Chaos at the Museum

16 December 2014

Beauty and craftsmanship are the standards by which their collections are traditionally built, but a number of design museums and galleries are widening their scope to include the ugly, dangerous and throwaway.

Design museums and galleries have long been in the business of celebrating things. Walk through the ornate doors of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), or into the airy Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) lobby in New York, and the building itself says – prepare to be impressed. Originality, beauty and ingenuity have long been the bywords of the curators who select and arrange exhibits – lofty criteria that start to look shaky in the face of the conditions shaping design today. Open-source knowledge, globalisation, interactivity, biotechnology, post-Fordism and other unsettling phenomena are changing the practice and role of design, and not always in ways that are unequivocally good. The question facing curators is whether or not established methods of exhibiting contemporary design are up to the task. Does the design exhibition need a redesign?

Consider the furore over Cody Wilson’s 3D-printed gun. When the Texas law student released the files for his boorishly-named Liberator pistol in May 2013, he triggered a media storm around the world. Journalists queued up to interview the 25-year-old, who obligingly pointed his plastic pistol’s bulky barrel at the lenses of press photographers. Wilson also caught the attention of the US State Department and was forced to remove the files from his website Defense Distributed (defdist.org). But this was itself a kind of achievement. Wilson had demonstrated the dark potential of 3D printing, a technology usually celebrated in ringing terms. “The first time I heard about it, my jaw dropped,” recalls Paola Antonelli, senior architecture and design curator at MoMA. “I always think anything that happens in design and technology is for the public good. Duh, no! That was a wake-up call.”

Antonelli says Wilson’s gun was one of the impetuses for her latest curatorial experiment, Design and Violence. Brilliant seismographs of contemporary design, Antonelli’s previous MoMA shows – like Design and the Elastic Mind (2008) – measured the reverberations of new or prospective technologies on the world. Design and Violence, too, began its life as a proposal for a show, but it soon became clear to Antonelli and her collaborator Jamer Hunt, a design academic at Parsons The New School for Design, that an online format would better suit their theme. Launched earlier this year as a MoMA microsite (designandviolence.moma.org), it explores design’s role in the physical and psychological repression of others, and in devices to mitigate its effects. Prisons, handguns, hand cuffs, sound cannons and slaughter houses all feature. A lightly customised Wordpress site, Design and Violence has a matter-of-fact appearance. Antonelli describes it as “a grassroots work of love, but done through MoMA channels.”

The website format extends Design and Violence’s reach far beyond MoMA’s usual audiences and it also allows for disputation. “We realised that an exhibition would not do,” she says, “because an exhibition is often a one-way street, even if you let people participate. We decided to make a website through which we would ask people who are experts in violence to talk about these objects; to use them as prompts.” Disputation does not simply mean ad hoc feedback: it has been structured into the site. Antonelli has invited an extraordinary cast to offer their reflections on the systems, buildings and objects of designed violence: a neuroscientist, a science-fiction writer, a UN high commissioner for refugees and an army officer – all experts on violence in one way or another. Their opinions and knowledge are what stops this project becoming a form of virtual tourism of the misery of others (or, for that matter, just an online forum). Nor are they champions of the designs featured on the site. Invited to write about Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta’s 2012 work Republic of Salivation, which imagines a Soylent Green world of food shortage and state-controlled nutrition, critic John Thackara took the two speculative designers to task for exhibiting “no curiosity as to the causes of this imminent threat. They focus, instead, on ways to change the body so that it can be fed synthetically, a solution that contrives to be both downstream and fantastical at the same time.”

When it comes to focusing critically on such troubling objects, do websites have an advantage over galleries? Perhaps the aura of exceptionality and enlightenment hanging heavy in the gallery limits the kind of criticality and self-reflection required by themes like Design and Violence. After all, MoMA, founded in 1929, still tasks itself with advocating for the new. Museums struggle to find coherent ways of reflecting differing viewpoints in their galleries, let alone dialogue. Antonelli concurs: “I might have a hard time doing an exhibition about negatives or at least ugliness [at MoMA], but with a website you can really go back and forth.”

