MoMA's 'Talk To Me' Talks To Us All

NEW YORK -- In a corner of the new design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, there is a small but telling section on religion.

Mounted in the air is "El Sajjadah," an electroluminescent prayer rug that lights up as it is turned in the direction of Mecca. Next to that is a collection of pill-sized capsules, each containing a small piece of text that collectively constitute the entire Book of Leviticus. To cap it all off is "Prayer Companion," a small screen that acts as a ticker tape, designed to deliver headlines to cloistered nuns in a monastery in England so they can be sure their prayers are timely.

And adjacent to that section a pair of robotic shoes allows for a different kind of uplift: Users can become taller or shorter by using an iPhone app that operates the footwear.

The point, of course, is that communication -- of all forms -- is now the dominant focus of design. Paola Antonelli, curator of "Talk to Me," which opened at MoMA this week and runs through November 7, told The Huffington Post that "life is now pervaded by the need to communicate."

"People need to communicate with each other," she went on. "But they also communicate with objects, with cities, with the Internet, with literally everything."

The show, then, is organized into six categories that explore the interactions we have with everything from MetroCard kiosks in New York, to a building in Tokyo where the entire facade acts as a QR code and the show's highlight, "Export to World," a pair of paper models of real-life objects as seen in Second Life, the three-dimensional virtual online community. The sculptures' German designers, Linda Kostowski and Sascha Pohflepp, write that the objects are "paper representations of digital representations of real objects, including all the flaws that copying entails."

Other pieces in the show speak to different aspects of communication. A hilarious take on the food pyramid, "The Hierarchy of Digital Distractions," shows that any activity on a mobile phone trumps what's happening on a landline, and that everything trumps an update from LinkedIn.

Two objects by the 28-year-old British designer James Chambers demonstrate how machines can act almost as animals. A portable hard drive is shown with legs that deploy when a drink is spilled nearby, and the Gesundheit Radio is programmed to sneeze when it senses dirt or dust on it.

The organization of the exhibition -- objects are grouped according to the identity of the speaker in a given situation: a machine, a person, a social network -- can be confusing, and the 80 screens in the fairly small space can be overwhelming. But the layout also reinforces the point that communication surrounds us.

"Talk to Me" is itself proof of that premise, as the show was in part curated online. Antonelli, along with her curatorial assistant, Kate Carmody, posted items that they were considering for the show to a website, where they also solicited suggestions for what to include. About 20 percent of the objects in the show came from submissions to that website. The show's embrace of the web doesn't stop there; each object gets a hashtag and a QR code, making it easy for visitors to learn or share more when they get home.

But not many people at MoMA seem to be holding their iPhones up as they walk around the show. Perhaps that would be an interesting experience -- to see the entire show through the lens of one's phone -- but it seems better to just use your eyes and ears.

To see images of more items from "Talk to Me," click through the slideshow below: