha.

What I was less impressed with were meaningless pieces of information packaged into neat visual designs that just add to visual clutter, especially on the internet. For example, Feltron Annual Reports (Nicholas Felton, U.S.A, 2006-11), which are the designer’s visual reports of his life in a given year. The point of his project is to transform his life’s inconsequential details – clothes he wore, food he ate, music he listen – into a meaningful narrative. While beautifully designed (Felton is talented, no doubt), I just couldn’t see the point.  Do we really need this level of self-observation? What is it accomplishing?

Should Felton use his abilities for a better cause? How about organizing complicated financial or scientific information in a way that people can better understand the subject matter?

I believe that people are so busy documenting their interactions (on Facebook, Foursquare, etc.) that they are not fully experiencing them. At this exhibit, I saw a lot of people moving from one installation to other just snapping pictures with their smartphones and not really looking at what was in front of them. Other visitors were actually following MoMA’s advice to interact with the exhibit using their smartphones to tweet and scan QR codes. Hardly anyone was reading the physical information labels on the actual displays.

I go to concerts now and people are so busy taking pictures and videos that they are effectively watching the entire show on screen. At the Massimo Vignelli lecture I attended at Pratt last week, I saw someone in the audience take a picture of each of the 75+ slides of the lecture as they changed on screen, but then put her head down as soon she got the photo. What??

I’m not sure if the main intention of the Talk to Me Exhibition is to ask the viewer whether one form of interaction is better than another. But it raised that question for me and if it did for others, then I would say the exhibit was successful.