Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Paola Antonelli’

26 AUGUST, 2014

Worn Stories: Playful and Poignant Tales of Clothes That Encode Life’s Most Meaningful Memories

By:

Wearable emotional memories from John Hodgman, Marina Abramovic, Piper Kerman, Pat Mahoney, Debbie Millman, Paola Antonelli, Kenneth Goldsmith, Meghan O’Rourke, Rosanne Cash, and more.

One of the most extraordinary things about human beings is that we weave our lives of stories, stories woven of sentimental memories, which we can’t help but attach to our physical environment — from where we walk, creating emotional place-memory maps of a city, to how smell transports us across space and time, to what we wear.

For artist and editor Emily Spivack, clothes can be an “evolving archive of experiences, adventures, and memories” and a powerful storytelling device. Since 2010, she has been meticulously curating a remarkable catalog of such wearable personal histories from the living archives of some of the most interesting minds of our time — artists and Holocaust survivors, writers and renegades, hip-hop legends and public radio personalities. In Worn Stories (public library), published by Princeton Architectural Press, Spivack shares the best of these stories — some poignant, some funny, all imbued with disarming humanity and surprising vulnerability — from an impressive roster of contributors, including performance artist Marina Abramovic, writer Susan Orlean, comedian John Hodgman, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, Orange Is the New Black memoirist Piper Kerman, artist Maira Kalman, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, and artist, writer, and educator Debbie Millman.

The stories span a remarkable range — a traditional Indian shirt worn during a spiritual Hindu gathering turned kidnapping; the shoes in which Marina Abramovic walked the Great Wall of China while saying farewell to a soulmate; an oddly uncharacteristic purple silk tuxedo shirt that belonged to Johnny Cash, preserved by his daughter; and, among myriad other shreds and threads of the human experience, various mementos from the “soul loss” — as one contributor puts it — of love affairs ending.

Spivack writes in the introduction:

The clothes that protect us, that make us laugh, that serve as a uniform, that help us assert our identity or aspirations, that we wear to remember someone — in all of these are encoded the stories of our lives. We all have a memoir in miniature living in a garment we’ve worn.

Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman selects an outfit she wore at a key moment in the memoir-turned-TV-hit Orange Is the New Black — a vintage suit that was among the three outfits she packed for her final court appearance and sentencing after taking a plea deal (which, she explains, 95% of criminal defendants do):

As your case wends through the system, you barely speak in court; the prosecutor and defense attorney do most of the talking. Unlike 80 percent of criminal defendants, I could afford to hire a lawyer, and I was lucky that he was a very good and experienced one. He had advocated long and hard with the prosecutor on my behalf, and then the day came where his work and my case would be decided by the judge, a Reagan appointee to the federal bench.

Most criminal defendants wear whatever they are given by their attorney or family to their sentencing ; a lot of people are too poor to afford bail, and so they have been wearing jailhouse orange for many months before ever getting their day in court. I was much more fortunate; when I flew to Chicago to be sentenced to prison, I had three choices of court attire in my suitcase. A cadet-blue pantsuit, a very severe navy coatdress, and a wild card I had packed at the last minute: a vintage fifties pencil-skirt suit I had bought on eBay, in a coffee and cream tweed with a subtle sky blue check. It looked like something a Hitchcock heroine would have worn.

“That’s the one,” said my lawyer, pointing to the skirt suit. “We want the judge to be reminded of his own daughter or niece or neighbor when he looks at you.”

For someone standing for judgment, the importance of being seen as a complete human being, someone who is more than just the contents of the file folders that rest on the bench in front of His or Her Honor, cannot be overstated.

Despite the dramatic circumstances, Kerman’s experience captures something central to Spivack’s project — something fundamental about how we use clothing as this paradoxical combination of camouflage and self-revelation, a shield for and a stripping to our basic humanity.

Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan selects a pair of decidedly eighties Lycra cycle tights with orange-and-black graffiti writing and shares the touching story behind the seemingly silly garment:

One by one my roommates, friends, and boyfriends in Los Angeles started getting sick from AIDS. It was very early on in the epidemic and when you went to the doctor, they couldn’t refer you to an expert. They asked you if you were religious, meaning, you were going to die.

I decided to join a gym with a friend who had been diagnosed with AIDS. At least we could be healthy, we thought… I went every day. In an attempt to do “healthy” things, I became addicted to the lights, the music, the endorphins. It was a very showbiz-y way to keep in shape, and many actresses would go to the class, like Madonna when she was starting to become well known.

[...]

The cult of aerobics was waning by the time I moved to New York in 1985, but with so many people getting sick, for a couple of years it was an antidote to this incredible malaise of melancholy that had been blanketing L.A.

Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman recounts the story of a peculiar yellow coat from the era in her life when she was standing on the precipice of her creative journey, long before she was a successful artist, prolific author, and award-winning interviewer. She recounts one July afternoon in her late twenties when she, broke and lusting after a glamorous life, ended up at the Hermès store on Madison Avenue after a months-long quest to track down the mysterious, enchanting perfume she had smelled on an exceptionally elegant woman. A uniformed man opened the gates to an unfamiliar world, “the most elegantly expensive environment” she had ever entered, where people very much unlike her — people “very, very rich” — were browsing $200 scarves.

Just then, a kindly saleslady — one imagines a character like Cinderella’s fairy godmother — took pity on Millman and whispered in her ear a thrilling secret: they were having a sale upstairs. Millman was thrilled, but it didn’t take her long to realize that, even with the markdowns, she couldn’t afford anything — until she spotted “the softest, most luxurious, ultra-bright lemony-yellow cashmere coat ever made.” Certain it would cost thousands of dollars, she apprehensively searched for the price, which revealed itself like a miracle — the original $2,200 was crossed out, and a hopeful $400 was written in its place.

Millman writes:

I calculated what the expense would mean to my budget. Undeterred, I tried the coat on. It was at least one size too big. None of this mattered to me. I felt glamorous and beautiful. As the clerk wrapped up the coat in the biggest orange box I had ever seen, I knew this wasn’t a mistake. I would wear this coat forever.

And wear it I did! I wore it every day from September until March. I wore it to work, I wore it every weekend, I wore it on vacation in Vermont, and I wore it traveling to the West Coast. The only time I wished for a warmer coat was en route to a client’s office on Fifth Avenue one blustery subzero February afternoon. I was chewing a large piece of purple bubble gum and realized I’d have to get rid of it before my meeting. It was so cold I didn’t want to take my gloves off to take the gum out of my mouth. Perhaps the temperature affected my judgment, or perhaps I was lazy, but suddenly I did something I had never, ever done before: I raised my chin, puckered up my lips, and let my gum fly. As it descended onto the sidewalk, I saw that a man walking toward me was about to collide with the arc of its fall. I made eye contact with him as the sticky mass fell at his feet. Horrified, I instantly realized I was face-to-face with Woody Allen. Mercifully, he sidestepped the gum. But his outrage was palpable. He shook his head in disgust and passed me by. I was too embarrassed and frightened to even say I was sorry.

Two days later I went out with my friend Ellen. She had snagged a reservation at the newly reopened Le Cirque and we got all dolled up for the occasion. I, of course, wore my yellow coat. We were seated between the coat check and the front door, and since New York City was still in a deep freeze, I decided to keep my coat wrapped around me.

Then I saw him. He was approaching the coat check with his wife, fumbling for his ticket. Wildly, I looked around for a place to hide. Ellen asked me if I was okay and I hissed, no. I motioned with my eyes. Ellen squealed in delight, and he looked over at us. Once again, in the span of forty-eight hours, I was face-to-face with Woody Allen.

Our eyes locked and I saw him recognize my unmistakable ultra-bright yellow coat and the same frightened face. He grimaced. “You!” he said, as his wife pulled on his arm. I felt myself turn white and then red, as everyone turned to stare.

Two and a half decades later, I still have my beloved coat. It’s lost its belt and much of its lemony sheen, and it hasn’t left its special place in my closet in a long time. Maybe I’ll wear it again one day. As Woody Allen famously said, “Eternal nothingness is fine if you happen to be dressed for it.” I’ll remind him of that if I ever bump into him again.

Paola Antonelli

MoMA curator extraordinaire

Paola Antonelli

selects a pair of aviator glasses that capture the strange blend of terror and optimism of growing up amidst Milan’s political unrest in the 1970s. Class was often interrupted by bomb threats. Her daily morning walk to school took her, always scared, through a contentious urban borderland that divided the peacoat-clad, anti-authoritarian leftists and the Sanbabilini — the “gun-toting neo-fascists from wealthy Milanese families who shared responsibility for much of the violence around Italy at that time” — whose distinctive look included fitted shirts, trench coats, and Ray-Ban aviator glasses. She tells Spivack.

Sometime in the late 1970s, during this time of upheaval, my father came home from his first trip to the United States with a pair of Ray-Ban Aviators he’d bought for me. He had not thought of the political implications; he had just wanted a gift that embodied “America.” Even though it was only a pair of sunglasses, it was like holding a bomb in my hands. I couldn’t wear them.

Along the way, the first pair of Aviators disappeared, and I decided to buy myself another pair. They never looked good on me, but it was a sort of exorcism. Even then, years later, it felt almost like they were burning in my hands; they transport me to a moment that was formative, but one that I also want to forget.

