What We Talk About When We Talk to Objects

Posted inDesign Events & Conferences

“My brother used to think that when you had coffee machines, there was a guy inside making the coffee,” says Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art’s senior curator of architecture and design. She was explaining a conceptual video featured in the upcoming exhibition Talk to Me: Design and the Communication Between People and Objects, in which a box labeled “Human Interface” turns out to be powered by a mustached man who lives inside it. When the machine is turned on, “he wakes up and shaves himself quickly,” she says. “It’s really quite beautiful. It’s a very analog narration of the digital.”

If there’s a single theme to the wide-ranging exhibition, which opens on Sunday, it’s that technology doesn’t have to be impersonal. And like the “Human Interface” video, the personalities on display are more often than not self-aware, from a haptic woolen cap that nudges its wearer in the right direction to a computer that sneezes to rid itself of dust. “Objects have always been speaking to us throughout the centuries, but right now the communication is more explicit,” Antonelli says. “And culture has changed, so communication has become the defining factor to be a citizen, almost—the fact that you’re supposed to be on Facebook. That kind of communicative need has become something that designers have had to take into account, and they have to become almost script writers in order to be able to establish the basis for a conversation.”

In addition to the work itself, Antonelli and her team have found novel ways to lure people into communicating with the show. Each object will have its own Twitter account, and she convinced the MTA to loan the museum a working MetroCard vending machine for the duration of the show. Six million “Talk to Me”–branded cards are being made and will be sold in the museum and subway stations throughout the city.

In the spirit of dialogue, we asked the artist Jason Polan, who has previously catalogued every piece of art on view at MoMA and is currently drawing every person in New York City, to document one morning in the final, frenzied run-up to the show. He captured the scene: whirring drills, scissor lifts, gloved art handlers, the shrieking of a robotic crow, and Antonelli herself directing the action—when she wasn’t intently communicating with her BlackBerry.