Rapid Response Collecting at the V&A


8 July 2014

The Rapid Response Collecting Gallery is a new addition to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. As the name suggests, the new exhibit is a collection of objects assembled with some speed. These are objects collected in response to the “right here, right now” as the exhibition’s curator Corinna Gardner puts it.

The exhibit has been one and a half years in the making – a relatively short period for the V&A – and is the brainchild of the museum’s new contemporary team, headed up by former architecture critic and Architectural Review editor Kieran Long. But the objects shown in this modest display, located in the midst of the museum's 20th and 21st century galleries, are not of the kind that V&A has a history of collecting.

There are carbon fibre lift cables by Kone and Katy Perry false eyelashes. The most recent acquisition are the so-called “anti-homeless spikes”, architectural deterrents that recently trended on Twitter. The idea of the collection is that it will respond to global events and encourage visitors to engage with the role that fashion, design and architecture play in current issues. It is not a display intended to glorify designers. Many of its constituent objects are in fact “designer-less”.

It represents a new model of collecting for a major institution dedicated to design. Yet while the model has not been trialled elsewhere to this degree, it does have forebears. When Paola Antonelli acquired the @ sign for MoMA in New York in 2010 it was a move met by some surprise, but the V&A's recent acquisitions continues that same curatorial spirit – commenting and reflecting on society, and giving a snapshot of contemporary concerns.

At the opening of the exhibition to the public last week Disegno spoke to the exhibition’s curator Corinna Gardner about the contemporary department's new initiative and the future of rapid response collecting.

Sections of the carbon fibre lift cable Kone UltraRope, by Kone Corporation IMAGE V&A

How does the Rapid Response collection fit into an institution like the V&A?

For us rapid response is about looking outwards. It’s about looking at the objects that you might be wearing or reading about in the press and it’s about thinking more broadly about the design world. Our curatorial approach runs slightly counter to the more traditional one, which is about waiting and seeing how something gains significance over time. For us it’s about looking at the right here and right now. There are many people here at the V&A and in many other institutions who are interested in explaining what a professional designer does. We are interested in telling people about the world through what designers do. But we are interested in anonymous things as well. Also, many things in this museum are about the home, but we are very much about looking beyond the home. There is a wider civic interest here. We often say that we would like to call ourselves the Department of Public Life.

Can you give an example of how this interest is demonstrated in this particular collection?

One of our most recent objects entered the museum on Wednesday. It’s a series of stainless steel studs that many will know by the name they gained on Twitter – "anti-homeless spikes". These are objects of design that are about the securitisation of our cities and also about our changing understanding of what public space is and who forms a part of the public. But isn't a homeless person also part of the public? These inventions are not new, but they have recently touched a live wire. We look at how the public reacts to them and what’s important about them.

The soft toy wolf Lufsig, designed for and manufactured by Ikea IMAGE V&A

Another object that has reached the public consciousness through these types of news channels is an Ikea soft toy, which is also in the collection. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?

The Ikea soft toy was launched as part of Ikea Foundation’s soft toys for education campaign. I spent some time in southern China last year and became very interested in what was happening there. On 7 December 2013 this soft toy, Lufsig, as Ikea named him, was thrown at Hong Kong's governor Leung Chun-Ying in political protest and it became a very powerful point of political discontent. The toy sold out in the Hong Kong Ikea stores within three days and he got his own Facebook page. This toy became of interest to us then. Some would argue that this is a passing interest, but in the short time that we have had that object here I would argue that its meaning has become ever stronger. As the Ikea stores in Hong Kong were restocked in January people formed queues to buy this toy. As a consumer it's important to know the wider polictical context of this toy. It shapes how we think about the world and how we relate to it.

You mention the ephemeral nature of some of these objects, the fact that they stir emotion at certain periods of time, but that same meaning might not exist within these object in a year or two years from now. How do you decide on what to acquire and what will have that longevity in terms of meaning?