I compare notes with friends who grew up in Israel or Beirut, for example, and I realize we all went through something similar — living despite the bombs going off, despite the fact that it was almost a war zone. Little details, like scents or sounds or a piece of clothing, bring back the violence, and that’s what these Aviators do for me.

Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman, a woman of unparalleled creative vision and extraordinary wisdom, selects an apple-green sweater that belonged to her mother. She writes:

It is my lucky sweater because I always need luck. And the feeling of being lucky, which is ridiculous and elusive, is still a pleasant one.

Margaret D. Stetz

Then there are the bunny ears, which turn out to belong not to a Playmate but to Harvard Ph.D. Margaret D. Stetz — a self-described “middle-aged professor of women’s studies and literature” and a Beatrix Potter scholar, who wears the ears while lecturing about Potter’s iconic Peter Rabbit character. Stetz writes:

The notion of dressing women as “Bunnies” was, of course, the invention of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Clubs. When she was a young journalist, Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem famously went undercover as a Bunny in 1963 to expose the harassment and miserable working conditions of women who wore the Clubs’ uniforms. Today, there’s something satisfying about taking these symbols of sexual availability and servility and flipping their meaning. By combining bunny ears with a tailored jacket and skirt on the lecture platform at a university, museum, or other cultural institution, I’m doing something subversive. No longer do they signify that women are merely “Playmates.” Conversely, this is also my way of suggesting that women don’t have to be wholly serious to be feminists.

Emily Spivack

Tucked midway through the book is Spivack’s own story about a pair of cheap black flip-flops her grandmother bought for her nearly twenty years ago off the Delaware boardwalk. In a way, these unassuming essentials capture the essence of the project — a seemingly ordinary object of clothing imbued with immeasurable sentimental value, amplified over a lifetime. Spivack writes:

Over time, these flip-flops — plain, pulled from a rack without a thought, manufactured to be disposable but apparently indestructible — have become such a lasting fixture in my life. Precisely, perhaps, because they are so ordinary: you don’t even notice them casually accumulating the years, like the shops along Rehoboth Avenue, like grandmothers, like everything.

Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean, sage of the written word, recounts her “uniform fixation” — the lifelong quest to find the ideal, and as it turns out mythic, outfit that would capture her personality perfectly and be therefore bought in multiples to be worn forever. She captures this cyclical infatuation elegantly:

It’s a temporary delusion that comes over me with regularity — a belief that by wearing this perfect thing, I will look right and feel good no matter what. Like, “How did I not know that I’m an agnes b. T-shirt and denim skirt kind of person? Now, I’m going to order ten of each and I never have to buy clothes again.” When I’m in it, I totally believe I have found my look, my personal style.

It’s cultish and my own particular mania. Each time I start over again, I think, “those were false gods — I have now found the true God.” I even observe myself doing it. I understand that fashion, by definition, is a changing thing, and so is one’s body. I try to talk myself out of my own crazy conviction that I’ve finally solved the puzzle — and yet I can’t do it.

I guess it’s probably safer to be this way about clothing than men or religion or something that could be really dangerous.

Ross Intelisano

Ross Intelisano picks a tie once made by his beloved immigrant grandmother, Anna, who tailored all of his clothes growing up, worked until she was 78, and lived to be 95. Two weeks after her death, Hurricane Sandy devastated the Rockaways, where Intelisano’s family lived. The house was condemned and all access was denied, but a family friend bravely ventured in to retrieve a few surviving valuables, including Anna’s ties. Intelisano writes:

That day, my father came over to my house, smiling for what seemed like the first time since the storm. He proudly presented me with two of Anna’s ties. I wear them all the time. I like handling the silk as I knot the ties.

Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith turns his penchant for subverting literature to fashion and recounts wearing an over-the-top paisley suit by avant-garde designer Thom Browne to the White House, where Goldsmith was invited to read some of his poetry to President Obama. Browne had designed the suit under his Brooks Brothers-owned Black Fleece label, taking Brooks Brothers’ signature patterns to an intentional extreme. Goldsmith recounts his exchange with the President that night, who was, coincidentally, wearing a conventional Brooks Brothers suit himself:

Upon our introduction, the first thing the President said to me was, “That’s a great suit! You know? I’d wear a suit like that. But my staff would never let me.” To which I replied, “Mr. President, this is one instance where it’s better being an artist than being the President of the United States: artists can wear anything they want.” And then he glanced down at my saddle shoes and exclaimed, “You’re wearing golf shoes!” Which in part was true, that being the genius of Thom Browne, to take something familiar and recontextualize it to the point of it being “wrong.” And that is exactly what I aimed to do with my performance: to straddle tradition and radicality, being both and, at the same time, being neither; to embrace contradiction, keep people guessing.

