Curatorial: MoMA Design Exhibition Proposal

Client: Museum of Modern Art

Project: Exhibition proposal

In Brief: Methods of gathering information or concealing it continue to mutate, giving designers rich opportunities for commentary and critique while social attitudes on what is acceptable to disclose have changed dramatically in recent decades. Co-curated with Angela Riechers and presented to MoMA’s Paola Antonelli, this exhibition showcases objects and interactive projects that explore the ways privacy is violated, maintained, or discarded in today’s world.





Press Release:


Show/Hide: Design in the Age of Surveillance

The Philip Johnson Architecture and Design Galleries
May 6 through December 17, 2010

NEW YORK, May 6, 2010— The Museum of Modern Art presents Show/Hide: Design in the Age of Surveillance, an installation in The Philip Johnson Architecture and Design Galleries on the third floor that showcases 57 objects from the Museum’s collection plus new acquisitions that explore the ways privacy is violated, maintained, or discarded. On display is a range of works from tiny pill-sized cameras to full-scale security gates, and from videos to one-person Tamil Tiger surveillance boats whose design was copied from US Air Force Stealth bombers.

The exhibition is organized by Michael Neal and Angela Riechers, curators, Department of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art, and opens to the public on May 6, 2010.

According to the curators, “What is the state of privacy in the twenty first century? Design can lead us to a better understanding of ways in which the transmitting or concealing of once-privileged data continue to mutate in our age of surveillance.”

Objects are displayed in groupings according to the different aspects of privacy being addressed, from items worn directly on the human body, to objects that function as barriers or provide security and shelter, to digital projects that directly examine notions of surveillance and broadcast.

The works in the show serve to both show and hide layers of information: the Capsters headscarves perform the traditional function of concealing beauty to maintain modesty, broadcasting to the outside world the wearer’s identity as a Muslim, yet simultaneously communicating that she is an active participant in non-traditional activities such as skateboarding.

Adapted versions of familiar objects such as Matthias Megyeri’s Sweet Dreams Security Series provoke a strong reaction in the viewer: is high security more socially acceptable if it puts on a happy face? Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s Algues screen subverts the form of a traditional privacy screen by presenting a modern see-through version that challenges our assumptions as to its function.

As an exploration of the privacy of the human body, Michiko Nitta’s Body Modification for Love presents a genetically-engineered mole created from a lover’s DNA meant to be worn as a love talisman. Other objects, like Christian Mueller’s Mojo, a pole mounted revolving camera that zeroes in on random passers-by and shines a spotlight on them, examine government surveillance of citizens through increasingly-sophisticated technology. Some works serve a practical function while taking a critical look at social issues: Martín Ruiz de Azúa’s Basic House provides a warm shelter for the homeless, guarding their privacy while also broadcasting to the world that some of the city’s inhabitants lack permanent places to live. Scott Snibbe’s Boundary Function is an interactive part of the exhibition wherein visitors step onto a reflective floor surface, and an overhead computer allocates a mathematically-determined amount of personal space for each one and delineates it with zones of projected light. It only works if people use it together, as the computer doesn’t activate unless more than one person stands on the floor. In this way the piece is a reversal of the often-lonely self-reflection of virtual reality — here we are given a virtual space that can only exist with more than one person.

Finally, a collection of smaller objects on display range from traditional privacy shields and information gatherers–such as sunglasses and pocket-sized film cameras—to more sophisticated contemporary iterations like the Argus3 Thermal Imaging Camera by James Lamb and Alloy Ltd. Total Product Design, capable of creating detailed thermal images in zero-light conditions.

Although the U.S. Constitution does not specifically mention privacy, Supreme Court decisions over the years have established that it is a basic human right. In our era of constant surveillance, contemporary design objects will help us redefine and understand the boundaries of privacy. It’s always good to see where we’ve been, and Show/Hide takes a hard look at where we are going next.





Show/Hide will be accompanied by a series of films tracing society’s fascination and fear of surveillance and voyeurism. The films will be shown as double features, one event per month of the exhibit duration. The series will culminate in a daylong symposium and panel discussion.

Rear Window (1954), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, masterfully explores the director’s longtime twin obsessions with voyeurism and film, and their implicit relations. The credit sequence opens with the raising of James Stewart’s window shades—multiple theater curtains that will reveal a multiplex of unfolding “movies” in the apartments across the way.

The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), directed by Fritz Lang , in which a criminal madman adopts the persona of the diabolical Dr. Mabuse, a dead master of disguise whose megalomaniac spirit still haunts the German unconscious. Given a post-war spin, the new Mabuse is augmented by sophisticated surveillance technology, occupying a sanctum in the basement of the Hotel Luxor, the site of the several “movies” within the film itself. From this command center, Mabuse observes all the rooms of the hotel on a bank of video monitors (the “thousand eyes” are micro cameras hidden in the moldings of the rooms).

Peeping Tom (1960), directed by Michael Powell, is a dark, hysterical film that examines the madness resulting from a childhood under extreme surveillance and takes it to its ultimate conclusion. Mark, a shy cameraman, was raised by his biologist father as an experiment and subjected to constant recording of his experiences, most of which, given the father’s primary interest, dealt with his responses to fear. Perhaps not surprisingly, adult Mark has become a meta-murderer who must film his victims as he stabs them with a knife-fitted tripod leg. At the end of the film, his camera records a fitting end to a relentlessly documented life.

