Things that Beep: A Brief History of Product Sound Design

Things that Beep: A Brief History of Product Sound Design,” (August 2018).


Furnishing the Cloud: 2015

I partnered with my fellow Emergent Infrastructures research group collaborators Brian McGrath, Orit Halpern, and architect Kim Ackert, along with Radhika Subramaniam and the staff from the Sheila Johnson Design Center, to organize a March 2015 exhibition on the future of knowledge institutions, to be hosted in The New School’s Aronson Gallery. “Furnishing the Cloud” ran from March 9 through 22. I documented and reflected on the project here.

For the past year-and-a-half I’ve been collaborating with my friends and colleagues Orit Halpern and Brian McGrath (and, much earlier in the process, with Jane Pirone, Jessica Irish, and Rory Solomon) on a grant-supported exploration of “emergent infrastructures.” We decided that, rather than submitting our final report in the form of a traditional report — or organizing a traditional who’s who symposium — we’d create a new “knowledge infrastructure” for thinking about knowledge infrastructures. Hence “Furnishing the Cloud“: the exhibition!

We welcomed architect and exhibition/furniture designer Kim Ackert into our group last fall to help us begin devising concrete plans for this highly immaterial concept. And this spring Kim’s furniture design class — to which I contributed on several occasions (they used my “Intellectual Furnishings” work as one of their foundational texts) — was charged with rethinking the ergonomics and architectures necessitated by our digital media devices. They created, using CNC routers and other computational fabrication technology, full-scale cardboard prototypes of their mobile-reading seating, charging stations, data shelving, etc.

The rudimentary materiality of these pieces– skilled, if rough, construction using seemingly-primitive materials — stood in stark contrast to the sleek gallery surfaces: Kim and Jordana Goot, an amazingly talented architecture/lighting design student and installation designer, wrapped the room in white vinyl; shielded the front window, which looks out onto 5th Avenue, in a gossamer scrim; and played with the lighting in an attempt to make gallery visitors feel as if they were walking amongst the clouds.

Meanwhile, Orit’s spring history class investigated various affective, political, cultural, temporal shifts that the cloud has stirred up: parasites, precarity, a drive toward preemption, restlessness, spectrality. They developed online research dossiers for our FurnishingTheCloud project website, and some students from my fall Archives/Libraries/Databases class refined their own projects for the exhibition website, too: Laura Sanchez developed her “Rethinking Libraries for the Information Age,” a summary of and response to the 2014 Architectural League of NY / Center for an Urban Future branch library design study, in which both Laura and I participated. And Eishin Yoshida expanded her “My Little Library,” an exploration of the books and other media resources that cycle in and out of our lives, and how they take on new personal meaning — and enter into new relationships with one another — as our projects develop and our attentions shift.

The FurnishingTheCloud website also features dossiers from the furniture design students, who display precedent studies, chronicle the evolution of their designs, share renderings of the pieces (hypothetically) in use. They’ll be developing their designs — transforming these prototypes into finished pieces — over the course of the semester.

Each project — both the material furnishings in the gallery and the virtual projects that helped to contextualize the exhibited objects — received its own QR code. And all of those codes were displayed in a grid on the lobby wall outside the gallery. We mirrored the wall perpendicular to the rows of codes, hoping that the reflected codes would create a sense of infinite regress, data overload — much like Boulee’s library.

My original idea was to transform this lobby wall into a material manifestation of data overload — and a literal palimpsest of past, present, and future conceptualizations of the cloud. I envisioned Constable and Turner and Van Gogh clouds mixed in with various renderings of “trees of knowledge,” layered atop photos of data centers, mosaicked with neural nets and database architectures, and with the QR codes pinned on top. That didn’t happen.

The show took place in The New School’s Aronson Gallery from March 9 through March 22. Here’s the wall text I wrote:

Much of our common stock of knowledge — from the inscriptions of early civilizations, the classic texts of the ancient world, the manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and the maps and scientific treatises of the Renaissance, to the tweets and open data sets of today — now resides in The Cloud. That Cloud seems to have no boundaries, no place; it floats above us, bringing its intellectual riches to those of us who are connected to it, wherever we might be. Yet The Cloud isn’t nearly as ubiquitous as the weather. Its accessibility is limited by protocols and cables, and its “content” has to be shaped, formalized through various interfaces, in order for us to perceive and process it. 

