BULLETT: Although it’s focused on machines, Talk to Me seems to be in large part about empathy. It also feeds into the assumption that we’re somehow more empathetic now.
PAOLA ANTONELLI: It’s always difficult to generalize, but I can confidently tell you that we have access to so many more life stories than ever before. There are some really great programs like the It Gets Better project [which was founded in September 2010 by writer Dan Savage and his husband Terry in response to the alarming rate of suicides among LGBT teenagers] and Talk to Me, which was created by the Trevor Project and isn’t directly related to our show. These different programs are about trying to rescue youth who are contemplating suicide. In these cases, I feel like technology actually does make things better because it gives more visibility and currency to topics that have, until now, been kept private.
Technology provides us with the tools to increase curiosity about other human beings. I don’t know if we always use those tools in the right way, but the important thing is that they’re there. One of my favorite pieces in the show is “Menstruation Machine.” [Created by London-based Japanese artist Sputniko!, it’s a wearable metal device that allows one to simulate the experience of menstruation.] I love that piece because, to me, it embodies the desire to understand what it means not only to feel like another type of human being, but to be one. It’s about trying to understand.
Which is nice, because there’s this thing about difference—even small points of difference—where we have to decide whether to emphasize it or pretend it doesn’t exist. But that machine turns it around so that difference becomes optional. I was trying to think of what the male equivalent would be.
It already exists. Dildos have been around for a long time, but they don’t give you the physiological pull that “Menstruation Machine” does, because it has electrodes that also simulate cramps. No, not simulates—it gives you cramps.
Why do you think it’s considered less valid when a tool or an object, rather than a shared emotional experience, is the common bond between people? Is it somehow less legitimate if the only thing two people have in common is that they like to play video games?
That’s actually been a constant throughout history. People at one time might have been linked by their shared love of fox hunting or a particular promontory in Rome, so I don’t see what the difference is. Objects are objects and if they become links between people it doesn’t matter how much technology they have in them.
There’s this stigma about meeting someone on a dating site as opposed to meeting them by chance or at work. It’s as if we want to use technology for social networking but we don’t want to use it for anything emotional.
It’s important to know what’s good for you and what’s not good for you, what fits your personality and what doesn’t. Online dating can be frowned upon because of the fear of not knowing who you’re dealing with. But how do you ever really know a person when you first meet them, even when they’re right in front of you? In Italy, people don’t date at all—you meet people through friends or family—and so when I came to the United States and I started hearing about dating it was so weird.
It sounded like a job interview. In truth, technology makes us do what we’ve been doing for decades or centuries, but in a different way. With that, of course, comes a trial and error period. For example, I don’t have Facebook because I just don’t feel comfortable on it. Tweeting, however, is fun and addictive, but I don’t tweet as myself. I tweet as the exhibition.
It’s interesting to hear you say that you only use Twitter in a professional capacity. How much of Twitter’s allure do you think comes from its ability to allow us to become different people?
I use it out of curiosity, and to try to understand people better. Others might do it to escape, but it’s hard for me to say.
It’s a curious thing, the way we treat new technology as if it were an infant. With Skype, for example, it’s so weird to have a conversation where a bunch of people huddle around the monitor like it’s a baby in its cradle.
It used to be the same with television, where people would gather in front of the little screen. I guess that’s what happens at the beginning of something new.
But it’s funny because machines are so much more knowledgeable than we are. Do you think that bad design can contribute to depression? Everyone says we’re so depressed in this country, and there are so many ways in which we get design wrong.
Well, an ugly object isn’t necessarily a poorly designed object. Lack of quality can certainly be depressing, but America’s problems aren’t entirely rooted in design. Admittedly, a beautiful piece of hardware can lift your day, but it’s also much more complicated and structural than that. Design cannot change the world and it cannot ruin the world by itself. It doesn’t have that power. It can definitely contribute to an atmosphere of progress, to an atmosphere of care, to an atmosphere of trying to keep human beings at the center of the plan, but I think that design is only one piece of a much larger puzzle.
What’s the most obnoxious thing about New York City, design-wise?
There are so many dysfunctional things about New York, but I don’t really mind the design. I wasn’t all that keen on the new graphics used on the city’s taxis, but I’ve gotten used to them. I’m not too preoccupied by having everything around me perfectly designed. Contrast and variety are so important, and frankly, there are cities that are considered to be very well designed that I find really boring.
Do you think cities are empirically ugly, or is it all relative?
As far as I’m concerned, a horrible city is a horrible city. I’m from Milan, which many people say isn’t beautiful, but I know better because I’ve spent so much time there. It can be very beautiful—it’s just not as immediately beautiful as other cities. Besides, something that might be beautiful to you might not be beautiful to me.