While perusing the overwhelmingly crowded yet interesting exhibit "Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects" at New York City's Museum of Modern Art on a recent Friday evening, the merging of technology and art inspired some internal reflection on what was being said about their respective functions in society.
Two particularly striking pieces were the documentation of Hiromi Ozaki's "Menstruation Machine" and Hans Hemmert's "Level" - mainly because they were instances of creating technology to equalize discrepancies between human beings rather than embodying the traditional role of technology as human enhancement.
The Menstruation Machine invokes the age-old "Put yourself in the other person's shoes…" mentality.
Except, for the word "shoes" substitute "bleeding painful panties."
It is designed to create abdominal pain in its wearer through electrode stimulation, while dispensing blood for 5 days. The concept behind the machine brings to mind the feminist poem/essay "If Men Could Menstruate" by Gloria Steinem, who imagines a world where menstruating men used the status of their monthly cycles to claim a logical superiority over women.
She humorously speculates that "Men would brag about how long and how much. Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day." As a piece of art and technology, The Menstruation Machine is presumed to lead to the scenario of men empathizing with women for the biological conditions they endure--conditions that have historically been used against women due to the emotional fluctuations and "weaknesses" they are said to create.
Hans Hemmert's public space project "Level" hosted a party where attendees were made to be of equal height (6 and ½ feet tall) by wearing platform shoes. Research has consistently shown that taller people receive more societal benefits than shorter people and are therefore more likely to be successful or move to higher positions in business. As this Psychology Today article describes, business professor Timothy Judge found height to be even more salient than gender in predicting one's income, with taller women consistently getting paid more than their shorter peers.
Interestingly, a blog post on Core 77 points out that the size of the shoes in the "Level" experiment inevitably indicates the size of the person, with those who have the thickest blue space clearly being the shortest height. Aside from this apparent illustration of human difference, the project itself calls upon the ways in which height can play into social relations and the division of power, and seeks to temporarily relieve this discrepancy.
Although these two works have a certain light-hearted (and slightly absurd) air to them, Ozami and Hemmert both create technologies that illuminate and challenge the foundations of our social world in a way that merges the artistic with the functional. Their success as artists, therefore, should not overshadow their underlying success as scientists who use conceptual and performative tactics to fuel technological imagination. The rise of Web 2.0 has shown that social life and technology are becoming increasingly responsive to each other's demands. The fact that artists are playing with the same concepts in their creation process is as inevitable as it is exciting (even when blood is mysteriously shed).