Furnishing the Cloud considers both how we have historically imagined the architectures and containers of our common stock of knowledge — the universal library, the endless bookshelf, the collective brain  — and proposes new conceptual and physical infrastructures, as well as a new ergonomics, for storing, accessing, and processing the contents of the cloud. 

Exhibition Designers: Kimberly Ackert, with assistance from Jordana Maisie Goot
Curators: Kimberly Ackert, Orit Halpern, Shannon Mattern, and Brian McGrath
Web Development:Daniel Udell
Curatorial Assistant: Nadia Christidi
Students from Kimberly Ackert’s Furniture, Detail and Space course: Dhafar Al-Edani, Mariam Alshamali, Tanyaporn Anantrungroj, Derick Brown, Felipe Colin, Kristina Cowger, Jo Garst, Jennifer Hindelang, Jacqueline Leung, Pei Ying Lin, Valter Lindgren, Mochi Lui, Matilda Maansdotter, Emmanuela Martini, Simon Schulz, Whitney Shanks, Raquel Sonobe
Web Projects: Zachary Franciose, Laura Sanchez, Eishin Yoshida
Students from Orit Halpern’s Making Sense: Methods in the Study of Media, Attention, and Infrastructure course: Nicholas Cavaioli, Raquel DeAnda, Joseph Goldsmith, Angelica Huggins, Ian Keith, Kate McEntee, Awis Nari Mranani, Erika Nyame-Nseke, Kevin Swann, Shea Sweeney, Daniel Udell, Michal Unterberg, Kyla Wasserman

Parsons’ Insights wrote about the show here. My own school, as usual, didn’t really seem to notice. Oh, man — did I just say that?


Urban Research Toolkit: 2009-2013

An interactive map of New York’s historical media infrastructures – from newspaper publishing and delivery, telephone networks, radio antennae, and the electrical grids they depend on, to video arcades, carrier pidgeon cultures, and countercultural zine communities – in order to demonstrate how these material media landscapes have evolved over the course of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries; how contemporaneous networks overlap, complement, or compete with one another; and how older media may have laid a foundation for newer media networks. With Jessica Irish, Jane Pirone, Rory Solomon. As with most digital projects, this one proved very difficult to preserve. Sad.


Animated Spaces: Experience and Context in Interaction and Architectural Design Exhibitions

Animated Spaces: Experience and Context in Interaction and Architectural Design Exhibitions,” Senses & Society 9:2 (Spring 2014): 131-150

on designing exhibitions for multisensorial experience


Review of Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects

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Review of “Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects,” Museum of Modern Art, Design & Culture 4:3 (2012).


Vocal Stylings

via NYTimes:

Last summer, in a post about all my seasonal listening — which included an awful lot of podcasts — I commented on a weird sonic trend I had discerned among well educated, culturally savvy young ladies on the radio. Here’s what I wrote:

[This American Life’s] rebroadcast earlier this summer of their episode on Infidelity was, in a way, a sonic revelation for me. Click on the link and listen to the Prologue [0:54 -> 3:42]. I listened to this section at least ten times — not because I was particularly taken by the story, but because I was taken with the [female] guest’s voice. By “taken with” I mean: positively nettled. Over the past couple years I’ve noticed a mini-trend among well-educated, seemingly self-confident young women on the radio: their voices emerge initially from the front of their mouths, then, over the course of a sentence, move back into their throats. Their sentences trail off into whispery, raspy monotones — kind of East-Coast-Ivy-League-Valley-Girl-All-Grown-Up-And-Working-At-The-New-Yorker. It sounds knowing and lazy and jaded all at the same time. I heard it again near the end of the inaugural n+1 podcast — and again, in a differently “timbred” variation, in [a] Triple Canopy podcast [and regularly in Third Coast’s amazing Re:sound podcas]
. As podcasts make possible the increasing niche-ification of audio micro/broad-casting, I wonder about the cultivation of particular stylized “vocal types.” The “throatily jaded” sound seems to be one of them.

Lo and behold — there’s a name for that odd affectation. And of course it’s not specific to podcasts; it’s a global epidemic! It’s vocal fry. The New York Times ran a story about it in the Science section this week (it’s news for them, but not for vocal scientists — nor for my husband, an actor, who learned lots of vocal tricks in acting school, and who told me about vocal fry a while ago). Young women, it seems, are trend-setters when it comes to vocal stylings:

The latest linguistic curiosity to emerge from the petri dish of girl culture gained a burst of public recognition in December, when researchers from Long Island University published a paper about it in The Journal of Voice. Working with what they acknowledged was a very small sample — recorded speech from 34 women ages 18 to 25 — the professors said they had found evidence of a new trend among female college students: a guttural fluttering of the vocal cords they called “vocal fry.”

