Design and Violence

Paola Antonelli and Jamer Hunt

In the introductory statement for the online curatorial experiment DESIGN AND VIOLENCE at The Museum of Modern Art, ‘design’ was defined within the parameters of the museum’s collection as a compelling marriage of economy, elegance, functionality, and timeliness. As co-curators, we — Paola Antonelli and Jamer Hunt — also defined ‘violence’ very broadly as “a manifestation of the power to alter circumstances, against the will of others and to their detriment.” As we said then, 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”. And yet the intersection of design with violence is a history rarely, if ever, told by critics, historians, or designers themselves; the public, therefore, remains unaware — unless they become one of its victims. Over a period of two years, we, along with MoMA Curatorial Assistants Michelle Millar Fisher and initially also Kate Carmody, assembled a range of design projects, objects, and ideas that lived between these two guideposts of ‘design and violence’. The works were as varied as the discussions they provoked online, in the galleries, in the public debates we held, and, eventually, in the pages of the book we published.

Our initial conversations were catalysed by two key projects: Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) and Defense Distributed’s 3D printed gun, the Liberator (2013). It is impossible to simplify Steven’s weighty tome but his argument suggests that we live in a more peaceable era compared to our ancestors; however, the design and dissemination of open-source files for a printable, untraceable gun marked, for us, a watershed that contradicted Steven’s research. Instead of dissipating, violence seems to have morphed and recombined into novel, intangible, or ghostly forms — into the roadside bomb, cyber threats, the unmanned aerial drone, and the everyday household tool repurposed into a protest weapon. The works we included in our online survey responded to this shape shifting: Google’s Digital Attack Map, for instance, charts distributed denial of-service (DDoS) attacks across the world; James Bridle’s Drone Shadow project evokes and reveals the fear of a distantly-controlled overhead attack; Volontaire’s elegant, strong poster series for Amnesty International raises consciousness of gendered violence and female genital mutilation.

And yet the intersections of design and violence are never static, never circumscribable. They continue to mutate and they appear differently, inhabiting discrete localities as often as they become global phenomena; they manifest newly in the hands and minds of individuals, collectives, and in the molecules of materials into which they pass. It thus makes perfect sense for this conversation to move into other institutions in order to spark overlapping yet distinct reflections to those we articulated in New York. Just one of many possible examples: where our last post in the U.S. focused on the lethal injection — written by Death Row exoneree Ricky Jackson — the conversation has shifted in Dublin to the sensitivities and politics of the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution.

Initiating a discussion with our valued colleagues at Science Gallery Dublin — former CEO of Science Gallery International Michael John Gorman in the early stages, and then Director Lynn Scarff, Programme Manager Ian Brunswick, and Exhibitions Producer Aisling Murray — was like sitting down at a table among old friends. Indeed, Michael John and Paola have known each other for a very long time — ever since MoMA’s first foray into design and science with the exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind in 2008 — and Paola greatly respects and trusts his vision for the intersection of contemporary design, science, and technology and the track record of boundary-crossing exhibitions at Science Gallery Dublin and beyond. Adding Ralph Borland to the mix — a designer whose work has been held within MoMA’s own collection since 2006 — as the external curator for this presentation of DESIGN AND VIOLENCE at Science Gallery Dublin made great sense given the longstanding relationship he has had with both of our institutions. The regular conversations between our teams over the past year, led here at MoMA by Michelle Millar Fisher, have resulted in a thoughtful translation and augmentation of the original project. When colleagues know each other well — and we do, even more so after this adventure — dialogue can immediately become frank and deep, which allows partners to fruitfully challenge each other’s established ideas and preconceptions. In his parsing of violence along semiotic, systematic, and spectacular lines, Ralph has widened the definition of design that we at MoMA started out with. The Science Gallery Dublin team has retained several of the works from MoMA’s exhibition, and brought them into orbit with a new constellation of objects. In doing so, they have forged perspectives on the intersection of our material culture with our capacity for sometimes terrible but often quite mundane forms of violence. Most importantly, this new manifestation of DESIGN AND VIOLENCE has opened up the conversation to audiences far beyond those originally imagined. The intention of this experiment, in New York, in Dublin, and in any future locale and incarnation, is not to glorify or spectacularise violence, nor to engage in voyeurism or didacticism, but to place these quotidian, theatrical, systemic, and hidden relationships between design and violence into new relief. Science Gallery Dublin also has an amazing record of lively conversation through public engagement with their exhibition visitors. We look forward to the opinions, questions, and actions that will ensue.

About Paola Antonelli

Paola Antonelli’s work investigates design’s influence on everyday experience, often including overlooked objects and practices, and combining design, architecture, art, science and technology. She is a Senior Curator at The Museum of Modern Art in the Department of Architecture & Design, as well as MoMA’s founding Director of Research & Development. She has curated numerous shows, lectured worldwide, and continues to serve on international architecture and design juries. She has taught at the University of California, Los Angeles; the Harvard Graduate School of Design; and the MFA programs of the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Antonelli is the author of many books, including the exhibition catalogs for Design and the Elastic Mind (2008); Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects (2011); and Design and Violence (2015). She is currently working on the exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern? which opens in October 2017 at MoMA.

About Jamer Hunt

Jamer Hunt collaboratively designs open and flexible programs for participation that respond to emergent cultural conditions. He is the Vice Provost for Transdisciplinary Initiatives at The New School, where he was founding director (2009-2015) of the graduate program in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons School of Design. He is also Visiting Design Researcher at the Institute of Design in Umea, Sweden. With Paola Antonelli at the MoMA he was co-creator of the award-winning, curatorial experiment and book Design and Violence (2015), as well as collaborating on the HeadSpace: On Scent as Design and The Design and the Elastic Mind symposia. He has written for Fast Company and The Huffington Post, and he is currently completing a book manuscript on scale, complex systems, and the unruliness of everyday experiences.