Eternal Sunshine of the Elastic Mind

Perhaps you’ve grown tired of that old tongue stud you got in a rash moment one night a few years ago. How about a miniature rotary toothbrush so you can polish your teeth and celebrate your dangerous impulses at the same time? Perhaps the love of your life is far away. How about growing one of her cloned nipples on some discreet part of your body, say, below your navel, to keep her spirit (and genetic material) close by? Perhaps you’ve had it with the furniture in your kitchen. Why don’t you just sketch some new chairs and print them out before the guests arrive?

It’s with a mix of the outlandishly futuristic and a kind of banal neodomesticity that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) presents a new kind of design exhibition. Forget impossible prototypes and fringy jargon-cluttered designspeak (well, maybe not completely): Design and the Elastic Mind is accessible, exciting, and beautiful without a hint of elitism. The show documents a tangible contemporary movement fully under way and constitutes a definitive portrait of the state of design in this new century. With a diverse range of examples from all industries and media, designers can be seen shaping technological change in new collaborations that are bringing a host of nontraditional disciplines to a suddenly crowded design table. The examples still evoke the imagination one associates with sci-fi, but they also retain the concrete excitement one feels at an old-fashioned science fair or an exhibit of 4-H projects—think “Future Techie Farmers of the World.”

On the afternoon I visited the sixth floor of the museum, it was mobbed with people gazing, gasping, and grasping at the future. This show feels like something of an aesthetic page-turn for the MoMA. There is none of the tired nostalgia for idealized futures that never came to pass, imagined by misunderstood and long-gone design visionaries. There is nothing of the thinly veiled purely commercial high-concept show, full of brands and product placements, like the museum’s Fashioning Fiction in Photography of 2004. Although full of exotic nanotechnologies, algorithmic computational mathematics, and biomimicry, Design and the Elastic Mind conveys a future well within reach and comprehension. A full generation away from the first PCs and mobile phones, postindustrial technology has begun to generate its own populist folklore, and this is smartly exploited by the tone and execution of the exhibit. Visitors didn’t come merely to blink in wonderment at ideas outside of their knowledge. They came clad in their experiences with smart phones, GPS devices, and a familiarity with wireless computing. The show seamlessly connects this consumer expertise to a vast domain of possibilities well beyond it.

“Sharing information and data, forming groups of interest, linking computers and people in wireless networks whose potency grows with the number of users, or collaborating openly on projects as disparate as software programs and charity drives has become the modus operandi at all levels of industrial development and income,” writes MoMA design curator and show organizer Paola Antonelli in the exhibition catalog.

From the submicro scale to the galactic, the smartly curated examples reinforce a coherent vision of connectivity and collaboration. Design and the Elastic Mind is directly at odds with the anxiety, confusion, and inhuman noise associated with industrial and military advancements in science since the early twentieth century. Design has often amounted to a counter-ideology to technological change, but here there is a refreshing unity and common search for a new way to manage and document rapid change: think Future Unshocked. It’s a new audience for radicalism finding a new collaborative sensibility on the part of designers, scientists, and industry that constitutes the spring in Anton­elli’s “elastic mind.”

“As they advocate and obtain roles that are more and more integral to the evolution of society, designers find themselves at an extraordinary wave of cross-pollination,” Antonelli writes. “In order to be truly effective, designers should dabble in economics, anthropology, bioengineering, religion, and cognitive sciences, to mention just a few.”

This is a science exhibit as much as it is a design show. Electron-microscopic images of quantum-scale thermal conductance from the physics labs at Cal Tech and Cornell are a window onto the nanoworld. Physicists Keith Schwab and Michael Roukes are creating nanodevices to produce machines that blur the line between chemistry and engineering. Science photographer Felice Frankel uses artistic techniques to enhance images of nanotubes that have applications in medicine and radical new battery designs. They’re also beautiful. Dr. Hugh Herr, of the biomechatronics lab at MIT, contributes the first powered prosthetic ankle that works with the rhythms of the nervous system to match gait and restore energy to lost limbs. The appendage shimmers in its titanium frame yet feels organic in its revealed structure, like an illustration by Vesalius.

This is also a show about maps and the design of visual information. With large-scale databases that can be indexed by place and time, new images of the dynamics of a six-billion-person world are possible. The wide shot of humanity is no longer just a snapshot of earthrise taken from an Apollo spacecraft back in the 1960s. With computing power that dwarfs what Apollo had now built into every laptop, and billions of people connected via GPS and the Internet, the maps shown here comprise strange new X-ray images of the many interiors of civilization. From the Opte Project’s map of the Internet, which is the signature image of the MoMA exhibit, to Laura Kurgan’s Million Dollar Blocks project, which maps home addresses of prisoners to tax dollars paid to keep them in jail, these cartographic adventures just scratch the surface of what is possible in a new collaboration between scientists and graphic designers.

The most fun part of this show is the piece devoted to so-called human-scale technology. Here genetic scientists and tissue biologists collaborate to create things symbolic of an era when control over the genetic/bio domain need not be freighted with fears of apocalypse. Exhibits demonstrating how to wear a partner’s beloved cloned mole grown on one’s own body or jewelry constructed of a loved one’s bone tissue cultivated in the lab are symbolic of small benign gestures of control of the biological domain. There are playful appliances for the lonely man, such as a hair alarm clock and a lifelike cold foot to simulate the sensations of waking up not having slept alone. There are a few pieces that feel like personal performance art, such as James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau’s Interstitial Space Helmet, for presenting a screen-face to the world while keeping one’s real visage safely concealed. And there is an inspired plastic water bottle made for heating and purifying water using only the sun. Auger and Loizeau’s poignantly unsettling ensemble shows how a body’s chemical decomposition can provide the energy for its own shrine long after death.

A couple of these human-scale objects are simply heroic. Synnøve Fred­ericks’s headphone set allows a user of Bluetooth cell-phone or MP3-player headphones to smartly “doff” them like an Edwardian top hat to engage in conversation. The headphones powerfully suggest how much retooling of language and discourse is needed to bring social etiquette and human dimensions into the twenty-first century’s proliferation of tools, devices, and high-tech objects.

Manifestos of how designers need to step up and save the world began with the Italian Futurists, who in 1909 made the original case for “designers über alles.” Since then, there have been any number of calls for designers to grasp the reins of the industrialized world, humanize globalization, rationalize sustainability, and explain cyberspace and other anxiety-generating tsunamis of change. Without design to make technology intuitive, we’re told that society is resistant to choices that might lead to sustainable change. Without a tangible hands-on audience to experience radical new approaches to technology, we’re told that designers are doomed to stand on the sidelines with so many irrelevant prototypes. Happily, here at MoMA, it’s as though, after decades of stumbling around in the dark, designers, inventors, manufacturers, and the public seem to have bumped into each other. With all these elastic minds, the collisions seem joyful and optimistic—they produce no bruises and deliver much to think about.

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