Design and Violence

September 14, 2015

Zoë Ryan interviews Paola Antonelli.


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Defense Distributed (USA, est. 2012). The Liberator. 2013. CAD files; ABSplus thermoplastic pistol and aluminum nail, 2½ x 8½ (6.4 x 21.6cm). © Lorenza Baroncelli.

Although designers aim to work toward the betterment of society, it is and has been easy for them to overstep, indulge in temptation, succumb to the dark side of a moral dilemma, or simply err.
—Excerpt from Design and Violence at MoMA

Design and Violence is an online curatorial project and book co-organized by Paola Antonelli, senior curator at the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA, and Jamer Hunt, director of the graduate program in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons. Launched in the fall of 2013, the project is a platform that aims to raise our awareness of the violence of design in the world through a series of design objects, projects, and concepts that, as the curators describe them, “have an ambiguous relationship with violence, either masking it while at the same time enabling it.” These objects become the prompt to spark debates between invited critical thinkers from different disciplines and readers across the world. Controversial and sometimes heated, these debates become important forums to discuss and challenge our understanding of the complex relationship between design, violence, and life after 2011.

Paola Antonelli talks to Zoë Ryan, John H. Bryan Chair and Curator of Architecture and Design at the Department of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago, about the ambitions of the project, the debates it has generated, the possibilities of each curatorial medium, and defining the role of museums within society.

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Partial components of The Liberator (clockwise from top left): ABSplus thermoplastic frame, barrel, hammer body, frame pins, springs, grip; aluminum nail (center). © Lorenza Baroncelli.

ZR: I think that Design and Violence was quite ground-breaking in a museum context. How did the project come about?

PA: I’m not going to be falsely modest but I believe that many groundbreaking things happen without any intention to make them groundbreaking. In this particular case, there was really no dream of grandeur of any kind. Things simply happened. I remember reading the announcement about the 3D-printed gun, and my reaction was one of surprise. I was stunned at first, and shortly thereafter stunned about the naiveté of my first reaction. I started thinking I really had to revise completely the way I approached design. Because, you know very well, I have been preaching for years that designers take a Hippocratic Oath, that designers always work for the betterment of society and the world. Then and there, I thought, “Wait a second. It’s not true.” Number one, whether they are complicit or not, the things they design can also be used for malicious purposes. Number two, the shades between good and evil are so many, there’s no way that I could be so drastic and ideological and Pollyanna-ish about design. I started thinking about it that way. Then I heard about a new book by Steven Pinker called The Better Angels of Our Nature. In that book Pinker argues that our society is becoming less violent. When you think about it, however, it doesn’t really feel like our society is becoming less violent. Of course, fewer people, at least in the Western world, are likely to take a lupara or a machete and open your head. Nonetheless, it doesn’t feel like it’s all so much better. I thought that maybe it’s the idea of violence that has changed. So I started thinking of an exhibition that looked at the manifestations of violence in contemporary society using design objects that have an ambiguous relationship with violence as a lens.

I always like to work with other colleagues and I especially love working with Jamer Hunt, because we complement each other really well. As usual, I gathered many objects apparently completely at random, bookmarked fifteen hundred ones on Evernote, in Safari, on Pinterest… they were all there, in a gigantic cloud. In ten minutes, Jamer had made a diagram. He formed four quadrants, separated by two axis ranging from “individual” to “mass,” and from “fictional” to “real,” and he organized the objects in them. All of a sudden, it was just amazingly clear. So that’s why it’s so great to work with somebody like Jamer.

We presented the show to the exhibitions committee of MoMA and it was rejected as a show. That happens often, you get rejections and sometimes you just shelve the idea. In a few years, maybe somebody else in another museum has the same idea and you don’t pick it up anymore. Other times, it’s not so easy. That was the case of Design and Violence, it really felt that it was an urgent idea. Jamer and I just said, “Okay, no MoMA exhibition—so let’s see what we can do.” We decided to make it happen without asking anybody’s permission and without any money. We just started a WordPress site. We asked Kate [Carmody, curatorial assistant at the museum], “would you mind working on this together with us after hours, even if it’s not officially part of your MoMA duties?” She accepted. Then we hired a research assistant from Parsons that Jamer could pay. We organized a schedule, and we started out calling in favors.