The Anderson Tapes (1971), directed by Sidney Lumet , neatly expresses the emergence of a virtual body double shadowing even the most mundane individuals. The film is composed of two narratives arbitrarily connected by surveillance: one is a routine heist caper in the mode of The Asphalt Jungle, the other, a surveillance conspiracy in reverse. Sean Connery, an ex-con planning the heist, unwittingly weaves together a disparate group of surveillance operations—government, police, bedroom dicks—by being taped by all of them while in contact with their primary targets. When the heist is foiled, and Connery’s name is broadcasted by the news, all of the agencies, public and private, erase their tapes to avoid exposure. A bleak parable confirming the paranoiac’s worst fears, “The Anderson Tapes” was a harbinger of the Watergate scandal that was about to break.

THX-1138 (1971), directed by George Lucas, presents an oppressively white dystopian landscape under surveillance at the cellular level. All citizens have numbers instead of names; they are sedated by a cocktail of drugs by law; sex is taboo; and their labor is monitored by biochemical scanners that detect even minor signs of illegal “sedation depletion.” Augmenting the State’s complete penetration of its citizens’ lives are mechanized confession booths, which record potentially incriminating admissions while droning prerecorded sympathies and disturbing homilies: “Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more now.” Friendly fascist robocops complete the picture in this nightmare of total exposure.

The Conversation (1974) directed by Francis Ford Coppola, follows a lonely surveillance expert as he slowly becomes embroiled in a murder conspiracy he has recorded for hire. Gene Hackman has no interest in the content or results of his surveillance efforts before recording the infamous conversation. The more he begins to care about the events set into motion by the conversation, transforming himself from recording device to human being, the more he finds himself—already a paranoiac—under surveillance himself. He vicariously witnesses the murder and, already terrorized by guilt, learns that he will be forever under surveillance so that he will keep silent. The film ends with Hackman literally gutting his apartment as he searches unsuccessfully for the bugging device.

Winter Kills (1979), directed by William Richert, expands Mabuse’s thousand eyes to a massive global surveillance citadel that absorbs “black holes of information, galaxies within galaxies of information, multiple expanding universes of information” for billionaire industrialist John Huston. Overseen by a sinister Anthony Perkins, this omniscient techno-castle mimics every aspect of human perception on a global scale, with divisions for video, audio, memory, and an enormous “contract silo” containing holographic signatures of everybody who’s anybody in world affairs. “All of the nerves and none of the flesh,” a proud Perkins explains, “even tonight when most of our workers sleep, it goes on.” Impossibly overreaching in scope, the surveillance citadel of “Winter Kills” is the last word on 1970s-style geopolitical observation.

Rising Sun (1993), directed by Philip Kaufman. In this film, recorded evidence has become highly mutable, a valuable tool for conspirators. A sex murder recorded to a “next-generation” videodisc by surveillance cameras becomes the centerpiece for a labyrinthine (and race-baiting) plot involving a controversial Japanese buyout of an American software company that produces high-end military applications. The original videodisc is digitally doctored by rogue elements in the Japanese corporation—erasing a person from the frame, eliminating a stretch of time, and pasting an innocent man’s face onto a guilty one—and then delivered to the police.

Lost Highway (1997), directed by David Lynch, is an elaborate hallucination centered around Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his red-haired wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), are essentially strangers. ”Must be from a real estate agent,” Renee says when a mysterious videotape arrives on the doorstep. Probably not: the tape spies on Fred and Renee when they thought they were alone. The film’s complex and at times confusing plot merges the alienation of contemporary domestic life with the prurient intrusion of the voyeuristic world.

Enemy of the State (1998). Director Tony Scott turns up the high-tech volume in an attempt to create the ultimate action film. Will Smith plays a devoted father, husband, and attorney shopping for a sexy gift for his wife. What he doesn’t know is that he was given a videotape from a friend (Jason Lee) regarding the recent murder of a U.S. senator led by a corrupt National Security Agency official (Jon Voight). Now Reynolds is after Dean to cover his tracks or, as the audience soon finds out, frame Dean for Rachel’s murder. Since Dean isn’t up on his high-tech gadgetry, he needs the aid of ex-intelligence operative Brill (Gene Hackman). Between the explosions and chases is the subtext of George Orwell’s 1984 mantra “beware of big brother,” as Dean realizes that in the modern world, there is no such thing as total privacy.

Brazil (1980), directed by Terry Gilliam and John Doyle. In this wild, visually audacious satire, Gilliam combines dystopian elements from Orwell, Huxley and Kafka. Jonathan Pryce stars as a civil servant who chooses to blind himself to the decaying, drone-like world around him. It’s a place marred by oppressive automatization and towering bureaucracy, and populated by tyrannical guards who strong-arm lawbreakers. The omnipresent computer that controls everything in the “real” world malfunctions, causing an innocent citizen to be arrested and tortured to death. It’s a terrifying look at a future destroyed by government interference in every aspect of its citizen’s lives.

A Scanner Darkly (2006), directed by Richard Linklater,  is set in a future that looks an awful lot like today where identities shift and melt like shadows. Based on a 1977 novel by the science fiction visionary Philip K. Dick, this animated adaptation features rotoscoped images of Keanu Reeves as a cop named Fred who starts to believe he’s his undercover self Bob. Fred/Bob puts in time in front of a bank of video monitors, watching surveillance images of himself. To protect his undercover identity, Fred often wears a “scramble suit,” which turns him into a vague blur not unlike all the other vague blurs surrounding him. It’s a frightening exploration of the boundaries of self under constant external examination.

Look (2007), directed by Adam Rifkin, takes surveillance cinematography a step further. The film tells a story about “the things we people do when we don’t think we’re being watched,” Rifkin says. Look splices footage taken from security cameras installed in gas stations, banks, parking lots, high schools, office buildings and department-store dressing rooms with images of professional actors performing a scripted story about the overlapping misadventures of sexual predators, killers and slacker convenience-store clerks. The result is fascinating, funny — and disturbing.




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