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Questions and Contrasts at the MAD Museum

Published on
November 13

            Columbus Circle has many interesting and beautiful places to visit, including its famous sculpture and fountain, the south end of Central Park, the big and fancy Shops at Columbus Circle, and Jazz at Lincoln Center. I had no idea that Columbus Circle was also home to an incredibly unique and thought-provoking museum, the Museum of Arts and Design (also known as the MAD museum). According to their website, the museum “explores the intersection of art, craft and design today.” For many of the exhibits, the art on display was almost secondary to the craft that created it. And in one of their newest exhibits, “Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital,” the method of craft may even be the art itself. As its title implies, this exhibition features works that were created in a large part not by human hands, but by a method of digital fabrication. These methods of creation (including 3D printing, computer-numerically-controlled machining, and digital knitting) have allowed us to easily create forms that were, just a few decades ago, almost impossible to actualize. Masters of these modern-day crafts have utilized them to produce sculptures, furniture, fashion, jewelry, prosthetic leg covers, vehicles, and more. The MAD museum displays all of these creations together, in six different spaces on three different floors. Many of the objects are presented next to an informational panel, video, or interactive exhibit demonstrating how the objects were created.

            While many of the pieces were visually stunning, I found it almost impossible to take their beauty at face value. What was I really admiring: the art itself on display, the digital craft that produced it, or the design that dreamed it? While many pieces were designed by humans using a method of digital fabrication, many others were literally designed by the technology that created them. One collection of abstract sculptures, for example, was created by a machine spurting out jets of hot polyurethane. Each layer cooled quickly, and it’s random shape helped determine the path that the next layer would take. The machine acted as a “surrogate” or perhaps “imposter” of an artist. Are its creations art? Or is the machine itself the art?

            One of the many engaging interactive exhibits was a sort of virtual reality pottery studio. A green laser beam shot across an empty framed space, behind which was a spinning digital model of a cylinder. By moving your hand into the space and blocking the beam, you could shape the cylinder as it rotated the way a potter shapes clay, and turn it into a variety of forms. I realized quickly that, even though I was working with virtual materials, there was a great deal of skill and craft involved. I did not have to worry about issues like clay drying or cracking, but there were new issues to contend with: the slightest accidental twitch of a finger could shave off too much from the shape, and it would be impossible to fill it back in again. Though the technology was modern, mastering the device required the same principles of craft that have been used for centuries.

            One of the other exhibitions in the museum, “Body & Soul,” contrasted with “Out of Hand” in a provocative way. Whereas “Out of Hand” explored the potential and promise of technology, “Body & Soul” explored the challenges and cruelty of humankind. Many of the clay works were thought-provoking and disturbing: a series of identical black skulls wearing white hard hats, two wide-eyed children begging before an eyeless girl with a gun behind her back, a man covered in bloody ceramic hearts, a series of Victorian-esque figures of women with graphic physical deformities. Even in a world dominated (and created) by technology, the human figure still has the power to express deep raw emotions and feelings, and to evoke those feelings in its viewers.

            I have been to many museums and seen many beautiful and interesting exhibits, but I don’t think any museum has made me think about art, technology and the human experience like the MAD museum. Its focus on not just the art on display but the craft and design that produced it, along with its juxtaposition of the human with the technological, the piece with the process, and the functional with the functionless made for quite a thought-provoking experience. At what point does an object cease to be art? At what point does art cease to be human? How much of our humanity can be replicated by technology? I could go on asking questions to which I have no answer. But perhaps you should visit this museum and ask your own questions instead.