The idea—the website for Design and Violence—was to publish every week a different object. Write a little curatorial introduction, with museum-style label information and a factual description of the object. That would be followed by a short essay by a person that had an expertise or knowledge or involvement in this object and/or in the idea and type of violence it represented. At the end of the essay, we would ask a question and let the readers answer and comment. I was against the commenting part. That was really Jamer’s push, but then it was very successful and it really became one of the ways to distinguish this project from any exhibition. In an exhibition, we would have never been able to have that feedback from the audience.

The questions were provocative in some cases, and they really started full-fledged big debates. This was particularly the case with two objects. One is a speculative, critical design project by Michiko Nitta and Michael Burton, The Republic of Salivation. The second project was the redesign of the slaughterhouse, the Serpentine Ramp by Temple Grandin. The project by Temple Grandin generated a hundred plus comments, and in the case of The Republic of Salivation it informed actual symposia about critical design.

At some point Kate left the museum and Michelle Fisher became part of the program. MoMA saw that it was good so they embraced it within the MoMA website, and then published the book.

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Crowd pen with revolving gates and built with poured in place concrete fence. Large slaughter plant serpentine single file chute. © Temple Grandin (American, b. 1947). Grandin Livestock Handling Systems, Inc. (est. 1980). Serpentine Ram for a Slaughterhouse. First designed in 1974, design modifications ongoing.

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Dimensions and materials variable. Dual single file chute design. This photo was taken before the painting was completed. It is important that the facility is painted all the same color. © Temple Grandin (American, b. 1947). Grandin Livestock Handling Systems, Inc. (est. 1980). Serpentine Ram for a Slaughterhouse. First designed in 1974, design modifications ongoing.

ZR: When you started the project, what did you hope to achieve?

PA: I did not have a precise goal. It used to be that exhibitions had a hypothesis and a thesis, and you tried to prove the thesis. In this particular case, the goal was to increase my own and the public’s awareness of the violence of design in the world. Also too, it was to stimulate the public’s understanding of design as a way to better understand our own predicament as citizens and as parts of society. It was open-ended. As usual, my big problem with these shows that we call groundbreaking is that there are no pre-established metrics for success. It’s not how many readers but rather what kind of readers, what kind of comments, what it stirs, and what it makes happen.

What we knew is that we wanted this website to be a platform. A platform for discussion and also maybe a platform for exhibitions. It’s interesting because I told you that there were a few symposia that happened because of that post about The Republic of Salivation. We were not involved in them. We also organized live, Oxford-style debates. We had four exceptionally good debates. They are on the website if you want to see them. The last one was with Larry Lessig and Gabriella Coleman and it was about the tools to keep the Internet truly open and free.

Moreover, the Science Gallery in Dublin is going to do an exhibition next year based on the project. We’re going to collaborate by supervising it, but I trust them completely because they’re very good. It’s the ideal collaboration. I’m just hoping that it will be something that will percolate discussions and new projects.

ZR: Can you explain how those debates framed the conversation, how you went from debates offline to online?

PA: The format of the Oxford-style debate is great, and I didn’t know it before I met Yana Peel. She’s the CEO of Intelligence Squared. Of course, I knew that debates existed and I knew that there’s a whole tradition of teaching debate in schools, but I’ve never really considered the format for public programs about design. We tried it, and the first one was so good because we realized that it’s important to have really good and engaged speakers. We always had an object as a prompt and, in that case, it was the 3D-printed gun.

The motion—it’s important to have a well-designed motion—was not about gun control but rather about open source. The motion was, “We cannot limit open source design, even when we do not support the consequences.” Arguing for the motion was Cody Wilson, the designer of the 3D-printed gun, and arguing against the motion was Rob Walker. It was wonderful because the two speakers were really amazing. Cody can create a wall of words, of philosophical and ideological statements and, unless you’re skeptical and strong, you’re going to be fogged out. Rob was incredible because he was so subtle that Cody was not confronted with a real rival but rather with somebody that was about to insert himself like a virus into his system. It was fantastic.

The audience votes at the beginning and at the end of the debate. And the winner is not the one that has more hand votes but rather the one that’s been able to sway the opinion the most. In that case, it was Rob who changed people’s minds. The last debate was similarly excellent. It was Gabriella Coleman vs. Larry Lessig. Gabriella Coleman and Larry Lessig are both for a free Internet. The difference is that Gabriella—the foremost expert on Anonymous—thinks that the only way to get to a really free Internet is civil disobedience and hacking. Larry Lessig, on the other hand, thinks that we have a government, however weak and defective, and the first thing that we have to do is to legislate in the right direction.

