Talk to Me, But Please Do Not Touch MoMA
A common criticism of MoMA’s new show “Talk to Me: Design and Communication Between People and Objects” is that for an exhibit on interactivity, it is not very interactive. Many of the pieces seem to be either behind glass or the objects are heavily labeled “Please Do Not Touch.”
Oddly enough, there is signage everywhere directing visitors how they can participate using their phones.
But, according to Chris Crawford, participation is not the same thing as interaction. Interactivity occurs as more of a conversation, not just a one-way reaction to something. And sadly the “interactivity” that has been built into the exhibition design of Talk to Me is more a conversation between signage, phones and the internet, less a conversation between humans and objects.
I might even go so far to argue that maybe this is not an exhibit meant to create interaction between humans and objects, but to document and archive interaction. And any interaction that does exist in the exhibition design is not between humans and objects or technology but between cyborgs (or humans armed with technology) and objects.
Let’s face it, the most acceptable interaction design with museum artifacts is not a direct human to object interaction (they’re too valuable!), but a human to phone to interface interaction. It seems almost implicit that in order for an object to enter a museum archive as a valued artifact, whether exhibited or not, its value is in its rarity and its (lack of) accessibility. So, in order for the pieces in Talk to Me to be valuable to a Museum, it is more important that the interactivity exist in a technology exchange* and not in the content.
*(humans don’t read QR codes, but technology can).
This show was not an interactive show (with a few pieces being an exception). Instead, Talk to Me is a documentation or archiving of different interactive works. And the content was not interactive, it was curated to be participatory and educational. Most of the works said something. But did not necessarily listen or respond back to the visitor’s reaction.
That being said, let’s forget phone interaction for a moment, is there a reason to physically go to this exhibit, rather than view the content at home in an online format? Yes.
My favorite piece in the show was one that you can also experience online, called Wilderness Downtown, but in MoMA it is allocated a massive screen to take over a good portion of your peripheral view, unlike at home, that is unless you happen to have a massive monitor. Wilderness Downtown is an interactive short film taking archives from Google Maps to interject images of your childhood home into the narrative. Needless to say, viewing this video on this enormous screen has the potential to be an incredibly emotional and powerful experience. I was very moved, and happy that my first time viewing that video was in that exhibit versus at home.
Some of the other pieces in the show incorporated interactive elements with more sculptural pieces on display. And many of them had more complex meanings behind them. Some of them were political and some were about technology as an extension of the body. These were my favorite pieces in the show. Among them:
Sputniko’s two pieces on display, Menstruation Machine and Crowbot Jenny, involve music videos and headsets to fully immerse visitors in the content while being surrounded by actual artifacts/props used in the videos in addition to a couple portraits of the artist in character.
“From Mouth to Mouth” is “a very literal interpretation of a passage in the Old Testament: In Ezekiel 3, God instructs Ezekiel to eat a scroll of lamentations so he can then speak His words to the people of Israel. By encapsulating in digestible pills the entire text of Leviticus… the designers suggest a comparison between medicinal and religious prescription, as well as the idea of many people ingesting the same knowledge and then interpreting it differently, even questioning it.” Displayed at MoMa, the piece had a beautiful sculptural quality, but it was certainly not interactive or even participatory.
While the works with audio involved headphones, they were also not interactive and did not have any elements that would change or listen or “think” based on the participants’ actions or reactions to the work.
One last small note: one of my favorite things about this exhibit was that it was a not just a celebration of nerdy techie and great design! It was an exhibit that was built (or designed) for a techie crowd. Besides the plethora of QR Codes, it was funny to see almost everyone in the exhibit walking around with cameras in hand, documenting their experiences and the show. This was a nice change from so many other MoMA exhibits that strictly forbid photography.