It’s more like entering a fun house than an art exhibit. There’s so much going on. The clutter gives the impression of people with too little time and too much they want to show you. Lights twinkle and blink. A spiraling green design winds down the central corridor to a slight dizzying effect. Electronic maps chart and track all manner of things in color and sound. In the central room, a huge expanding and contracting metal sculpture (Emergent Surface by Hoberman Associates) moves with a vaguely organic slowness into a new position.
It is not your father’s design exhibit! A design exhibit at MoMA 50 years ago would have been a study in restraint. This one, “Design and the Elastic Mind,” is more like a study in exuberance. It is also massive, essentially infinite, in scope. The entire known universe is now subject to design, from the molecular level to the deepest reaches of outer space to every aspect of our own bodies. This show, in its essence, is about the fact that we can design anything and everything. We merely have to think it and we can affect it, our ideas immediately become something we can activate and use.
This does raise one sticky question in the age-old tension between design and art. Ever since at least Kant, we’ve been told that one essential characteristic of art is its uselessness. Kant called the aesthetic realm the realm of “purposiveness without a purpose.” He meant that in aesthetics we get to explore the relationship between our ideas and what they actually produce without being held to account for it. That is the “play” of art. It’s the chance to experiment in that hazy zone between the world as it is given to us and the world as we project upon it. This sense of art as being free from the demands of use is also there in the art for art’s sake movement, and in much of 20th-century Modernism and the avant-garde. Modernism demanded to explore and solve problems in form purely for the reason that they were problems in form. “Art is art,” said Ad Reinhardt, “and everything else is everything else.” The 20th-century avant-garde wanted to monkey around at the limits of reason and sensibility for the sheer sake of it.
So, bringing “usefulness” into art isn’t a neutral affair. It strikes at what some would call its essential nature. This is the feeling that “whys” and “becauses” are inappropriate to aesthetics and that, moreover, art that submits to any such interrogation has sullied itself. Design, then, has largely been forced to accept a secondary role. It comes later, after the real work has been done. It lacks purity; it is compromised.
Of course, in today’s world of messed-up aesthetics and art-world free-for-all, it is hard to keep such distinctions alive. One of the striking things about the exhibit is the degree to which it is unapologetic about its downright therapeutic role. This, for instance, from the MoMA’s statement about the show:
One of design’s most fundamental tasks is to stand between revolutions and life, and to help people deal with change. Designers have coped with these displacements by contributing thoughtful concepts that can provide guidance and ease as science and technology evolve.
This is more than just a little usefulness creeping in. It’s design reveling in its usefulness, in its social utility, without even bothering to compete at the level of purity. And more importantly, it shifts the area where artistic “play” is supposed to operate. For the Kantians and Modernists, the area of “play” was in the zone between nature and man. Aesthetics allowed us to toy around with what it means to put meaning into nature. But from the perspective of “Design and the Elastic Mind,” there’s really no such thing as “nature” anymore. Or, put differently, nature is presented as already mixed-up with science and technology. The issue is more about how we relate to that already mixed-up blend of nature and artifice. It is like learning how to navigate in a second-order universe, one that we already transformed through science and technology and that has now kicked back to transform us a second time around. Aesthetic “play” is now, according to “Design and the Elastic Mind,” to be found in the relationship between second-order nature and second-order man. If nothing else, that seems to inject a new sense of excitement into the prospect of design. No longer is design simply about bringing aesthetically pure gestures down into the realm of actual application. In shifting zones, design can be about exploring and experimenting with the territory between the nature we keep recreating for ourselves and the selves that get recreated in that process.
There is an entire class of design in the show, for instance, that plays around with different ways to interface with what are already interfaces. “The Amida Simputor” by PicoPeta Simputers is a simple computer interface that would allow people, especially in the developing world, to operate a basic computer through handwriting, speech, and the manipulation of images. It takes the standard computer as “nature” and then designs within the space between that nature and us. In a more playful vein, the “Hu-Poi” by Erico Matsumura is basically a horn you can blow air through. Linked-up digitally, it allows you literally to blow the clutter off your computer desktop.
On a related axis is Neri Oxman from MIT, whose “The Eyes of the Skin” is a prototype for a “breathing skin” for buildings that would immediately adapt to external and internal conditions. Or there is Oded Ezer’s “Typosperma,” cloned sperm with typographic information coded into their DNA. They are sperm that have become letters. Whether any of these specific projects are directly useful or not (and the show includes examples from both extremes) the focus is on that realm of aesthetic play that we may as well call neo-nature. Design — as it’s envisioned in “Design and the Elastic Mind” — is particularly well-suited to jump into the midst of neo-nature and get to work. Design so understood further upsets the aesthetic cart but let’s be honest: That cart was kicked over, spilling its contents onto the road long ago. Worrying about what is man and what is nature seems more and more like a fool’s game. There’s too much to design. • 21 March 2008