It was fantastic because the debate focused on the tools not on the goals. The motion was “Internet freedom and digital privacy will come about only through the design of better tools for civil disobedience and direct action.” That’s the secret. What I have discovered with Design and Violence is that ambivalence and ambiguity are more instructive than excessively clear-cut positions. Granted, there are some objects that are benign, and can never be turned malignant, but very few. There’s many ways to frame and contextualize design.

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Bahia Shehab. Thousand No Wall. 2012.

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Bahia Shehab (Lebanese and Egyptian, born 1977). Blue Bra Graffiti (No to Stripping). 2012. Stencil, spray-paint, 17 ¹¹⁄₁₆ x 7 ⁷⁄₈” (45 x 20 cm).

ZR: What surprised you? Was there anything that became controversial or spurred dialogue or discussion in a way that you could never have expected?

PA: We talked about really, really serious matters. We talked about euthanasia. We talked about torture. The last post was about the death penalty. What surprised us was that there were many more comments when we tackled the killing of animals than when we discussed killing human beings.

It was interesting to see what sparked the conversation and what didn’t. It was not necessarily what you would expect. I was surprised by the level of the conversation, and how good it was, and how well the project was received, and by how generous the writers were. Because we had big, busy people. A few well-respected and well-known people said yes at the beginning—for instance William Gibson, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Steven Pinker, Arianna Huffintgon—and they created this safe ground for other people to accept and write.

I was also surprised by the diversity of people that we were able to attract. For the female genital mutilation post— prompted by a series of posters for Amnesty International—we had Angélique Kidjo, a famous singer and activist from Benin. For the post on the AK-47 we had China Keitetsi,a former child soldier from Uganda and the founder of The African Child Soldiers and War Victims Charity. They were just amazing testimonials. For the Flexicuffs—the plastic handcuffs—we had Judge Shira Scheindlin, who is the judge that declared Stop and Frisk unconstitutional in New York two years ago.

The project really made us proud. Sometimes people would say, “Are we talking about design? This is not design.” Of course it is. The prompt was always a design object.

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Unknown Designer. Plastic Handcuffs (also known as Plasticuffs or Flexicuffs). Initial design first patented by Peter J. Gregory (American, b. 1934) in 1978. Injection molded nylon, 34 2/3 x 3/4 x 1/2″ (87.95 x 1.9 x 1.27 cm). Photograph by Jamer Hunt.

ZR: The topics are very challenging and often not the sort of conversations discussed head-on in museums. How did MoMA react? Was the project monitored by the institution or were you able to keep the conversations as open as possible?

PA: The institution would have never intervened. In my twenty-one years at the MoMA I’ve never had an episode of censorship or control during the process. There was only one instance—in 2004, when I was installing the exhibition SAFE: Design Takes On Risk—that the director of MoMA asked me to think twice about showing a poster that featured the images of dozens of different recreational disco drugs. He said, “I wouldn’t want people to think that we’re endorsing drugs.” I said, “No. Actually, this is for kids to be able to recognize what people are giving them and know what the effects will be, so they don’t drop down dehydrated because of ecstasy, for instance.” He said, “Oh okay. I understand,” and I showed the poster. That was the only time I got a question. Of course then there are exhibitions that get rejected all together, but that happens for very different reasons.

I think we moderated out maybe one comment during the whole process. I think that, when you present people with a serious project that shows deep thought and good intentions, people respect it. Unless it is something that is polarizing, that gets into a political arena, and that is already heated. The most heated debate was around the Serpentine Ramp because the writer was Ingrid Newkirk, who’s the president of PETA. She argued that it was a good thing, so the vegans went berserk. The question at the end was, “Can we redesign a violent act to be more humane?” In my opinion, it was the most heated topic. Because it was almost like talking about abortion, having all sides of the barricade present. It really became an ideology, an idealism, and a religious issue.

ZR: You’ve created websites for other exhibitions such as Design and the Elastic Mind, and SAFE and thought about the type of information people can access online versus offline in the physical space of the gallery. You don’t really refer to Design and Violence as an online exhibition. How do you describe the project in terms of fostering the same dialog and debate?

