Do androids dream of electric sheep? It's a question that rang through my brain while visiting "Design and the Elastic Mind" at the Museum of Modern Art, a show where science and science fiction share the stage.
The science on display is fascinating--genetic engineering, nanotechnology, biomimicry--but it's the science fiction that makes the show particularly compelling. This is not a typical science museum exhibition transplanted into a MoMA gallery. Curator Paola Antonelli altogether avoids the often dry repackaging of scientific material for a general audience. Instead, she's filled the upper floor with projections about possible futures and explorations of poetic technology. Like so much good science fiction, here science is the stage set for playing out the tangle of human relationships and emotional ambiguities that unfold when the technology that connects us begins to infringe upon or even claim our affection.
The prince and princess of this techmo trend are Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, who together have helped build the Design Interactions Department at the Royal College of Art into a provocative program where design is a critical probe that explores our evolving relationships with technology. Their "Technological Dreams Series" featured in the show is a set of four robots that, well, look nothing like robots. One is a chunk of oak shaped more like a table leg or a hockey stick. Dunne and Raby call it a sentinel, a slow-processing retinal scanner that requires the user to cradle it and stare longingly into its eyes. Though the robots sit unimpressively in the gallery under glass, it's the imagery on the wall that's most charged: a kind of Freudian-Droidian scene where the sentinel is embraced by a woman who unmistakably evokes Rachael, the replicant android played by Sean Young in Blade Runner.
Shows curated by Antonelli can leave the viewer disoriented and spent, overwhelmed by schools of objects, an octopus of themes and murky environments. This exhibition poses a challenge to anyone trying to neatly summarize the over 200 objects on view. I'm not even sure it's possible to reconcile a space telescope designed using the principles of origami with sperm mutated into typographic forms, and I'm not going to try except to acknowledge that each is scientific in it's own way. But one of the things I truly appreciate about Antonelli's shows are the way currents and countercurrents pull me through the show, and in the occasional calm, objects from different rooms and different disciplines swirl around a common set of questions.
How do we make sense of our own desires when so many of our interactions are mediated by technology? What happens when our technology shifts from mere media to love object? And as cybernetics becomes more of an everyday condition, do our attractions and attachments ring any less true? The Design Interactions Department is the exhibition's major source of these emotive investigations. Tomoaki Yanagisawa's "Living Sensors" project proposes using cloning technology to create biological keepsakes, what he describes as memento objects made from a pet or lover's skin. Michiko Nitta's "Body Modification for Love Project" envisions a future where in vitro-cultured meat production would allow you to graft your girlfriend's nipple onto your bicep, making a kind of bas-relief love tattoo. James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau's "Social Telepresence" project adopts telepresence technology--sensory interfaces that the military has developed for remotely exploring hazardous environments without physical risk--and adapted it for social purposes. The prototype shows a person whose senses have been muted and replaced with a video camera and microphone. It's premised on a "rent-a-body" service that provides live data feeds to a remotely-located agoraphobic or chronically shy user, allowing that person to access and navigate social situations that would normally be off-limits. Auger and Loizeau have described the proposal as a kind of parasitical tourism that uses available technology to realize the fantastical situation portrayed in Being John Malkovich.
Much of this sounds like its own kind of technological fantasy and I doubt that any of these scenarios will ever come true as sketched, but that's not really what's important. What makes these projects so significant is their assertion that our emotional lives adapt and are adapted by new technologies.
In this sense, "Design and the Elastic Mind" represents a quantum leap from the propellers and petrie dishes of MoMA's 1934 "Machine Art" exhibition, which celebrated the cold, impersonal beauty of industrial objects. It's impressive that a design show is so willing to address how our complex emotional lives are lived with and through objects. But what I found missing in this exhibit was an historical perspective that balanced the newness of its objects against the constancy of our desires. Antonelli acknowledges the significance of this in her introductory catalog essay, defining elasticity as "the ability to negotiate change and innovation without letting them interfere excessively with one's own rhythms and goals." But it remains a subtle sub-theme overwhelmed by nowness.
I recently came across an audio recording of a professor I had back in the mid-1990s. His classes were my first to require Internet use and Internet critique, so it was such a strange episode rediscovering him like I did, almost fifteen years later listening to a podcast on the subway, bubbled inside of noise-cancelling headphones. It was an archived episode of This American Life about early Internet use re-broadcast under the title How We Talked Back Then. Originally recorded in 1997, he sketches out the new metaphysics of sexuality which emerged in the wake of online bulletin boards, describing the ongoing tiering of sex into cybersex, phone sex and what he calls the "slow-time interface" of ultra-real sex. I was struck less by the newness of his Internet-saturated experiences and more by the timelessness of their affect. He tells the story of the death of a lover who he'd never met because their relationship existed exclusively online. He says with sincerity, "Our fantasies were constantly mediated by some other technology and none of this was cold. There was something so tender about this." Does it trivialize his story to say that it resonates with Auger and Loizeau's "AfterLife" concept, which includes a battery charged with the decomposed gastric acids of a dead loved one? The critic Charlie Finch took the project at face value when he described it as a "stupid ecological trick." Meant more as a provocation than a real product, I find the "AfterLife" proposal to be a crude but poignant emblem of lives lived electronically.
In a conversation with Paola Antonelli I had a chance to ask her about the emotive undercurrents of the show. She's described herself as someone who at an early age felt more comfortable with objects than with people, so it's fitting that much of the material included in the exhibition are their own kind of love objects. "There's a strong emotive component to objects" she said, adding that it's often true for "objects that are not as conceptual as those in the show."
In an exhibition so influenced by communications technology, it's no surprise that the telephone appears a number of times in various new forms. As a culture, I'm not sure we've fully acknowledged the trade-offs of shifting over to cellular phones exclusively. There's a loss of simplicity for sure, part of what sparked Hulger, a British design group, to introduce a series of classic telephone handsets that plug into a cell phone or laptop. They're styled after the Dreyfuss-designed Bell 500, a form that emits such strong associations for those of us raised in the pre-cell era and who feel a nostalgia for land lines and dial tones. The quintessential modern love object, the emotive potential of the telephone is perhaps best expressed by the life of Joseph Engressia, an early telephone hacker who built his life around the medium and the object. A recent New York Times Magazine obituary quoted him as saying, "Sometimes I'd hug my phone up close and listen to the dial tone, the soft hum of the dial tone that was always there."
Our emotional lives have always shared an intimacy with our technologies and it's our ability to absorb each technological leap that is the elasticity suggested by Antonelli's choice of title. The catalog text describes the show in these terms: "The exhibition highlights designers' ability to grasp momentous changes in technology, science, and history--changes that demand or reflect major adjustments in human behavior." While surface behaviors will certainly continue to change and multiply, I walked away from the show with a more profound sense of the immutability of our emotional needs, and our minds' ability to stretch and conform to new technological conditions in order to meet those need.
Alex Terzich is trained as an architect and currently works with Front, Inc., a specialist facade consulting practice based in New York City. He's a former associate with the architecture firm Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis and has taught architecture and design courses at the University of Minnesota and Princeton University.