David Carr

The New York Times’ David Carr reminisces about searching for a cheap t-shirt in a classic New York moment of sweltering need, when you’re forced to choose between suffering your wholly indiscreet sweat stains or buying one of those ubiquitous “I♥NY” touristy shirts. (“You can’t wear a shirt like that ironically,” Carr notes, “unless, say, you hate New York, which I do not.”) Instead, he chanced upon a miraculous find at one of Manhattan’s myriad souvenir shops — a defective t-shirt, with the “New York” script printed upside-down. Noting the kink, Carr offered the shopkeeper $3 for the oddball shirt and gleefully walked off with his find. Except for the occasional compliment from a hipster on the subway, people notice the shirt but say nothing, of which Carr remarks:

I like that about my shirt: it is something that is intuitively understood in the City, as we insufferable locals call it, and is baffling to others, akin to many other aspects of living or working in New York.

Pat Mahoney

Some of the stories remind us that the assumptions we make — in this case, assumptions about what people seek to signal with their clothing choices — are often lightyears away from the truth. Take, for instance, the flesh-colored American Apparel nylon shorts selected by LCD Soundsystem founding member and drummer Pat Mahoney. One might write them off as a hipster or counter-hipster joke, but they actually represent a curious combination of extreme practicality and creative ritualization. Mahoney, who admits to sweating a great deal during his “epic sets” on stage, would regularly end up “drenched to the bone” after a show, his jeans left to dry in the tour bus until they smelled, much to his fellow bandmates’ dismay, “like rotten cotton.” He needed something quick-drying and light to wear onstage, so he bought the shorts on the road, fully aware of their laughable connotations. But over time, they came to serve a deeper psychological function — like a number of famous creators known for maintaining various odd habits and rituals to keep their creative flow flowing, Mahoney overcomes his chronic stage fright by employing “elaborate juju” — a compulsion to have everything just right, from the way he ties his sneakers to how he positions his drums on the rug — to get himself in a more secure mindset. Wearing the shorts became part of that creative ritual — part of the behavioral and environmental cues that psychology suggests help put us in a state of creative flow.

John Hodgman

“I have a dress and I have worn it many times,” comedian John Hodgman opens with a bang. That dress, it turns out, got its start when Hodgman was invited to impersonate Ayn Rand on the Dead Authors podcast. He writes:

I’d been fascinated with Rand since I’d written a story in the New York Times magazine about a competitive championship tournament bridge player who was also an active objectivist and Rand devotee. I had read half of Atlas Shrugged before I got the gist of my role. I really enjoyed the book because of its absurdly reductive philosophy that inadvertently plays on adolescent male narcissism like a jazz saxophone — to draw a connection to the famous Randian saxophonist and economist Alan Greenspan — but it also spoke directly to the adolescent male fantasy of “I’m the only smart one. Everyone is leeching off of me and I’d rather destroy my work than compromise my integrity by being nice to others.” Her moral severity came as a tonic to my cultural relativist upbringing.

The Rand impersonation eventually became a part of his stand-up routine and the dress was worn many times. Hodgman reflects on its allure:

Even though I’m imitating, in a ridiculous fashion, an exaggerated version of Ayn Rand, what precedes the moment of putting on the dress is an utter nudity of self, about as close as I’ll ever get.

Dorthy Finger

But undoubtedly the most moving story comes from Holocaust survivor Dorothy Finger, who was a child when the Nazis invaded her native Poland. Her family went into hiding, but inevitably succumbed to the tragic fate of so many Jews at the time. Her father was the first one killed, “almost beaten to death and then sent to an extermination camp.” Soon, her mother was shot. Dorothy herself was sent to a labor camp, where she was subjected to grueling toil and regularly beaten by the Nazis. On July 27, 1943, she escaped into the nearby forest with her aunt and two cousins as machine guns shot after them. They survived for a few months, into the middle of winter, huddling together to keep from freezing. But the Nazis eventually went looking for them, killing Dorothy’s aunt and her 17-year-old male cousin. Finger writes:

I was shot in the ear and I fainted. It just grazed my ear, but the impact of the explosion threw me on the earth and I was unconscious. I swear I saw my soul go to heaven, white angels and things like that. I thought I was dead and that when you’re dead you see yourself go to heaven. Of course, I understand now that I was not conscious. When I came to, I was even more upset. “God, why didn’t you finish me off, why didn’t you kill me, rather than slowly starve me to death? I have nobody. No parents.” I just had my second cousin in the forest with me.