A classic example of vocal fry, best described as a raspy or croaking sound injected (usually) at the end of a sentence, can be heard when Mae West says, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me,” or, more recently on television, when Maya Rudolph mimics Maya Angelou on “Saturday Night Live.”

Some researchers propose that use of the fry is a “natural result of women’s lowering their voices to sound more authoritative.” Or it can be “used to communicate disinterest, something teenage girls are notoriously fond of doing.” Apparently, the trend has spread to the late-20/early-30-something female literati.

Another trend I’ve noticed among the intelligentsia — and I’m certainly not alone in this — is a tendency among speakers at academic conferences (keynoters in particular!) to end their sentences with “right?,” then move quickly along to the next sentence. I’ve heard so many people do this at the last few conferences I’ve attended. Maybe “right” is the new conjunction. Or maybe it’s just filler — a self-assuredly affirmative “um.” Regardless, it irks me in its repeated, arrogant presumption of my agreement. It’s inflected as a question — you with me? — but functions as an imperative: stay with me, dammit! i’m right!

Another rhetorical strategy that I’ve become more conscious of, and which seems to be commonly used during Q&A sessions at academic presentations, is the “That’s interesting, but what I’m interested in is…” evasion. Somebody in the audience will raise a valid question or critique, and rather than engaging with that critique, the presenter frames it as outside his or her area of interest, and thus outside his or her realm of responsibility.

Questioner: “I appreciated your talk, but I wonder how you arrived at the conclusion that video games are a vastly more efficient teaching technology — and that all public schools should trash their books and fill the libraries with X-boxes — when your study ran for only one week, and your sample consisted solely of your son.”

Evader: “That’s super-interestaaaaannng, but what I’m really interested in is [some B.S. that probably includes the phrase “complex interplay].”


Books, Barges, Bones — Material Biographies

Over the past month I’ve seen a number of exhibitions and attended several events that seem to have grouped around a few themes — namely, the aforementioned books, barges, bones, and biographies.

First, books:

In early November I went to Artists Space to see Dexter Sinister’s Serving Library and Identity projects. I’m really curious about this whole Serving Library thing.

comprises two collections, of books and artifacts, both drawn from ten years and twenty issues of Dexter Sinister’s house journal Dot Dot Dot. Each one of the artifacts served as original source material for an illustration accompanying an essay in an issue of the journal, and the bound books collate the most frequently cited works in Dot Dot Dot” (via).

I’ve been following, and admiring, their work for years, and I’ve availed myself of the many pdfs they make available on their website, which is regarded as part of the new Serving Library. I still don’t think I fully get what they’re going for here — particularly with the physical space — but I’m going to keep trying; I know there’s something there to get.

The Serving Library

The Identity piece, which “charts the emergence and proliferation of graphic identity since the turn of the twentieth century, with particular reference to contemporary art institutions,” wasn’t what drew me in initially, but I found it quite riveting. Rob Giampietro posted a lovely talk, related to the exhibition and to Artists Space’s own graphic identity, that he was invited to give a couple years ago.


Then this past weekend my husband and I went to the the New Museum to hear Paul Chan’s “proposition,” “What is a book?” I had heard him speak briefly about his Badlands Unlimited project at the Triple Canopy “On Artists’ Publications” panel discussion this past summer, so I was looking forward to hearing him contextualize his work within a larger discussion of “the medium.” No such luck, unfortunately. He started off promisingly, referencing a little scholarship on the history of the book, but spent the majority of his time portraying publishing as a vanity pursuit driven by nepotism and extreme privilege. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the work, but I’m not sure that I can valorize his process.

And just last night I went to Storefront, on a whim, to the “On Architecture and Publishing” salon. As often happens in discussions that dare to predict the future of print, the conversation at times descended into generalizations and essentialisms: print is tactile and therefore better able to embody the “craft” of architecture!; “we read differently today,” so we need new publication forms to accommodate this new reading!; by the time something’s printed in a magazine, it’s old news!, etc., etc.  Storefront’s director, Eva Franch, who remembered me from the Critical Futures event back in March, asked me to say something, so I did. Eva herself made some astute comments regarding the temporal dimensions of publishing and reading in various media. I ran into my friend Robert Kirkbride there, and he and I had a lovely, if brief, after-event conversation with Benjamin Prosky, one of the panelists and Assistant Dean for Communications at Harvard Graduate School of Design. I found many, many parallels between last night’s salon, the Critical Futures panel, and some of the ideas I was playing with in my “Click/Scan/Bold” article.

