Saturday, March 8, 2008

Tomorrow MoMA Knows

Last night I went to see the new show at the Museum of Modern Art, Design and the Elastic Mind.  It’s truly a brilliant and inspiring collection of items that will no doubt shape our world in the decades to come.  They describe the exhibition as going from the micro level to the macro, which it sort of does, but really it’s divided up into to various categories, Bioengineering, Nanotechnology, Green Design, Technology Interface, Bodily Perception, etc. 

As far as I was concerned, the most incredible section was all about information processing.  For the first time in human history, we have the ability to collect and store vast amounts of data on an unprecedented scale.  So the question arises as to how we’re going to organize, sort, interpret, analyze, and understand these huge collections of information.  The far back room showed a number of examples.  One screen showed a map of the world that would skew and warp according to with what geographic locations New Yorkers made telephone contact over a certain span of time.  So if a large number of people telephoned Berlin around 8PM, Berlin would grow larger (or come forward, depending on your perspective).

Another showed different views of our planet in terms of digital information from New York to other parts of the world over “the past 24 hours.”  Here the cities would light up in a huge point of light, or darken again according to how much we’re communicating with them.  Pulsing lines of communication shot up out of New York, rendered three-dimensionally, like missile trajectories, flowing to every corner of the globe.  One piece was a graphic analysis of the Wikipedia entries/ edits for popular search terms, “Abortion” and “Chocolate.”

A screen showing the flight paths of airplanes coming in and out of the United States over the course of 24 hours was simply mesmerizing.  I stood there almost trancelike watching the waves and bursts of squiggly lines crisscross around the country and the world, the lattice blooming from East to West at 8AM or so and slowly fading out at nightfall.

There were some other pieces that were just goofy, like a line of products for a bachelor to simulate being in a relationship.  “Sheet Thief” is an appliance that will rip the sheets off you in the middle of the night.  “Hair Alarm Clock” whips a ponytail in your face to wake you up.  “Heavy Breather” is fairly self-explanatory, as is “Cold Feet.”  I thought the whole thing was hilarious.

There were quite a few ecologically poignant items on display, although I wish there’d been more, considering our current climate (multiple meanings intended).  But that wasn’t the biggest problem I had with the show.  For the most part, the work on display was top-notch, technologically, conceptually, and both.  But the curators really should have done a lot more pruning.

Part of the problem was that this was Target Free Friday Night, the first Friday of a brand new (and much anticipated) show.  We heart TFFNs, MoMA, so thank you—although one might be inclined to wonder if the reason the museum is swarmed by 50-million New Yorkers 4PM Friday is because you charge a ridiculous entrance fee the rest of the week. 

It’s such a scene.  Everybody’s young and hip, these are New York’s starving artists: the ones making Art History in this city.  It’s them, I’m sorry to say, not the stuffy socialites invited to the private openings, not the tourists from the backwoods of Alabama, not the card carrying collectors.  It’s these people, Friday nights, and it’s quite fun to be a part of it.

But the enormous crowd merely exacerbated problems with the show that would confront a visitor unless they were the only person in the gallery.  The nature of this work, being SO new, SO unprecedented, means that in 75% of the cases, you have absolutely no idea what you’re looking at if you don’t read pretty much all the text on the neighboring plaque.  Some of them are insufficient still; as far as I could tell, the description of the work of Materialise (which I’ve talked about here), did nothing to illuminate what makes their technology so brilliant—and who knows for how many other unfamiliar objects that was the case and I wasn’t aware of it.

Meanwhile, the text is in most cases so tiny that you have to be standing less than two feet away from it for it to even be legible, thereby blocking anyone else’s view (and museum etiquette is sorely misunderstood, as it is).  So only one or two people can engage at any one time.  One pertinent aspect about the progress of our technology is that it continues to rapidly decrease in size, but because of that, and because there’s way too much on display, the items are so close together that you’re practically breathing down some stranger’s neck the entire time.  I’m leaning back and forth, back and forth around some fourteen-year-old kid blocking my view and totally unaware that anyone else is trying to see the work.  One plaque was so badly located that I practically had to stand right on top of the artwork to read it.  Others are grouped together in so jumbled a manner that, since we’re talking about extremely unusual research projects and so on, it’s unclear to which piece they even refer.

Certainly it’s possible that I’m missing the whole point.  It’s been discussed that our new technology has this bizarre way of grouping people together in some ways, while isolating and alienating us from one another at the same time.  Perhaps by designing a show where I’m in excruciatingly close proximity to someone I don’t even know, and yet at the same time not really able to share an experience with them, the curators are calling attention to the times in which we live.  Nonetheless, it makes the show unfortunately less enjoyable, and there were a number of items I didn’t feel like bothering to barge through groups of people to get a look at.

So while the show is extremely comprehensive and jam-packed full of great stuff, they'd have been way better off scaling it down, and including more videos showing what these objects do, more movement, objects in use, more visual examples of what's on display, more interactive pieces (there were a couple).  I felt for two Asian women behind me who, from their tones of voice it would seem, had to struggle a lot harder to understand what they were seeing because one's only recourse, really, was to read the accompanying English text.

Another irony of this show, because so much of it at least touched on communications technology, was the fact that about 50% of the people there were so busy taking pictures with their camera phones they likely weren’t even paying any attention to the exhibition.  I’ve never seen so many people snapping pictures in a museum before in my life.  I was unable to find out what their exact policy on photos is, but while there I overheard someone saying “it’s okay, as long as we don’t publish them.”  Especially in light of this particular show, what the hell does that even mean anymore?  “Publish them…” in professional print?  Is what you’re reading right now a “publication?”  And how could they ever possibly enforce that, anyway?

I do highly recommend going to see this show.  It will very likely blow your mind, but leave the camera at home, and I’d suggest either waiting until it’s been up for a long while, or paying the $20 admission so go at a slower time of the week.

©2008, Ryan Witte

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