The Nazis came back a second time. We heard shots coming from one side and we ran the other way. I fell through some ice into a body of water that wasn’t very deep. My instinct to live was so great that I could still think about how to survive.

I covered myself up with branches. I could hear the Ukrainians saying to the Nazis, “Somebody must have been running through there. I can see footprints.” And the Nazis said, “I don’t want to go that way or we’ll fall into the ice too. We’ll catch him the next time.” My heart stopped beating. I stopped breathing. I waited until I couldn’t hear their boots on the ice. I came out of the water with everything frozen on me, including the little dress that I wore until the day we were liberated from the forest.

In the forest, Finger got typhus and sank into a delirious fever. She lost all her hair and was so sick that she stayed in the fetal position until she was unable to walk, let alone run. At that point, she knew that if the Nazis came back, she’d be killed. She writes:

I don’t know what was worse — the fear, the hunger, the lice, or the humiliation.

Springtime came, and then summer, and it was warmer—although to this day, I am still cold.

I have not overcome it. The shooting started and it was coming from both sides. I still couldn’t run because I hadn’t completely recovered from the typhus. “I do not want to see the face of the Nazis that will shoot me,” I thought. I slowly moved from my back to my stomach. “Let them just shoot me in my back or my head and then it’ll be over.” The shooting stopped and I heard tanks coming into the forest, and I didn’t know if they were German or Russian. They were Russian tanks and they had come to liberate us, exactly one year from the day I entered the forest, July 27, 1944.

Young Dorothy eventually made it back to her hometown, but her few surviving neighbors had assumed she, like her parents, was dead, so they had discarded the family’s remaining possessions. The only thing she could recover was a piece of wool fabric from her family’s department store. She saved that, then wrote to an aunt and uncle in Delaware, who were eventually able to bring her to the United States. When she moved, her entire luggage — all her earthly possessions — consisted of two dresses, including the one she had worn that gruesome year in the forest, and the wool fabric. She made it to America, enrolled in high school, and graduated a year and a half later. Upon graduation, another uncle gave her $25 — a fortune in 1949 and in the context of her life — which she used to have a suit made from the wool fabric that was her only link to her family and her past life. Finger, now in her eighties, writes:

I always figured I’d be buried in it. But if people can learn from this suit and its history, what difference does it make what I’m buried in?

Worn Stories is absolutely remarkable in its entirety — a true labor of love that weaves this common thread of intensely personal, courageously vulnerable sartorial memories into a colorful tapestry of the human experience.

Photographs by Ally Lindsay; courtesy of Emily Spivack / Princeton Architectural Press

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

16 JULY, 2012

Designers on Top: MoMA’s Paola Antonelli on the Evolution of Design

By:

The quest for elegance and empowerment, or how design went from process to authorship.

In this wonderful talk from the 2012 EyeO Festival, playfully titled Designers on Top, MoMA Senior Curator of Architecture and Design Paola Antonelli offers a sweeping look at the evolution of design over the past few decades, and the past few years in particular, illustrated with examples from her most recent MoMA show, Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects.

Beauty and elegance are a right, not a surplus… . We must demand, at least, intention.

Particularly insightful is this slide by Anthony Dunne, chair of the Interaction Design program at London’s Royal College of Art, and his partner, Fiona Raby, depicting the directional evolution of design from past to present.

For more, see the book based on Talk to Me, and follow Paola on Twitter for a steady stream of progressive design discernment.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

26 JUNE, 2012

Talk to Me: Design and the Communication Between People and Objects

By:

The ever-expanding definition and cultural role of design in the age of sensors, data, and responsive interfaces.

It is a privilege to have someone in your life who is both a good friend and a personal hero. I’m fortunate to count among those rare gifts MoMA Senior Curator of Architecture and Design Paola Antonellidesign oracle, crusader for humanized technology, curious octopus — whose shows continue to define and redefine design, expanding our understanding of it not only as a creative discipline but also as a cultural translator, social lubricant, and “interface between progress and humanity.” Her latest exhibition, titled Talk to Me, which ran between July 24th and November 7th, 2011, explored with an unparalleled blend of excitement and insight the evolving communication between people and objects — a relationship all the more palpable, quite literally so, in our age of ubiquitous sensors and data feeds and interfaces, yet still rooted in our inextricable and increasingly complex relationship with the physicality of the analog world.

Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects (public library) is itself a meta-object in the exhibition — exquisitely produced and thoughtfully constructed to contextualize and illuminate the nearly 200 projects in the show, this analog artifact flows beautifully and seamlessly into the digital and mechanical world it encapsulates. An embossed faux-pixelated cover invites you to touch the “interface” of the book. On many of the pages, QR codes let you leap into a specific project’s digital presence. The Cubitt Fax computerizes the printed page, exuding a kind of binary intimacy.