PA: I always call it an online curatorial project or curatorial experiment. At the beginning, we were saying experiment. Now it seems a little cute to keep on saying “experiment,” so we say project.

I’ve been trying to have online presence for exhibitions since the beginning, but I also realize how much that presence has changed. For instance, in the first website for Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design, in 1995, my ambition was to put the checklist online because I always saw the Internet as more permanent and more open that any catalog. I wanted the exhibition to have a life and afterlife.

Then came the site exhibition about Dutch design in 1996, Castiglioni in 1997, Ingo Maurer and the Campana brothers in 1998, and so on. With every show, there was a checklist and a documentation for the future. The first changes probably happened with Workspheres in 2001, and SAFE in 2003. I started thinking about the website as one more means of expression of the exhibition, a universe where there were different laws of space.

I always thought of three different locations for each exhibition. The physical space of the gallery is subjected to circulation and the force of gravity—people can only move this way or the other. You can change walls around, but you’re constricted by the space. The book, the second location, is even more constricting because it’s sequential. I always felt that the website was the opportunity to add another dimension. I always saw it as one more means of expression. Often I featured more objects on the websites than I had in the physical exhibition, and that culminated with Design and Elastic Mind, which was a full-fledged work of design by a great designer, Yugo Nakamura. It was a completely different experience that took as much advantage as possible of the medium.

I changed my approach again after that. Once upon a time you would go to a homepage, and you would enter a website as if it were a palace, through the main gate. Lately instead we tend to be linked to individual pages and individual pictures, through social media. It’s not a palace anymore. Now it’s almost as if you are entering many rooms directly from the street. It’s changed again. For the Talk to Me show in 2011, we published a blog leading up to the exhibition. We started a year and half before, and we documented everything that we were looking at. We would let people know what we chose for the exhibition and what we were thinking about for the installation design. We also started publishing little bios of all the people involved in the exhibition. We wanted people to know what a conservator does and so on and so forth. It was more of a chronicle.

In the case of Design and Violence, it was none of the above. If previous websites were places, this was a platform. We talk more and more about platforms online. That was really the idea, but I don’t like it when people say online exhibition. Because it presumes being tethered to the old physical world, and there are possibilities in the digital space that are sometimes better, sometimes worse, but no matter what, different. I think we should really inhabit a different space instead of trying to mimic the old one.

ZR: Why did you decide to produce a catalog in the end? It almost seems an antithesis to this open-ended, ongoing platform, to then become sealed in a volume.

PA: I can’t remember anymore why. Maybe we wanted a real commitment from MoMA. It was almost like saying, “All right, put a ring on it.” I just know that we started thinking that it would be great, maybe because it was one more means of communication. There are ways a book still drives the point better for some people. I would say that it was more of a commitment and statement.

ZR: Many museums are currently trying to broaden their audiences and are trying to encourage a more diversified range of visitors to their projects in the galleries and online. Do you think that this project has engaged a different audience or broader audience? How do you think it has helped you in terms of your mission with encouraging a further understanding of the important role that design plays in the world?

PA: Just in quantitative terms, there were more visitors to this website than there would be to an exhibition, and that is great. I’m sure that many of them were from far away. Websites help people from all over the world get to know the museum, a very particular part of the museum. I’m sure that most politicians and citizens don’t necessarily think of museums and art in this way, and with this project they got acquainted with a different aspect of a museum. I don’t even know if this audience was diversified enough, though. I’m still afraid that it’s going to be the usual museum visitors. For sure more people from the non-Western world, but I’m still not sure that it’s diversified enough.

For museums to really change the way they’re perceived within society and for them to really reach outside of their normal audience, this is just one small brick. It takes a whole construction crew. It’s a brick in the right direction for sure, but I don’t think it has resolved the situation.

ZR: Do you think you would do it again? Do you have plans for any other online projects?

PA: Why not? It all depends on the project itself. There are projects that lend themselves to different types of narratives. There are some projects that are meant to be for a gallery. Others could be books. Others, documentaries. This was great to have on a website because it’s almost like a novel, by episodes, by chapters, and I like that. I’m not really good at doing a big thing all at once and instead I like this evolution. The next exhibition will definitely have an online component leading up to it, but I don’t know yet what it will be.