We have to not be afraid of failure, but those tensions around contemporary acquisitions are ever present. We work in an institution that used to have a 50-year rule – that we couldn’t acquire anything that was less than 50 years old. Some may say that the risk is higher when we’re acquiring things that are inexpensive, but I think there's risk if you are acquiring a high-end piece of furniture from Basel or Miami too. Where the risk lies is maybe slightly different, but who knows whether that sort of piece is going to have a longevity or not either? Those concerns are correct and I think we all share those. We are hyper-conscious of what we acquire and we have to make a convincing case for why something is an important object of design and how it relates to the wider collection at the V&A; why we think it's appropriate for our curatorial discipline.

A Motorola WT41N0 wearable terminal, designed and manufactured by Motorola Solutions IMAGE V&A

So how does these objects connect with the wider collection and do you make that explicit to the visitor? Is there a way of looking and thinking about these things that connects to other things on display at the V&A?

So for example we have a wrist-worn computer here as used by the workers in big warehouses, which is really about the future of work. It relates to scientific studies and Taylorism for example. And of course we also have the Frankfurt kitchen here in the museum, which also spoke about efficiency in the workplace. In the case of the Frankfurt kitchen that was related to the housewife and with the computer it’s the warehouse worker. The housewife was an important figure in the early 20th century and now online next-day delivery is a part of daily life. You can draw lines across that and that’s what we’re so excited about. But we’re not here to tell people what to think about globalisation or the rights and wrongs of mass manufacturer. Its about giving out facts and allowing people to think about the wider world.

So where will these items live within the collection proper when they’re not on display here?

We are working towards a collections designation, so that every object here becomes part of the CD number. But that’s not to say that they are ours and that we will defend them fiercely. An object might be stored with the other shoes or the other metalwork in the museum if that’s the best keeping of that particular object.

The Fifi pump in five nude shades, designed by Christian Louboutin IMAGE V&A

Tell me about the range of Christian Loboutin shoes on display. It looks slightly out of theme with the other objects here that aren’t so much about a brand or a specific designer.

This is a range of shoes launched by Christian Louboutin last autumn called the nudes collection. It broke the dominance of the idea that the colour nude within fashion is just one specific colour. Crayola changed its flesh coloured crayons to peach in 1953, but interestingly Pantone still has a nude tone. But for us this is something about a changing world economy. Rising personal income means that women of different ethnicities from different places in the world are now in a position where they can afford a £500 pair of shoes. There are other ways in which this story can be accessed through a design narrative too. The mannequin arms on which the shoes are displayed were developed by Louboutin to display the collection. In certain parts of the world, the display of particular body parts is problematic, but arms don’t have that issue. So the display of different skin tones is key to the product. Also the app that accompanies the shoes is really interesting. It’s frivolous and wonderful – you can take a picture of your skin and match it to one of these skintones. This is Loubutin’s team thinking about how they sell things today. Asia is a massive market for them and China is one of the most mobile-connected communities. Luxury brands are realising that they need to meet those desires. These shoes are telling you about changes in the global fashion markets.

Earlier you mentioned Basel and Miami in terms of places to look at contemporary design. Milan and its furniture fair is also a fairly common place to research new design, but where do you go to find the pieces that you want to include in this collection?

I suppose it’s about having our nose or ear to the ground. Again, I hope that this will evolve. We are all very connected within our fields, but I’m politically minded and socially engaged, so these things do come to my attention. Sometimes there are press stories that bring these things to our attention, such as the absolute tragedy of the Rana Plaza factory disaster, which was widely publicised. As a national collection of textiles and fashion we couldn’t ignore the most devastating accident in the garment industry in recent decades. We represented it by a pair of cargo trousers from Primark, which were manufactured there. So things naturally crop up. What is also heartening is that we have already had suggestion by people who come and see the collection. The more people learn about rapid response, the more I hope we get. But doesn’t mean that we don’t apply the same rigour to those acquisitions.