Talk to Me: Coded Reality
The real and the virtual are becoming more and more intertwined. For proof, just visit "Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects", the exhibition that Paola Antonelli has organized at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (through Nov. 7). Better yet, avoid the show, which is crowded with both people and the almost 200 objects that they are talking to or that are talking to them, and check out the website, which shows much more of these talkative gadgets without having you worry about the compromises they have to make to behave in a gallery.
Antonelli’s basic premise is that everything and everywhere now talks to us. She makes her point most clearly by placing QR codes next to every label, so that the few words and data on the walls can open up into all the terrains a website that you can survey through the portal of a QR reader on your smartphone. Much of the exhibition is a literal collection of objects that provide information or services, or mapping devices that make data visible.
Bernard Hopfengaertner. Courtesy: MoMA
All of this information turns into art when it becomes rhetorical. In 2006, Bernhard Hopfengaertner mowed a wheat field in Germany so that, if you look at it from space—or, more appropriately, Google Earth—it is a QR code that says “Hello World.” It is a trick that turns a whole space into nothing but a code, making you wonder whether Matrix hadn’t gotten it right.
Kageo. Courtesy: MoMA
In the project Kageo, designed by Masa Inakage and his colleagues at Keio University in 2007, cartoon figures hide in the shadows of everyday objects, making you believe that reality is just hiding the ghosts in the machine. It is an eerie, and yet playful project that also points to a truth about much of this kind of design experimentation: It is a game, done on school time or for the gaming industry.
Marc Owens's Avatar Machine. Courtesy: Mark Owens
Things really heat up when the avatars start running in the real streets, as in Marc Owens’s Avatar Machine of 2008. You can dress up into an anime character in a suit equipped with video cameras front and back and imagine that you are pursuing evil through the ruins of London, Tokyo, or New York. It is just a step away from Japanese “cosplay,” in which kids dress up in mash-ups of historical costumes and parade around parks, but also from science fiction films in which the aliens battle the superheroes right here and now.
What interested me most about "Talk to Me" was the way that these excessive and excessively fun devices made it evident how much technology already exists in our world. Only a few years ago, we assumed that computer and communications technologies were going to lead to a radical redesign of our landscapes. Now it appears that the effects will not be formal, or perhaps even spatial, but symbolic. I mean that in the most literal manner: Sings and symbols are embedded everywhere, and we use more and more prosthetic devices that let our feeble eyes, ears, and even noses (one of the displays is a scent analysis of different cities) understand and navigate through our spaces to … what? Gain knowledge? Find our way more quickly? Find friends or enemies? Know more about our spaces?
Just as it is clear now that we will not be replacing boxes with blobs, it is also clear that ubiquitous information will not liberate us into a nirvana of no-mind consciousness.The effects will be messier, like the Arab Spring, but just as fundamental. Go see "Talk to Me," in meatspace or online, and try to figure out what it means.