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Design and the Elastic Mind


Shawn Hoekstra, our Senior Creative Developer, recently attended the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition offers a wealth of conceptual and practical uses of emerging technology.

The elastic element of the title denotes the flexibility of the modern mind necessary to process large amounts of information, while the design aspect acknowledges the role that it plays in our creation and incorporation of new ideas and practices. In the spirit of the show, there is even more innovation to be found on the accompanying website, with 50 pieces that are not included in the physical installation. It’s a massive, mind-boggling site; to help focus matters, we’ve included links to some of Shawn’s favorites.

Design helps us process and synthesize the information overload. The show has been assembled to approach this challenge from many different angles, mixing the pragmatic with the provocative. Architecture and Justice exposes the relationship between U.S. incarceration rates and neighborhoods. It strikingly visualizes the phenomenon of “million dollar blocks” – residents of one city block can cost states $1 million yearly in jail expenses. Although disturbing in its implication, the work also inspires the possibility of reform.

This idea of data visualization carries over into Aaron Koblin’s Flight Patterns. Combining art, science, and statistics, the work uses FAA data to construct animated flight paths that reflect the actual movement of planes across North American airspace. It dynamically demonstrates actual traffic while also showing a high-level perspective of the network’s structure.

There is also work on display that uses tech for less serious purposes. Philip Worthington’s Shadow Monsters updates the traditional pastime of shadow puppets by using custom-designed vision-recognition software. By using a modest toolset – computer, camera, projector, and light box – hand gestures become living, software-enhanced entities. In this set-up, the hand that imitates a canine’s profile actually turns into a growling, fanged wolf.

Shawn’s hands-down favorite, however, was BEE’s Project: New Organs of Perception by Susana Soares. Shawn labeled it “deceptively simple,” and it’s easy to see why. The piece consists of a series of glass orbs that house a number of bees. However, these are not merely objects of art, but diagnostic tools of human health. The design capitalizes on bees’ acute sense of smell. Once trained to recognize a specific odor – say, that of a certain disease – the bees will display recognition of it by swarming when a person with the affliction breathes into the orb. If the bees buzz about aimlessly, the prognosis is good!

Design and the Elastic Mind runs at MoMA through May 12.