Paola writes in the introductory essay:

The bond between people and things has always been filled with powerful and unspoken sentiments going well beyond functional expectations and including attachment, love, possessiveness, jealousy, pride, curiosity, anger, even friendship and partnership.

And, indeed, the projects and objects featured span the entire spectrum of human intellectual and emotional investment. From the unapologetically analog and deeply personal, like Stefanie Posavec’s handmade visualizations and Nicholas Felton’s infographic life reports, to the widely exploratory and the wildly futuristic, like Christien Meindertsma’s brilliant PIG O5049 project and Daisy Ginsberg’s E.chromi “designer bacteria,” the works cover (and uncover) interfaces, tools, devices, data visualization, video games, websites, and many more facets of this curious cultural shift we are witnessing, exploring the intersection and interplay of these various conduits of communication.

Invisible City: What a Hundred Million Calls to 311 Reveal about New York (2010)

Wesley Grubbs and Mladen Balog of Pitch Interactive

Published in Wired magazine, November 2010

The Lost Tribes of New York City (2009)

Andy London (American, born 1968) and Carolyn London (American, born 1972) of London Squared (USA, est. 1999)

In this stop-motion animation, various objects on the streets of New York City—among them a public telephone, a manhole cover, and newspaper boxes— come to life, with voices taken from the filmmakers’ interviews with New Yorkers and tourists. The result is a kind of urban ethnographic research: conversations with a wide and representative range of people about their hopes and identities and how they relate to New York. Some of the interview subjects speak with heavy accents, some don’t; some tell jokes, others wax wise and philosophical. The filmmakers’ skill with the stop-motion effects allows the objects to embody the voices in a vibrant way. The Lost Tribes of New York City is both comic and poignant, showcasing the city’s remarkable diversity while at the same time emphasizing the common experience that connects its various tribes.

(En)tangled Word Bank (2009)

Greg McInerny (British, born 1977) of Microsoft Research, Cambridge (UK, est. 1997) Stefanie Posavec (American, born 1981)

This visual comparison of the six editions of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species shows the changes Darwin made to the texts during his lifetime. Using data from online versions of the books, the designers created six wheels, each representing a different edition, with each chapter divided into sub-chapters, paragraphs (represented by a leaf shape), and sentences (represented by a smaller 'leaflet'). The sentences are colored blue or orange based on whether or not they will appear in the next edition—on whether or not they will survive. Changes representing scientific advances, adjustments in the author’s thought process, and conflicting sections in the text become apparent, with subtleties as well as major changes immediately revealed.

Talk to Me is also very much about locating the present:

In contrast to the twentieth-century triumph of semiotics, which looked down on communication as nothing but a mechanical transmission of coded meaning, the twenty-first century has begun as one of pancommunication — everything and everybody conveying content and meaning in all possible combinations, from one-on-one to everything-to-everybody. We now expect objects to communicate, a cultural shift made evident when we see children searching for buttons or sensors on a new object, even when the object has no batteries or plug.

Tio (2009)

Tim Holley (British, born 1985)

Tio is a bird-shaped light switch designed to teach children not to waste energy. Using a traffic stoplight’s color progression and a series of increasingly angry facial expressions, Tio lets children know how long the lights have been on, so they can decide when it is time to turn them off. The accompanying website allows them to see their energy-use patterns and explains where energy comes from and how harvesting it affects animals, plants, and the larger environment. Tio was developed for Onzo, a British company that provides energy utilities with data-capture and analysis services.

littleBits (2008)

Ayah Bdeir (Lebanese, born 1982)

Ayah Bdeir’s littleBits are a hardware library of preassembled circuit boards that connect to one another with magnets. Like Legos, which allow anyone to understand how to build structures without a complex engineering education, littleBits make a complex process intuitive, in this case assembling prototypes by snapping together electronic components. Thus littleBits allow non-experts to engage with electronics, letting anyone get a feel for working with circuits. Users have made, for instance, a garage-door opener, a coffeemaker, a pair of blinking shoes, and a joystick.

Paola’s talent for bridging the esoteric with the universal shines throughout:

In our relationship with objects, as in any relationship, indifference is the worst offense and laziness the worst sin.