While MoMA won’t collect the artefact, one London institution caused a big furore when they did. Cody Wilson’s 3D-printed gun was one of the first objects to join the V&A’s Rapid Response Collection in September 2013, before Design and Violence had even launched. The Rapid Response collection is the brainchild of the V&A’s new contemporary team led by Kieran Long, a curator who joined the museum to focus its approach to contemporary design after working as an architecture and design journalist. Rapid Response expedites the slow process by which objects are acquired. Criteria like beauty and rarity are not necessarily vital when selecting topical designs: Christian Louboutin Les Nudes shoes in an all-embracing range of skin tones; Flappy Bird, the smartphone game withdrawn by its designer, perturbed by its addictive effects; and steel spikes manufactured in Ireland and installed in building forecourts to deter rough sleepers. The new gallery has attracted considerable international media attention. “The striking thing about the interest we’ve had,” Long says, “is that it feels like people – including the design community – have been waiting for a major design institution to come along and take obvious things seriously, and offer them up as evidence of how we live.”

Installed in a V&A gallery, the Rapid Response Collection emphasises its topicality, not least by the display of at least one new object each month. This means putting expiration dates on current exhibits too, and many owe their fame to social media’s whirlwind effects. The mean-spirited spikes were not new but, after a photograph of the entrance to a luxury block in London was tweeted, they were thrust into the public eye
by a tremendous wave of anger. A subsequent change.org petition attracted 180,000 signatures, forcing the spikes’ removal. When confronted with exhibits like these, it’s clear these things are not simply discrete objects that can speak for themselves – they’re tangled up in the economic, media and social systems crisscrossing the globe.

One of Long’s first contributions to life at the V&A was to write – with colleagues – 95 Theses, a Dezeen article about how museums ought to approach their role in the 21st century. A knowing echo of Martin Luther’s 1517 attack on the Catholic Church that started the Protestant Reformation, Long set out to prompt self-reflection on the part of the V&A – a monumental institution with more than 2.5m objects in its collections and 800 staff members, many world-leading specialists in their fields. Rapid Response collecting demonstrates many of Long’s theses – including the proposition that “Museum curators have as much in common with investigative journalists as they do with university academics,” and that “Ugly, sinister objects demand the museum’s attention just as much as beautiful and beneficial ones.”

One of the curatorial challenges facing Long and his team is that the most newsworthy objects are often the most banal. They have put a pair of cotton-twill cargo pants – still bearing a Primark tag – on display in a vitrine. The garment typifies the cheap clothing being made in a reinforced- concrete maze of sweatshops that collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh in April 2013, killing 1,129 people. There is – as we can no longer ignore – a clear connection between cheap clothing consumed in the global north and the plight of low-paid workers elsewhere. Yet the display – with a long caption written in a cool, dispassionate tone and a photograph of the ruined factory – does not proselytise. This is the old code of journalism – truthfulness, accuracy and objectivity – translated into a curatorial strategy. Such candour, however, makes one wonder about the rest of the objects in the museum, not least the upbeat collection of 20th-century “design icons” next door. Surely many of these things have sinister histories too?

Rapid Response collecting is one response to a problem that has long confronted curators: if an object is mass-produced, heavily promoted or widely available, why put it on a plinth? Perhaps this quandary also explains the appearance of rather extravagant forms of one-off designs in institutions around the world. In February 2014, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam mounted a retrospective to celebrate Dutch designer Marcel Wanders’ 25-year career. Oversize versions of his lamps and furniture, like props in a postmodern Gulliver’s Travels update, were accompanied by footage of a nude model garlanded with clouds – a human lampshade – and a dreamy musical soundscape.

Jan Boelen, director of Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium, does not pull punches when reflecting on this order of high aestheticism: “It’s probably one of the worst design exhibitions you could imagine at the moment, because the goal and the place of the art gallery is to discuss, debate and educate. But what I saw was a non-critical promotion of his work,” he says. The fact that Wanders has pumped-up or revamped his celebrated designs did little to impress Boelen: “I wouldn’t be able to see a chair in gold or with laid-in diamonds elsewhere. But what’s the value of that?”

Z33 is a centre of contemporary art and design and Boelen shows little interest in the difference between the two disciplines. “The medium is not that important,” he says. “Topics are.” At Z33 this has often meant exploring the social and ethical issues that arise from developments in science and technology. The 2012 exhibition The Machine showed cautionary tools and instruments, most made by designers rather than engineers. These designers’ interest in 3D printing and the hacking of mass-produced goods was made all the more poignant by the postindustrial setting in which the works were exhibited – a cultural centre in former mine buildings in Genk.

A number of Z33 shows have been stages for speculation and design fictions, yet the institute – like many other contemporary art centres – has, more importantly, also made a “performative turn”. In the last decade or so, institutes have begun to reimagine exhibitions as fluid and participatory affairs. Exhibits aren’t necessarily fixed or finished, and audiences are imagined as participants or co-curators rather than viewers.