Okay, now on to barges:

There’s really only one event in this category, but it was sufficiently memorable to deserve its own space. Last Monday night, after I taught my lecture class in Tishman Auditorium, the Vera List Center hosted, in the very same space, a screening of Allan Sekula & Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space.

The Forgotten Space follows container cargo aboard ships, barges, trains and trucks, listening to workers, engineers, planners, politicians, and those marginalized by the global transport system. We visit displaced farmers and villagers in Holland and Belgium, underpaid truck drivers in Los Angeles, seafarers aboard mega-ships shuttling between Asia and Europe, and factory workers in China, whose low wages are the fragile key to the whole puzzle. And in Bilbao, we discover the most sophisticated expression of the belief that the maritime economy, and the sea itself, is somehow obsolete (via).

The Forgotten Space Trailer from The Forgotten Space on Vimeo.

It’s no small feat to convey the unfathomable complexity and overlapping scales of global capitalism — and, in the process, to portray this actor-network as simultaneously gorgeous and hideous, as sublime. The film does precisely this.

We might say that The Forgotten Space unearths the physical and virtual “skeleton” of global transit and trade — so we’ll transition into our third theme: bones.

Last month I attended part of the Forensic Aesthetics conference, co-organized by the Vera List Center, Goldsmiths, Bard, and Cabinet. Here’s the official explanation for this provocatively titled event:

…[T]he emergence of forensics in legal forums and popular entertainment signifies a new attention to the communicative capacity, agency, and power of things. This material approach is evident in the ubiquitous role that science and technologies now play in shaping contemporary ways of seeing, knowing, and communicating. Today’s legal and political decisions are often based upon the capacity to display and read DNA samples, 3D laser scans, nanotechnology, and the enhanced vision of electromagnetic microscopes and satellite surveillance. From mass graves to retinal scans, the topography of the seabed to the remnants of destroyed buildings, forensics is not only about the diagnostics, but also about the rhetoric of persuasion. The aesthetic dimension of forensics includes its means of presentation, the theatrics of its delivery, the forms of image and gesture. The forensic aesthetics of the present carries with it grave political and ethical implications, spreading its impact across socioeconomic, environmental, scientific, and cultural domains (via).

I missed the first evening’s events, a panel on osteobiographies (which would’ve made for a lovely transition into my fourth theme, material biographies — but alas) at Cabinet, but I was able to enjoy the first two panels — on “Forensic Architecture” and “Constructed Evidence” — on Saturday. The concreteness of these two panels made them extraordinarily compelling. While Norman Weiss (a fantastic presenter!) talked about the restoration of Fallingwater, we held a piece of FLW concrete in our hands. While Arne Svenson discussed his portraits of forensic heads, Linda — a bespectacled head with quite a head of hair — stared at us from the center of the table. The set up of the conversations — speakers surrounding a round table strewn with the objects under consideration; chalkboard at hand for impromptu illustrations; audience ringing the table — made for a palpable intimacy befitting forensics‘ etymological connection to “the forum.”

Arne’s portraits also served as a means of constructing biographies for — perhaps, as his gallery suggests, “bring[ing] back to life” — unidentified victims whose only material existence is through the form of a sculpted head.

Which brings us, of course, to my fourth category: material biographies.

This week I saw three exhibitions that captured, through media of multiple formats, the intellectual and creative lives of three fascinating individuals. The Private Collection of Rauschenberg, on display at the uptown Gagosian, displays art-objects and memorabilia that Rauschenberg traded with, or was “gifted” by, his friends and colleagues. In the Times, Roberta Smith referred to the exhibition, appropriately, as a “self-portrait collage. Nearly every item here is a glimpse of a connection between Rauschenberg and the artists he felt close to, as well as the various aesthetic ancestors from past generations and across cultures that he wanted present in his life in some way.” It’s a touching show, and there’s beautiful work here — much of it by many of my own favorite artists. Cy Twombly drew “Bob” several portraits of flowers as an expression of thanks for his frequent hospitality. I found the musical scores, especially John Cage’s Haiku, particularly beautiful.

