At the Museum of Modern Art in New York I recently visited a remarkable exhibit called Talk To Me, designed to explore the different ways that objects communicate with us or for us, or express things, such as frustrations or desires. There was a lamp one could turn off by strangling it, and an auto-erotic asphyxiation collar that tightened every time someone called the wearer’s cell phone.
The items in the exhibit that really stuck with me, though, were the ones that enhanced our ability to empathize.
The Japanese designer Sputniko! manufactured a remarkable belt that allowed a man wearing it to experience what it was like to have menstrual cramps.
It’s a ghastly contraption, and while it won’t help men experience the depression that accompanies that time of the month, I thought it was a great attempt. Next up, I hope for a device that allows women to experience what it’s like to have your penis get hard.
Another exhibit that fascinated me was Geoffery Mann’s Crossfire a table setting where the crockery responded to speech vibrations. The soundtrack was a vicious argument between a married couple, the argument from the beginning of “American Beauty” after Kevin Spacey quits is job and Annette Benning berates him. The museum audience observed the harsh tones disfiguring the stark white table setting, particularly the large teapot, as the voices traveled over the tabletop on their way to wound a loved one.
In “The Things We Keep” the Christian Svanes Kolding dragged his camera simply over the objects in his home and posted above them legends where they came from and who gave them to him. Seems like a bland survey of possessions, but the impression it left on me was of a life story. After viewing all these precious objects and their history, you got a sense of Christian that was more than just his taste. You knew where he’d traveled, who he’d known and had a more intimate sense of his values.
One of the last exhibits where I lingered was Happylife, which is explained well by it’s creators:
Reyer Zwiggelaar and Bashar Rajoub have been developing new profiling technology based on biometric data, in which a camera equipped with sensors detects changes in a person’s mood and emotion by taking thermal images of his or her face. By analyzing facial expressions, eye movements, pupil dilation, and other physiological changes, the camera may be able to predict future criminal activity. With Happylife, designers James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau have adapted this technology for keeping the peace at home. The designers added a visual display with facial-recognition software, so that the camera could differentiate between members of a family. A dial, one for each family member, registers current and predicted emotional states, based on data accumulated over the years by the machine. The designers have imagined complex scenarios in which the Happylife system might have a significant impact on a family’s life, and with writer and poet Richard M. Turley, they have created vignettes to illustrate such situations: “It was that time of the year. All of the Happylife prediction dials had spun anti-clockwise, like barometers reacting to an incoming storm. We lost David 4 years ago and the system was anticipating our coming sadness. We found this strangely comforting.” The designers hope to install the system prototype in an actual family’s home to further their research.
I admire the way the curators led us through the exhibit, starting with something crude like the collar. I suppose this increases connection between people in one way; it shows that your friends are thinking about you. The menstrual cramp belt was the next step forward, a device that increases a man’s ability to understand a woman’s pain. This was similar to other items in the exhibit that allowed you to experience the world through an animal’s point of view or someone who has a physical handicap. Once you’ve felt what another has felt, it’s not so easy to dismiss them. Just like understanding the story of someone’s treasured objects makes you less likely to see those things as junk. All of these devices increase our ability for empathy, and broaden our point of view.
The ones that really stuck with me, though, were those that increased family intimacy. I watched Crossfire several times wondering how it would be in a family if the crockery actually could reflect the tone of voice. If you could see how your harsh words ripple across the table, would you suddenly understand how much impact they were having? Or rather the kind of impact they were having, which might not be what you wanted.
Also, with Happy Life, the example the designers used was brilliant. The anniversary of a family member’s death, the whole family was sad, yet no one wanted to talk about it. The fact that they could read the dials and understand that they shared this experience, even if they couldn’t find the words to talk about it, was a way of observing the event, connecting to the sorrow, without counseling or group tears.
On the other hand, could knowing that you were being observed by this thing start to train your behavior? If you were conscious of being watched, then would you try to slap on a smile, and be more animated? And if you were doing this, would you actually be happier? You know how they say that just smiling can improve your move, whether or not you feel like smiling. So too, could knowing something was watching, even if that thing was a machine, make you feel better? My first feeling is that you’d just be creeped out by the idea that something was always watching, but then one thing this exhibit showed me was that my approach to this intimate kind of technology must be pretty old school.