Phantom Recorder (2010)

Revital Cohen (Israeli, born 1985)

Revital Cohen designs speculative, metaphysical objects that examine the relationship between the natural and artificial. The Phantom Recorder explores the phenomenon of the phantom limb: an amputee’s sensation that a missing limb is still attached to the body and functioning. 'The phantom owner is suddenly endowed with a unique and personal appendage,' Cohen explains, 'invisible to others and sometimes capable of extraordinary hyperabilities.' This physical hallucination is often treated as a hindrance and corrected through therapy, but Cohen feels that attempts to alleviate it 'tend to overlook poetic functions of our body.' What if, she wonders, the sensation could be harnessed and used at will? The conceptual interface Cohen created in response to this inquiry would connect the part of the brain that thinks it is controlling the missing limb to electrodes in a neural-implant device. This device could be activated to record or cause particular sensations. The potential for new ways to understand the communication between mind and body goes further, Cohen says: 'Could we use this technology to record illusions of the mind? What if our imagination could be captured through our nerves?'

My Wheel of Worry (2010)

Andrew Kuo (American, born 1977)

Andrew Kuo presents his inner worries, arguments, counterarguments, and obsessions in the form of charts and graphs. In the three-tiered graph my Wheel of Worry, originally published in the May 16. 2010, New York Times Magazine, Kuo illustrates the things in his life that concern him and his specific feelings about each. On the graph's innermost ring Kuo shows what causes him anxiety in the moments before sleep (loneliness, death, money, bedbugs, and the new York Knicks); in the middle ring he charts his very specific reactions to his credit card statement; on the outermost ring, what he thinks about as he scratches a lottery ticket. In this chart and others, Kuo brings the graphic language of scientific fact to the irrational emotions associated with everyday life.

Citing Austrian-American psychologist and philosopher Paul Watzlawick and his five axioms of communication, defined in 1967, Paola examines how our paradigms of idea-transmission have both changed and remained the same half a century later:

The first axiom tells us, ‘One cannot not communicate.’ Any kind of gesture, behavior, and attitude can and will be interpreted as communication. In e-mail, for example, responding immediately to a message creates a particular subtext, as does not responding at all; a congratulatory message sent ‘reply all’ can be interpreted as displaying presence and authority or else insecurity, and an ill-advised response by a person who received only a blind copy reveals…something else.

The third axiom says, ‘The nature of a relationship is dependent on the punctuation of the partners’ communication procedures.’ Communication, Watzlawick posits, is cyclical, with each partner believing that he or she is simply responding to the other; some of the most common problems of the digital era arise from the cycle of amplification and reaction that marks our text exchanges, something that serial e-mail gaffers and awkward users will be familiar with. The problem is acute enough to require the invention of ToneCheck, developed by Lymbix, an emotional spell-check for e-mail messages that alerts the writer to excessive displays of anger, sadness, or insensitivity.

Locals and Tourists, New York and London (2010)

Eric Fischer (American, born 1973)

Locals and Tourists uses geotagging data from the photo-sharing websites Flickr and Picasa to visualize the different areas frequented by locals and tourists in New York, London, and 124 other cities, including Taipei, Sydney, Berlin, and San Jose, California. After harvesting millions of data points in the form of photographs, Eric Fischer links them by photographer and date and then plots them on a city’s OpenStreetMap grid. A photographer with many shots of the same city and a long photo history can be assumed to be a local and is represented in blue, and someone whose photos are taken within a limited time period is assumed to be a tourist and represented in red; photographers whose status can’t be determined are represented in yellow.

Menstruation Machine–Takashi's Take (2010)

Sputniko! (British/Japanese, born Japan 1985) Design Interactions Department (est. 1989) Royal College of Art (UK, est. 1837)

With Menstruation Machine, Sputniko! explores the relationship between identity, biology, and choice, while also inquiring into the meaning of gender-specific rituals. The metal device, which looks like a chastity belt and is equipped with a blood-dispensing system and electrodes that stimulate the lower abdomen, replicates the pain and bleeding of the average five-day menstruation period. It is designed to be worn by men, children, postmenopausal women, or whoever else wants to experience menstruation. A music video that can be displayed with the device is about Takashi, who wants to understand what it feels like to be a girly girl. Takashi builds the Menstruation Machine and wears it out on the town with a girlfriend, strutting around a shopping mall and occasionally doubling over in pain. Thus an internal, private process is transformed into a wearable display of identity. Since the 1960s, advances in hormone-based contraception have, by suppressing ovulation, made monthly periods no longer biologically necessary. Sputniko! notes that the Menstruation Machine may be particularly desirable in a future in which menstruation in fact becomes obsolete.

In the introductory essay, Paola also exercises her remarkable gift for explaining technical terminology and complex systems in layman language that takes none of the substance away, breaking down the four main design disciplines covered in the show:

Communication design focuses on delivering messages, and it encompasses most graphic design, signage, and communicative objects of all kinds, from printed materials to three-dimensional and digital projects. Interface and interaction design, which is sometimes brought under the more generic and functionalist rubric of user-experience design, delineates the behavior of products and systems, as well as the experience that people will have with them. Information or visualization design includes the maps, diagrams, and visualization tools that filter and make sense of the enormous amount of information that is more widely available than ever before. Critical design is one of the most promising and far-reaching new areas of study, using conceptual scenarios built around hypothetical objects to comment on the social, political, and cultural consequences of new technologies and behaviors. Its disciples are experts in ‘What if?’