Increasingly, curators want shows to be busy places filled with people and exhibits doing things. For instance, Design by Performance at Z33 in 2010 examined performances and processes, as well as shape- shifting and self-generating objects created in the previous decade by designers such as Martino Gamper, Glithero and Tjep. Then, in early 2013, a visit to Z33 involved a welcome from a performer- invigilator who would share stories about ordinary objects in the gallery or even those found in visitors’ pockets. Conceived by London design collective Åbäke, All the Knives (Any Printed Story on Request) turned the gallery into a living anthology of stories about things. The project had clear echoes of techniques employed by British-German artist Tino Sehgal, who has employed “interpreters” to talk one-to-one with gallery visitors. Is Åbäke indebted to Sehgal? Perhaps. But it is an experimental technique, adaptable and reusable.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator of the Swiss Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, worked with Sehgal this summer to present original plans and models of British architect Cedric Price’s unbuilt Fun Palace scheme (1960-61) and material from the archive of Swiss sociologist and art historian Lucius Burckhardt. Architecture students bring the material to the pavilion on trolleys and present it in person to visitors. There are no spotlights, blown-up text panels, interactive screens or any other conventional exhibition paraphernalia. The qualities that distinguish the Swiss Pavilion from the encounters with architecture and design in most spaces, according to V&A curator Kieran Long, are its “intimacy and generosity”.

A Z33 project might take the form of a performance, concert or, of course, website. “We do the research and then find the right medium,” says Boelen. Launching a website last year to generate and share knowledge further bolstered Z33’s claim to be as much a research think tank as a gallery. There is little new about online publication, but it means the themes of Z33 exhibitions can be sustained long after the physical exhibits are packed away.
“I am trying to put things on the agenda,” says Boelen. “Let me give one example where it feels like things are happening: The Machine exhibition referred to the new industrial revolution, it ran throughout the summer and six weeks after the exhibition closed, 10,000 people here in the region lost their jobs when the Ford car factory closed down. I did not want to address the matter of the post-Fordist society too directly, because it might be insulting to those people. But we, as exhibition makers, as curators, as institutes, have to address what is happening globally, and to link that to the local situation. These exhibitions shouldn’t only act as an awareness machine, they should give inspiration and hope. Critique is too easy – it is important to formulate alternatives. Constructive debate is very important.”

In their efforts to set new agendas for design, Jan Boelen, Paola Antonelli and Kieran Long not only have to shape new kinds of exhibitions, they need to gather new kinds of audiences too. French philosopher Bruno Latour calls this dingpolitik – the politics of things. Things are of common interest even if, and perhaps because, they are often the focus of disagreement. The challenge for curators or critics is to create assemblies where our common interests can be aired and negotiated.

Long has an interesting proposition when it comes to thinking about the V&A’s public role; he compares Parliament Square in London, where the UK government has banned protest since 2005, and the V&A’s Porter Gallery, where a show titled Disobedient Objects, about designs employed in protests around the world, is now on display. “Those two things are continuous,” he says. “Both are part of the public-funded public realm. I don’t see the things here [in the V&A] as being outside that world; they are just in a different part of the public realm.” As Long stresses, recognition of museums as a public realm has special importance when that order of space is generally diminishing – for either political (as in the case of Parliament Square) or economic reasons.

Britain, as he points out, has seen a massive wave of library closures, while the V&A survives and is even expanding. For All of This Belongs to You, an exhibition planned for spring 2015 when the next UK General Election is scheduled, Long is hoping to persuade the authorities to erect a functioning voting station in the gallery at the V&A that contains the Raphael Cartoons. Originally designs for tapestries in the Sistine Chapel, the site of the Papal Elections, the cartoons are now on loan from the Queen. Here, one of Long’s 95 theses, that “Museums should provide a setting for democratic encounter”, may well be realised in a literal and provocative way.

Making things truly public – the challenge issued by Latour – means many things. Perhaps more than ever, it requires sharp-eyed, enquiring and intelligent curators who act as editors, collecting and exhibiting things on our behalf. But it also means developing and employing exhibition techniques that allow for exchange with the audience. None of the techniques employed by these design curators are a perfect solution to the task: online exhibitions forego encounters with material things, while intimate interpretation in situ is, no doubt, costly. But perhaps the idea of a solution – a word, which once occupied a central place in designers’ professional vocabulary – is itself distraction. Contingent, responsive and often provisional, exhibitions should not pretend to have all the answers.