Applied Design at MoMA

New York

12 March 2013

Applied Design, a new installation in MoMA’s Phillip Johnson Architecture and Design Galleries, marks the inception of a new branch of the museum's permanent collection: video games. The show proves that these tools of digital entertainment, along with a selection of other leading-edge designs, outdate the usual design questions, and offers open-ended replacements for them.

If design, as MoMA's senior curator of architecture and design Paola Antonelli has suggested, is shifting away from preoccupations with physical form and old-fashioned function and embracing a more holistic definition of purpose and meaning, then video games are as modern as design gets.

Design “is sometimes ugly,” declares the show’s written introduction, perhaps because it “encompasses all facets of human activity, including science, education, politics, and even war.” The exhibition, curated by Antonelli and Kate Carmody, displays many such facets, making good on its claim that design is “at the nexus of culture, politics, and society.”

Altogether fourteen video games are on view, each of which were acquired for MoMA’s permanent collection in November 2012. Nine of the games -Pac-Man, Tetris, Another World, Vib-Ribbon, Katamari Damacy, Portal, flOw, Passage and Canabalt - are playable by museum visitors. The other five -Myst, SimCity 2000, The Sims, EVE Online and Dwarf Fortress - are displayed as video demonstrations. Visitors are invited to don headsets and interact with the flashing screens mounted against the gallery’s sparse gray walls, using the joysticks or controllers that rest on platforms just below. Stripped of their usual arcade or home console exteriors, the experience of the design is front and center, isolated usefully.

But Applied Design is not just about video games. It draws in other, more utilitarian works such as Massoud Hassani’s landmine-clearing Mine Kafon, Martín Azúa’s inflatable Basic House, Dirk Vander Kooij’s 3D printed Endless Flow Rocking Chair, Ido Bruno and Arthur Brutter’s Earthquake Proof Table, and even Ray Tomlinson’s @ sign.

At first glance the more traditionally functional objects in the exhibition make curious bedfellows with the video games, whose primary raison d'être, after all, is recreation. The fact that both occupy the vanguard doesn’t immediately strike the viewer as enough to connect the innovative practical pieces and the heavyweights of the show, video games.

But Antonelli has previously remarked that “this kind of indifference to direct functionalism that video games have is what makes them dear to me. They are pure experience.” With this in mind, their presence in the same gallery is not all that ties together the practical and the recreational: the highlighting of video games as even indirectly functional is thought provoking. Once a design medium has become as ubiquitous as gaming has then arguments for its utility, and for new conceptions of what constitutes functionality in general, gain credence; Applied Design contributes to that possibility, though it does so more forcefully if the viewer is familiar with Antonelli’s past work.

Perhaps because of such ambiguities, video games are the undisputed stars of the show. The games are aligned with pieces like Hassani’s wind-powered mine sweeper, yet they are the only objects that audiences are permitted to manipulate and use, suggesting a parallel shift taking place in museums that champion revolutions in interactive design.

Applied Design presents its subject matter as a force for elegant economy, technological and social reform, showing us new modes of behavior elicited by design. While the relationship between the video games and other displayed pieces such as Macel Wanders’ Knotted Chair could be argued for more clearly, the exhibit is nevertheless important in exploring a new kind of design landscape: one that prizes innovation and interaction over other criteria. In its own design as well as the objects it exhibits, the show tells us that these new definitions of interactivity and design - as well as museum exhibitions that celebrate them - are still in their infancy.