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Philadelphia Museum of Art’s vast new design exhibit confronts our robot overlords, with all their hot-mess issues

"Designs for Different Futures" premieres here Tuesday. It will move on to Minneapolis and Chicago after that.

Antero Kivijarvi of Helsinki's Lunden Architecture inspects his company's installation, "Another Generosity" at the "Designs for Different Futures" exhibit
Antero Kivijarvi of Helsinki's Lunden Architecture inspects his company's installation, "Another Generosity" at the "Designs for Different Futures" exhibitRead moreJonathan Wilson

The first thing you notice about “Designs for Different Futures,” the ambitious new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is that there is no path forward.

While most art exhibitions lead visitors through a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, this one challenges them to find their own way through an enormous open gallery filled with gadgets, outfits, visions, and provocations. And a whole lot of videos.

The Art Museum mounts ambitious design shows like this in its main exhibition space maybe once a decade — or less — so this is an occasion. In this case, the museum has partnered with two other major museums, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Designs for Different Futures” is premiering in Philadelphia, where it opens on Tuesday after a weekend of member previews. It will be on view through March 8, then move to Minneapolis next fall and Chicago in February 2021.

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While most design shows concentrate on specific objects and their formal qualities, this one is about ideas, processes, and the issues that they raise, especially as technologies that looked to be world-saving a few years ago — the Internet and social media, or DNA testing — now seem like gateways to dystopia.

There are 11 sections, devoted to topics such as Resources, Power, Intimacies, Foods, Bodies, Jobs, and Materials, along with a Futures Therapy Lab at the end that will house special programs and offer visitors a chance to pull themselves together after what they have seen.

The emphasis is inevitably on technology, though very pragmatic pieces of machinery are mixed in with art projects that question or satirize futurist efforts. Sometimes you need to look hard to tell which is which.

The biggest thing you’ll see is Another Generosity (2018), a series of enormous air- and water-filled white plastic sacs and tubing designed by a Finnish group under the leadership of Eero Lundén. It is big and friendly and makes gentle sloshy noises.

It is also supposed to change color depending on what people are doing nearby, but I did not witness that. It may be the show’s most charismatic piece, even though it has no apparent use. Maybe it’s just there to place a great blob of ambiguity right at the start of our journey.

Walk in one direction and you encounter a structure for raising crickets for food, and a dining table set with meat grown from human cells, 3-D printed pancakes, and a colorful bagel-shaped superfood.

Walk in another direction and you will find a camouflaged typeface that you can decipher but machines can’t, along with fashions and makeup designed to defeat facial-recognition software.

Cool at first, then scary

Nearby is Stranger Visions (2012-13), a series of 3-D printed facial masks by Heather Dewey-Hagborg. The artist scavenged in New York for bits of used chewing gum, cigarette butts, and other DNA-bearing detritus and ran the DNA through facial-modeling algorithms.

While these don’t necessarily replicate the subjects’ faces accurately, their individuality is striking. Like much that is in the show, Stranger Visions is first cool, then scary. Across the gallery, there is a room where you can smell the scents of extinct plants.

Still other paths lead to Estrofem Lab (2016) and Housewives Making Drugs (2017) by Mary Maggic. The first is a pair of suitcases full of chemical equipment, and the second is a purposely irritating parody of a daytime cooking show in which women use the lab to concoct their own hormone supplement therapies.

Are you up to date on teledildonics? That is the technology of sex toys that allow couples to have shared sexual experiences when they are not together. There are two projects in the show that deal with this, although, as the label notes, not all the kinks have been worked out.

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There are some more familiar features of the future, including a proposed moon base. This one, designed by Foster + Partners, architects of the Comcast Technology Center, turns moon rock into structures inspired by animal bone.

And, of course, there are robots, including a couple that are locally made. We know that the future will have robots because there are plenty of them around already. What we don’t really know is how we feel about them and how we ought to treat them.

The most provocative android is probably Bina48, a conversing robotic bust in the form of a woman. She is seen here in a film talking with artist Stephanie Dinkins. Bina48’s replies seem well-considered and thoughtful, but syntactically odd and often off the wall.

Barbara Anastacio’s short film of the roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro with his uncannily realistic creation Erica at sites in Japan is creepy and compelling.

Raising Robotic Natives (2016), by Stephan Bogner, Philipp Schmitt, and Jonas Voigt posits using an industrial robot arm in the raising of a baby. The designers figure that doing so would save 15 to 30 minutes’ time, though they want us to question whether losing this occasion for intimacy would be worth it.

Catalogue for the Post-Human (2019) by Tim Parsons and Jessica Charlesworth is the only thing in the show that made me laugh.

It is a vending machine of unlikely products made for post-humans who turn out not to be creatures from science fiction but young people struggling to make it in a gig economy. One of the items is a video screen that covers your face so that you can hire yourself out as an influencer while doing something else.

As this piece shows, most thinking about the future is really a projection of the present, with all its opportunities, pleasures, anxieties, and threats. Authoritarianism is on the rise right now, and projects that might have seemed either cool or whimsical a few years ago must now be evaluated as part of systems of surveillance and control.

A machine that analyzes sewage to monitor public health sounds like a great idea — or is it another invasion of privacy?

Throughout the 20th century, design was often used to produce a narrative of endless, unstoppable progress, full of flying cars and guys with jet packs. The dream of endless consumption, encouraged by design, looks empty now, in a time of dramatic climate change and an increasing awareness of material limits.

Many believe that technology will enable humankind to transcend these apparent limits, while others look for ways to live better within them.

There is a lot here, probably more than most visitors can take in. Much of it is not visually compelling, and some of it is icky.

Many of the futures we imagine right now are dark ones, and others are just ambiguous. But there is also that spark of optimism inherent in all thinking about the future: Maybe next time we can get things right.


Designs for Different Futures

Oct. 22 to March 8 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy.

Museum admission: $25, seniors $23, students $14, 18 and under, free.

Information: 215-763-8100 or