Exploring the Serious, Complicated Relationship Between People and Objects Through Art

What it means to talk to machines

Paola Antonelli's first relationship with a computer began the day her Macintosh Classic arrived. "I remember very clearly, when I put it on my desk and the little smiley computer came on I thought, my God, this is like a pet," Antonelli, a curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art, says.

Take a look at the exhibition.

For MoMA's newest exhibit, called "Talk to Me," Antonelli chose 194 works ranging from videogames to toy robots to a New York City Metrocard machine—the idea is simple and complex.

"It's no longer just a relationship we have with objects," Antonelli says. "It's a dialog."

"Talk to Me" runs through November 7 at MoMA.

Tweenbot

Meet Sam, a Tweenbot in NYC's Washington Square Park. Armed with nothing more than a flag that asked passersby to point him toward a particular destination, artist Kacie Kinzer fully expected her creation—made of a battery-operated motor and cardboard—would be crushed, lost, or thrown away. "Every time the robot got caught under a park bench, ground futilely against a curb, or became trapped in a pothole," Kinzer says, "some passerby would always rescue it and send it toward its goal." If Sam's destination seemed too dangerous, people sometimes ignored the instructions on the flag: "One man turned the robot back in the direction from which it had just come, saying out loud to the Tweenbot, 'You can't go that way, it's toward the road.'"Scott Rudd

Metrocard Vending Machine

Is it art? Does it matter? By placing a almost wholly utilitarian object in a gallery, we are forced to rethink it (or think about it for the first time). Antonelli explains: "We know all about the people behind movies, but most people don't know who's making the things we interact with everyday. I look at objects with that kind of attention: who does the enamel? Who is responsible for the metalwork?" In this case, Masamichi Udagawa and Sigi Moselinger of Antenna Design. It is graffiti- and scratch-proof, though most New Yorkers would be skeptical of that fact.Scott Rudd

Tengu

An interactive toy named after a supernatural dog from Japanese folklore, Tengu plugs into a computer's USB port and reacts to sounds with its eyes and mouth, as if singing along to music or speaking when he hears someone speak. He (see? I can't help but assign a gender) requires no care from his owner, but he like it when he gets attention.Crispin Jones

Avatar Machine

Playing off our stand-in, video-game selves, the artist created a wearable apparatus that simulates the third-person gaming experience in real space: a spiky helmet, padded torso, and armored gloves. During tests of his Avatar Machine, its creator, Marc Owens, observed that some users brought gaming behaviors to real life, taking bigger steps, swinging their arms, exaggerating all movement.Scott Rudd

Animal Superpowers: Ant and Giraffe

In her exhibit, Antonelli has noticed that “children know exactly what to do at all times, no questions asked” when it comes to our interactions with technology. For Ant and Giraffe, artists designed a series of experiential sensory enhancements for children. The ant apparatus, a helmet with gloves attached, displays the world through an ant’s eyes: microscopes in the gloves magnify minuscule surface details to 50 times their regular size and transmit the images to the helmet. The giraffe device raises the wearer’s line of sight, simulating for a child the physical perspective of an adult, and also deepens the voice.Chris Woebken

Snout

Even the simplest machines can be filled with personality—which says more about how we relate to machines than the robots themselves. With a body similar to a large worm or elephant trunk, Double-Taker (Snout) is not much more than a robotic arm and a single giant googly eye. Snout was placed above the entrance to the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in 2008, where it silently tracked the actions of museum visitors as they came in and out. A computer program used information from a stereo camera and vision algorithms to detect the visitors' behavior and then directed these signals to influence the movements of the arm. The result was a mechanical cyclops that appeared bashful yet curious as it caught glimpses of passersby.Pittsburgh Center for the Arts

Phantom Recorder

Revital Cohen, an Israeli designer, created the Phantom Recorder to explore 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." Cohen wondered whether the sensation could be harnessed and used at will. She created a conceptual interface that 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?"Revital Cohen