Rubik's Cube for the Blind (2010)

Konstantin Datz (German, born 1988)

Konstantin Datz has reimagined the popular Rubik’s Cube for people who cannot see the toy’s original colors. Datz stuck white panels embossed with the Braille words for each color over the squares, transforming the game from a visual puzzle into a tactile one.

Prayer Companion (2010)

Interaction Research Studio (est. 2000) Goldsmiths (UK, est. 1891) University of London (UK, est. 1836)

Developed for the nine Poor Clare Sisters who live at a monastery in York, UK, the Prayer Companion is a communication device with a very explicit purpose: it alerts the nuns to issues that need their prayers. The nuns, whose everyday lives have changed little since medieval times, have taken vows of enclosure, and their only connection to the outside world is through occasional access to Catholic newspapers, mail, and limited use of the telephone and computer. Designed to be understated and unobtrusive, the Prayer Companion subtly scrolls a ticker tape of issues across its top; its small screen can only be viewed from above and close-up, thus minimizing its distracting potential. The device was designed specifically for the nuns and is the only one of its kind. 'Goldie,' as the nuns call it, sits on a table in a hallway that they often pass through, scrolling news as well as the feelings of anonymous strangers whose blog entries are aggregated by the website We Feel Fine. The nuns have told Bill Gaver, of the Interaction Research Studio, that 'it has been valuable in keeping our prayers pertinent.'

More than anything, Talk to Me is about both challenging and owning design as a centripetal force of culture:

Talk to Me is an opportunity to anchor design’s new dimension and highlight innovative interfaces that can inform designers in the future. Whether they use the skin and shell of objects as an interface or animate them from within, designers are using the whole world to communicate and are set on a path that is transforming it into an information parkour and enriching our lives with emotion, motion, direction, depth, and freedom.

[…]

It might seem that design has abandoned its tested, grounded, functionalist territory to venture into an ambiguous universe where its essence is confused and a crisis of identity arises — is the 5th Dimensional Camera art or scientific modeling? Is Humeau’s work creative paleontology? Are Sputniko!’s devices contributing to interpretive anthropology? Is Pachube mere coding and infrastructure engineering? Not at all. I claim them, with their powerful vision and their focus on knowledge and awareness, as design, and I praise their radical functionalism. Ambiguity and ambivalence — the ability to inhabit different environments and frames of mind at the same time — have become central to our cultural development. They are qualities that embody the openness and flexibility necessary for embracing diversity, and they are critical to the questioning and imagining that are the preferred methods of inquiry. Communication is at the nexus of all these necessary human features: the most critical function of design today.

Tweenbot (2009)

Kacie Kinzer (American, born 1983)

Tweenbots are small, constantly moving robots that depend on the kindness of strangers to get where they are going. Interaction designer Kacie Kinzer sent Sam, the best traveled of the Tweenbots, on many missions in New York City’s Washington Square Park, armed only with a flag that asked passersby to point him toward a particular destination. She fully expected that Sam—made of a battery-operated motor and cardboard—would be crushed, lost, or thrown away, but surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, depending on how helpful you believe New Yorkers to be) he always arrived safely at his destination. The Tweenbots demonstrate that a clever situation staged by a designer can set a dialogue in motion between people and objects.

Several essays by prominent cross-disciplinary thinkers contextualize the various thematic sections. In one titled “Reality Is Plenty, Thanks: Twelve Arguments for Keeping the Naked Eye Naked,” the always-thoughtful Kevin Slavin asks:

As parlor tricks go, [virtual reality] is a neat one. Reality is built on human perception, entering consciousness through the human eye. If you add to the stack, you have something like reality, only more. But more what?

In another essay, “Conversations with the Network,” Khoi Vinh observes:

The designer as author, as craftsperson bringing together beginning, middle, and end, becomes redundant in a space in which every participant forges his or her own beginning, middle, and end. And that is exactly what happens in networked media. The narrative recedes, and the behavior of the design solution becomes prominent. What becomes important are questions that concern not the author but the users. How does the system respond to the input of its users? When a user says something to the system, how does the system respond?

At its heart, Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects — like the show itself, and the entirety of Paola’s work — is the essence of what true curation is: Context, conscience, cultural curiosity, and, above all, a point of view of what matters in the world and why.

Exhibition images and image captions courtesy of MoMA

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.