And today I saw “Resonance: Looking for Mr. McLuhan” at the Pratt gallery near my office. McLuhan’s own ideas were so expansive and encompassing that pretty much all art mediums could be said to illustrate one of his “probes.” Perhaps for this reason, the show didn’t gel for me. It contained some interesting work (I can’t not  appreciate text or typographic art, and there was some of that here), but it relied a bit too heavily on some McLuhan cliches — there were quite a few references to the TV set as form — and was so wide-ranging that it needed a little more contextualization.

And finally, this past weekend I saw “The Study of Kabakov” — Ilya Kabakov — at Edelman Arts. The exhibition featured, in one half of the gallery, several works on paper, and in the other half, a “white glove” library of reference books on Kabakov. Through published work and primary documents — drawings — we are invited to piece together biographies, not only of Kabakov himself, but also of the “10 Characters” the artist portrayed in drawings he collected into “albums. And thus the writing of material biographies brings us back to the book. And so I stop.


Music for Staring at Ceilings… and Typefaces… and Cities

Back in 2007, when we were organizing our wedding, I suggested to my husband, in all seriousness, that we walk down the aisle to El Ten Eleven’s “Sorry About Your Irony.” He vetoed my proposal. The traditional Episcopal church where we got married probably wouldn’t have gone for it either; I doubt its old speakers had ever heard the likes of post-rock. The song title, too, was perhaps a little foreboding; regret and irony aren’t conditions (if that’s the right word) one typically wants to associate with a wedding. I had also wanted our first dance — a tradition I had no desire to honor, but was forced to uphold — to be to Red House Painters’ “Song for a Blue Guitar,” which is an absolutely beautiful song. If only the first line out of Mark Kozelek’s mouth weren’t “When everything we felt failed….” (What can I say: I have a knack for choosing mood music.) We opted instead for Fauré at the church and Band of Horses for the dance.

But El Ten Eleven remains for me a wonderful maker of soundtracks for sunny-day urban perambulations — for noticing cracks in sidewalks, reflections in shopfront windows, recognizable shapes in the clouds overhead. Perhaps it’s the sometimes math-rocky feel of the music that inspires careful attention to rhythm and texture, that evokes geometric precision.The band’s name is derived from the Lockheed Martin L-1011 TriStar; perhaps appropriately, this is music for cheery engineers of everyday life.

It also makes for a great soundtrack for movies about design. I saw Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica at the Logo Cities symposium in Montréal in Spring 2007. I found myself at dinner with Gary and a few others after the screening, and I think my first question for him, after gushing over the film, was: “Who did your soundtrack?!” El Ten Eleven seemed the perfect choice: their music, full of loops and effects pedals, feels more designed than composed. There’s also a certain levity to their sound that’s consistent with the tone of Gary’s editing. (The Album Leaf and Battles and a few other bands in the same vein also contributed to the film.)

Dave and I saw Gary’s most recent film, Urbanized, last night as part of Urban Design Week. Here the soundtrack felt not only fitting, but almost natural — as if it was an indexical manifestation of the urban rhythms on the screen. The music seemed, to borrow one of the band’s song titles, like an urban “Central Nervous Piston” (see video below) — a simultaneously organic and mechanical index of, and power-source for, urban circulation. In Urbanized, the soundtrack that has undergirded so many of my walks across the Manhattan Bridge, up the Bowery, across 14th Street, is now exported to the streets of so many other cities across the globe, proving that post-electro-math rock is indeed, as we’ve always suspected, the universal spatio-rhythmic language.    ….If only!


Talk to Me, And Tell Me What On Earth You Are, Little Plastic Doohickey

Photos by Me, July 25

I’ve been asked by an academic journal to write a review of MoMA’s “Talk to Me: Design and the Communication Between People and Objects” exhibition. But because this is academic publishing we’re talking about, that review probably won’t see the light of day for at least another year. Given how incongruous that temporality is with the instantaneity defining the objects in this exhibition, I figured I’d take advantage of this forum right here, a means for more immediate communication, to post my initial thoughts.

