The new exhibit up at MOMA, "Talk To Me: Design and the Communication Between People and Objects," feels like the multimedia, interactive redaction of my book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Can Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. Or, put another way, if I were creative and clever enough to be a media artist, this exhibit--in its totality--covers just about all the points I am trying to cover in Now You See It. That's a good and a bad thing. The good part is that the many separate exhibits within this one large exhibit are full of enticements that stimulate, inspire, amuse, and surprise. The bad part is that it takes a good deal of will, motivation, energy, and knowledge even to know what one is looking for, blurring lines betwee art and commercialism and, in fact, blurring just about every other accepted binary of the museum world too (a hallmark of the brilliant curator Paolo Antonelli). One can get lost in the welter or simply view the pieces as if they were static art works, not interactive pieces. Some pieces are photographic representations of performances that took place elsewhere. If you go too quickly, you miss their significance. But, if you are an attention-geek like me, reading about the performance is fascinating, moving, and, in that oblique sense, interactive. Probably for most people, there is a bit of a "post mortem" feel, as if one is dissecting something that once was alive and interactive but that is now, merely, a static emblem of its former self. On the other, perhaps that is exactly the point.
Since I am an attention geek, I ended up really enjoying "Talk to Me." MOMA Director Glenn Lowry, in his Foreword to the exhibit catalog, calls it "a snapshot in time, recording the diversity and open-endedness of contemporary design." I think he's right, but there's something much more here, something urgently and insistently human in the way these media designers image our conenction to objects: there is also a process of translation, from analog to digital, including a lot of meta-discourse on what it means to have already made a transition we are just starting to understand.
That's the "aha!" (the "now you see it!") revelatory factor in this exhibit and that'swhat I try to bring readers to see in my book, using words, not the split-second insights that artists manage to render. In "Talk To Me" it's no longer the future we are talking about. This is a fully inhabited "now" that has, in less than two decades, scuttled so many of the binaries we were taught by the industrial age: subject versus object, human versus machine, home versus work, work versus leisure, me versus you, us versus them, individual versus collective, private versus public, production versus consumption, producer versus consumer, expert versus amateur, specialist versus generalist, virtuoso versus dilettante, teacher versus student, mind versus body, West versus East, permanent versus impermanent, solid versus mobile, real versus virtual, exhibit versus interaction, performance versus observation, art versus reality, art versus the quotidian, performance versus representation, representation versus interpretation, touching versus seeing, passive versus interactive. And on. And on. With all the accompanying hierarchies of value embedded deep within those binaries.
To enter the MOMA show you have to go past a very loud, interactive animation. Once inside, away from that raucus noise, you are invited to use your iPhone or other mobile device to scan the QR codes on the wall by each piece so you can find more interactive information on the website you hold in your hand. Throughout the exhibit, you are invited to look, to listen, to wear 3-D glasses, to enter info into a Google map, to draw, to design music, and to interact with the art pieces themselves. "Don't touch!" is violated. You can buy an actual Metro card that has the "Talk to Me" logo and a QR code on the back.
Or, in one of my favorite pieces (and the best metaphor in the show), you can call the phone number beneath Finnish artist Jaakko Tuomivaara's portrait. There is no answering machine, no message, to greet you. But the missed interaction, the skipped message, the information never received, marks the portrait. A small birthmark appears, the trace of your call. Information overload is a problem that marks us all in the early twenty-first century. This artist also reminds us (so soon, so soon) that lack of information, missed connections, mark us too.
I found myself moved, amused, bemused, bored, and engaged by different pieces. David McCancless's "The Hierarchy of Digital Distractions" said in a succinct (if actually quite wordy) piece, exactly the point I make about distraction in Now You See It: that even as we count, see, and blame some distractions from multitasking and the incursions of new media for our unproductivity, so many other more basic things distract us, including our emotions as well as our attitude toward "any kind of actual work."
Another piece invited me to put in the address of my childhood home--and then a hyper-maximized Google Earth allowed me to look into the bedroom window I would have looked out at, on Cuyler Avenue in Chicago, as a preschooler yearning for other places.
Still another, by Johanna Bresnick, took the injunction of Ezekiel 3 literally: "eat a scroll of lamentations." The words of the Old Testament are inscribed in Hebrew on edible paper rolled into edible pills, thousands of them, there to be eaten, Kosher even.
And then, another powerfully embodied piece, Hans Hemmert's "Level, 1997," uses shoe extenders produced in various heights, matched to the participants own height, to make everyone two meters tall. Communication then takes place face-to-face, against the obstacle of height differentials, an amazing commentary in one glance on gender politics, on racial politics, on the politics of size and equality and seeing "eye to eye" in a world where height differentials mean far more than they should (try to find a U.S. President under 6 feet tall and you will see what I mean: there are not very many of them).
All of these pieces and many more are about thinking through interactivity, what happens when our objects speak to, for, and about us and when we can speak to, for, about, and through our objects, me to you, you to me. I, for one, am so happy to get beyond the binary of "people" and "objects," for that is what interactivity means. That is why, near the end of Now You See It, I recall my favorite, ancient Japanese proverb, the ending of so many Japanese tales, "Monogoto niwa taitei ura no ura ga aru mono da": The reverse side itself also has a reverse side. In the West this is sometimes translated as "two sides of the coin" but that is exactly not what that proverb means. It means any time you see the other side of anything, you have to turn it too, because there is something hidden and unexpected there and then, once you turn, there is yet another side. The binary of "attention" and "distraction" is just wrong. Attention is always about what we see because we have trained ourselves not to see anything else. Not seeing the rest doesn't mean it is not there. It is. Even when we cannot see it.
What I like about "Talk To Me,"is it helps us see the other side of the other side, the reverse of the reverse, the interstices between people and objects, for that is the communication we thrive on in our interactive world---even when we are so distracted by our twentieth-century paradigms that we have a very hard time seeing it.
Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011). below. For an early, prepublication review of Now You See It in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, click here.
A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes: "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come." PW named it one of the "top 10 science books" of the Fall 2011 season.
Image credit: http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1080