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"Talk to Me"

by Walter Robinson
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The mad scientists have taken over the Museum of Modern Art for "Talk to Me," July 24-Nov. 7, 2011, MoMA design department curator Paola Antonelli’s summer blockbuster featuring almost 200 design items that represent the interface between people and machines. Emblematic of this suspiciously futuristic notion is the real Metrocard Vending Machine by the entrance, so shockingly familiar-yet-out-of-place that I forgot to actually look at it to see if it works (it does).

The "mad scientist" motif is courtesy of the Japanese-English artist Sputniko (b. 1985), who described herself in just this way. A game young graduate of the Royal College of Art design program, Sputniko has devised two metal, purse-sized, wearable body-extension sculptures, one that allows a person to talk to crows in crow language, and a second that permits people to experience a simulation of menstruation.

Yes, that’s right. From the illustration, it appears that the silver metal contraption, worn on the back of the belt, has an arm that extends uncomfortably down between the legs. The user extracts his or her own blood with a syringe, feeds it into the machine, which then expels it from you-know-where. Sputniko said that a YouTube vid about the Menstruation Machine had over 200,000 hits, and had won a prize.

MoMA may well acquire the thing for its collection; the work is in an edition of two, with one owned by an art-collecting doctor. Sputniko explained that she got her name in Japan, where her atypical looks were mistaken as Russian.

The show includes other almost-as-nutty objects, from a bumbling little cardboard robot named Tweenbot Sam to an anti-style Muttering Hat whose dangling earpods let the wearer have the schizophrenic experience of hearing voices. A digital slingshot allows a would-be vandal to shoot digital paint splats onto digital screens, and a solar-powered Tree Listening device provides an aural peek inside arboreal xylem tubes.

An oval-shaped lacquered resin Communication Prosthesis gives the wearer a teeth-baring grimace that is billed as a "conversation stopper," and a spherical glass Phantom Recorder ostensibly translates the electrical impulses from a missing arm or limb into a poetic readout on an electronic screen.

Some of my favorite things in the show are digital games, like the music apps that turn the iPad into a stringed instrument, as with Max Weisel’s Soundrop (2010) and Henry Chu’s Squiggle (2010). At the entrance to the exhibition is a mural-sized projection of Talking Carl, a little digital creature, square and red, that responds noisily to pokes and tickles (not unlike Tickle Me Elmo, if you remember him). Carl is billed as "loveable" but is really a pain in the ass.

So, what is all this stuff, really? Who makes it, where do they come from, and what do they make it for? A good question, and I don’t have the answer, though one clue is that many of the items are co-authored by university design departments. Google is even listed as a maker of one of the exhibits.

Strange and inventive though it may be, "Talk to Me" is mostly gadgets, toys, videogames and even science. MoMA has made itself over into a funky version of a Sharper Image store (which tellingly went out of business in 2008). But art? I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

"Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects," July 24-Nov. 7, 2011, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.