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  • Technology Talks Back:On Communication, Contemporary Art, and the New Museum Exhibition
  • Ioana Literat (bio)
A review of Talk to Me, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), July 24th to November 7th.

Talk to Me, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, is a paradigmatic collection of new media artistic experiments and an open experimental space in itself. The theme of the event, now one of the foundations of 21st century design concepts, is the communication between people and objects. "Whether openly and actively or in subtle, subliminal ways, things talk to us," says Paola Antonelli, the senior curator of the exhibition, on the welcome page of the website. "They do not all speak up: some use text, diagrams, visual interfaces, or even scent and temperature: others just keep us company in eloquent silence." Talk to Me investigates this subtle but ubiquitous communicative relation, and in the process of interrogating it, makes an influential statement on the expanding taxonomies of postmodern communication.

The exhibition is organized around five subcategories (objects, bodies, life, city, world, and double entendre), all speaking to the dialogue - textual, paratextual or, most often, atextual - between us and the objects and technologies that increasingly structure our quotidian existence. In this sense, the exhibition - in light of both its content and its installation in a modern art museum - can be read as evidence of the broadening, convergent spectrum of contemporary art, design, and engineering categories. These concepts, Talk to Me seems to be suggesting, are evolving (and converging), just like the categories of communication are broadening (and converging).

Ms. Antonelli launched a fascinating discussion this past June when she suggested, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, that we "start treating museums as the R&D departments of society" (Aspen Institute). Talk to Me, as a paragon of this impulse, brings up important questions about the image and function of the museum exhibition in the 21st century and beyond. And the collective identity of the artists represented in this exhibition is a telling sign of this fresh direction. Going through all the exhibits, the visitor is struck by the very young age of the designers (most of them born after 1980), and by the multitude of countries and cultures represented. This is truly a global generation of young artists and designers, and seeing their creations build such a coherent, unified statement on the future of communication is indeed exhilarating.

The technologies and artifacts on view have varying degrees of social utility, but they all function, on a sociocultural level, as personal statements on technology and culture, and the increasingly complicated relationship between the two. A crucial argument that the exhibition seems to be making is that we have reached a point where it is imperative to recognize this association and its vital implications in terms of social progress, innovation and cultural introspection. As scholar and media designer Anne Balsamo writes, "continuing to bifurcate the technological from the cultural not only makes probable consequences unthinkable, but also severely limits the imaginative space of innovation in the first place" (4). From this perspective, Talk to Me is an argument against this artificial bifurcation, and a call to recognize the cultural impact of technological developments, as contemporary innovation continues to accelerate. Beyond a showcase of design ingenuity, each exhibit is, at its core, a statement on this cultural impact, and a tentative verdict on the multifaceted relationship between technology and culture - as either beneficial, dangerous or, oftentimes, a mixture of the two.

The exhibits that speak to enhancement, and to the enabling potential of new interactive technologies, are some of the most inspiring pieces in the collection. Their statement is a hopeful one, emphasizing the empowering potential of design and technology. In one of the most emotionally powerful exhibits, we are presented with the EyeWriter, a technology which enabled a graffiti artist to continue drawing from his hospital bed, after being completely paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): the EyeWriter captures his eye movements and projects his graffiti designs in real time from his hospital bed to downtown LA - all with just a laptop computer and $50 worth of equipment. Several...

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