*     *     *     *     *

We’re greeted, loudly, by Talking Carl, a “box-shaped creature” grown famous through smartphone apps, whom the younger museum-goers delight in tickling, spinning, prodding, and bouncing via a wall-mounted control pad. The long hallway leading to the third floor’s eastern gallery is lined with flatscreen monitors featuring what seem to be the more “performative” projects in the show: a “real human interface,” a talking chair, interactive public art projects. Also here we find a project I know well: Timo Arnall, Einar Sneve Martinussen, and Jack Schulze’s (of the fantastic BERG group) “Immaterials: Ghost in the Field,” a visualization — and, more importantly, an explanation of the significance of this visualization — of RFID interactions.

Immaterials: the ghost in the field from Timo on Vimeo.

[Side note: I can’t help but point out a comical rhetorical stretch in the sponsorship text, which is printed in the exhibition catalogue and, I think, posted on wall text in the entry corridor. Hyundai Card, “Korea’s leading issuer of credit cards,” indicates that they, too, “introduce an element of style” into their financial services. “Our credit cards are not merely a payment tool: we scour the world for distinguished artists and designers to create premium, distinctive credit cards that provide access to rich cultural experiences.” While the connection a bit forced, it is interesting to consider the connections between credit, speculation, and excess in some of the projects on display. See, for example, Mayo Nissen’s Visualizing Household Power Consumption and the awesome Feltron Annual Reports. Or consider the fact that the exhibition involves 80 flatscreen TVs, which contributed to the need to install 22 additional electrical circuits in the gallery, according to the WSJ.]

Speaking of energy consumption… Lights inside and outside the building

A cordon with sign directs those who wish to engage with the video works to stay to the right, and those who wish to pass through to the gallery to stay to the left. Few heed the sign, rendering the entire hallway an obstacle course. Perhaps we should take this communication failure as our first clue: physical text-based signage is obsolete. This is the land of locative media and QR codes, which appear on each object’s wall text, linking viewers to additional information online.

For an exhibition that is so self-consciously futurist, the pixelated font on all exhibition graphics seemed an odd choice to me. Was this some ironically retro aesthetic, or an appropriately timed (given the centenary of McLuhan’s birth just three days before the show opening) homage to early Wired, which planted the conceptual seeds for much of what we were about to see in the gallery?

Fittingly, a “global village” contributed to the development of both the exhibition’s content and form. Since March 2010, curators Paola Antonelli and Kate Carmody maintained a “Talk to Me” blog where they solicited and sorted through recommendations for objects to include in the show (whittling down 1500 suggestions to roughly 200), discussed installation ideas, etc. Conversational prompts on the blog indicate that the curators initially conceived of the exhibition in terms of format or genre: computer games, data visualization, interfaces, installations, etc.

The organizational scheme that emerged from the year and a half of deliberation, however, was less defined by object form or format than by the scale, nature, or directionality of the object’s communicative processes or content. The show was organized into five categories: Objects “give feedback on their status, on how they are feeling, on what is happening nearby and far away, on whether or not we have accomplished the tasks they set for us.” Bodies “moves from the communication between people and objects to the communication between people by means of objects.” Life examine how communicative objects and processes, like visualization design, aid with “synthesis and description” of “enormous and profound” concerns tied to the “meaning of life.” The projects in City examine how designed objects can “enhance clarify, civility, and engagement [in cities] by engaging citizens in maintaining the codes that keep the city alive,” how they can “stimulate the flow of communication that is the vital lymph of the urban organism.” Scaling up, Worlds investigates how technologies ranging from “God games” to data visualization to perception-altering apparatuses, can “add layers of understanding [to] and communication [within]” a seemingly shrinking world. Finally, the wildcard Double Entendre section looks at how designers use “scripted” misunderstandings, and increased “complexity and possibility,” to help us think through “negotiations of privacy and anonymity, the vehemence and violence abetted by the ability to hide behind false identities, the promise of new and unregulated means of expressions, connectivity, and revenue generation and the responsibilities that go with them.” (all quotations from TTM catalogue)

Some of these categories focus on who or what is communicating, and how. Others are oriented toward the scale, or the subject or content, of communication. What ontology is implied by this rather tangled taxonomy of object-human-communication? Or maybe it doesn’t matter. The age of interaction has supposedly rendered ontologies obsolete. Now, it’s supposedly all about links and tags — and there are links and tags aplenty in this hybrid physical/virtual exhibition.

In your typical exhibition, visitors can engage with the works on display with or without heeding the curators’ conceptual or thematic categories (most of the time they’re quite a stretch anyway). Here, you can’t help but want some guidance — because the objects themselves are so perplexing. I found myself relying on these one-word themes to help me navigate and make sense of what I was seeing. And I found myself playing with these concepts in my own mind and wondering why certain objects were classified as they were.That may very well just be me, though; I’m sure plenty of other visitors were able to simply enjoy the 200 objects for what they were: 200 awesomely clever thingamajigs.

The implication is that each of these categories represents a different type of communication. Those differences lie not only, as the curators suggest, in who’s talking to whom, but also in how they conceive of what communication is. Are hand-drawn maps; finger implants; ATM interfaces; biometric machines; Marguerite Humeau’s Lucy from Back…, which recreates the voices of extinct animals; Sputniko!’s Menstruation Machine; and Gerard Rallo’s Devices for Mindless Communication, which recognizes patterns in our everyday conversations and coaches us through “small talk,” all engaged in the same activity? Is “communication” a sufficiently expansive concept to encompass this widely diverse activity?

Antontelli writes in the exhibition catalogue that the exhibition “thrives on [an] important late-twentieth-century development in the culture of design, which can be described as a shift from the centrality of function to that of meaning, and on the twenty-first-century focus on the need to communicate in order to exist” (7). “Meaning” is central to certain conceptions of communication, like semiotics. But meaning is bracketed out of others, like Shannon and Weaver’s mathematical theory of communication, which is all about signals passing through channels, from sender to receiver, dodging noise in the process. It’s hard to know what “meaning” means in some of these projects — and across these projects, in the exhibition as a whole. Regardless, how might this supposed shift to meaning, and the near-ubiquity of interaction, be altering what we mean by “communication”?

Antonelli claims that “the key to effective and elegant communication is choosing the right [medium or channel], the right interpreter. The most recent technology, in other words, may not be the most appropriate” (9). I’m not sure that a gallery exhibition was the “right interpreter” for much of this work — in large part because the objects themselves rarely “effectively and elegantly” communicate what they are. A display case full of iPod-esque gadgets, metal canisters, and expressionless plastic toys is reduced to a case full of “stuff” — unless one puts in the effort to read the lengthy text panels and watch the accompanying videos.

What’s that? A dowsing stick, a hand-knit beehive, and a bunch of chocolates?

These “captions” serve, in Barthesian fashion, to both “anchor” the object — to explain what, exactly, that rubber doodad does — and “relay” its connection both to the other geegaws and widgets in the case, and to its thematic unit within the exhibition. Antonelli quotes Alice Rawsthorn, who notes that “the appearance of most digital products bears no relation to what they do” (quoted on 10). The “objects” themselves often fail to talk to us formally, and require more traditional language-based media to “interpret” for us what they are.

All this translation requires an immense investment of time on the part of the visitor. Not to mention the “noise” created by the traditional museum interferences: oblivious tourists cutting off your view of the video screen, your own back and feet screaming at you to sit down already!

The same group of people <ahem> always seemed to be standing right in front of what I wanted to see.

I scanned quite a few QR codes in the hopes of continuing my exploration later on, from the comfort of my own couch. Those QR links led to the Stamen-designed “Talk to Me” website, which collated text, images, and videos — often the same videos I stood and watched on a screen in the gallery — that provided a composite picture of what each object is. And I wondered why I hadn’t just experienced the exhibition through the website all along, rather than code-switching between wall text, flat-screen video, QR code, etc. The website’s a much more “effective and elegant” means to provide the contextual information required to make these objects (audiovisually and textually) communicate their function. (Plus, I would’ve spared myself the hassle of jostling with tourists for two hours.)

The catalog contains project images and descriptions and, in some cases, QR codes.

The exhibition of course talks to us formally, materially. Only an on-site viewing of the real object allows us to perceive its textures and scale, to observe its blinking lights, to appreciate just how loud and chilling its squeals and squawks can be. But all this is just stimulus until we know what those textures and blinking lights mean, what they denote and connote. That’s where the “captions” — texts, videos, etc. — come in, but these captions don’t lend themselves to easy consumption in the gallery space. I also wonder if the objects’ meaning might’ve been even more effectively and elegantly translated if the museum had created opportunities for users to either experience first-hand, or observe first-hand, the objects in action. Communication is a process — not a thing. Perhaps a series of live performances of these objects talking, communicating, might’ve better suited the ethos, the experience, of interaction design.

Total brain dump. I’ll have to majorly cut this down and tighten it up.