Design Exhibitions Today – Answers and Questions

This piece appears in Disegno magazine, 7, 2014.


Design museums and galleries have long been in the business of celebrating things. Walk through the ornate doors of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London or into the airy lobby of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the building itself tells you – prepare to be impressed. Originality, beauty, and genius have been the bywords of the expert curators who selected and arranged the exhibits. But these lofty criteria start to look shaky in the face of the conditions shaping design today. Globalization, open source knowledge, interactivity, post-Fordism, biotechnology 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 established techniques and 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 American law student released the files for the boorishly-named ‘Liberator Pistol’ in May 2013, he triggered a media storm around the world. Journalists queued up to interview the 26-year old who obligingly pointed the bulky barrel of his plastic pistol at the lens of press photographers when asked. Wilson also caught the attention of the US state department and was forced to take the files down from his website, Defense Distributed. But this was itself a kind of achievement. Wilson had demonstrated the dark potential of 3D-printing, a technology which is usually celebrated in ringing terms. ‘The first time I heard about it, my jaw dropped’, recalls Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA in New York, ‘I always think that anything that happens in design and technology is for the public good. Duh – no! … That was a wake-up call.’

Antonelli reports that Wilson’s gun was one of the impetuses for her latest curatorial experiment, ‘Design and Violence’. Brilliant seismographs of contemporary design, Antonelli’s MoMA shows – including ‘Design and the Elastic Mind’ (2008) and ‘Talk to Me’ (2011) – have measured the reverberations of new and prospective technologies on the world. ‘Design and Violence’ began its life as a proposal for a show too, but it soon became clear to her and her collaborator, Jamer Hunt from the Parsons School, that an on-line format would be more suited to the theme. Launched earlier this year as a MoMA microsite, ‘Design and Violence’ explores the role of design in the physical and psychological repression of others, as well as in devices to mitigate its effects. Prisons, hand cuffs, handguns, sound cannons and slaughter houses all feature, accompanied with extended captions. A lightly customized WordPress site, ‘Design and Violence’ has a matter-of-fact appearance. She calls it ‘a grass-roots work of love, but done through MoMA channels.’

The website format extends the reach of ‘Design and Violence’ far beyond MoMA’s usual audiences (which, Antonelli modestly says, often ‘stumble’ into design shows ‘on the way to see the Picassos’). It also allows for disputation too. ‘We realized 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 of violence .. to talk about these objects, to use these objects as prompts.’ Disputation does not simply mean ad hoc feedback: it has been structured into the site. Antonelli has invited an extraordinary cast of commentators to offer reflections on the systems, buildings and objects of designed violence. They include a neuroscientist, science fiction writer, a UN High Commissioner for Refugees and an army officer – all experts of violence in one way or another. Their opinions and knowledge is what stops this project being a form of virtual tourism into the misery of others (or, for that matter, just an online forum). Nor are they champions of the designs in the site. Invited to write about ‘The Republic of Salivation,’ a 2012 work by Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta which imagines a Soylent Green world of food shortage and state-controlled nutrition, critic John Thackara takes 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 which hangs heavy in the gallery puts a limit on on the kind of criticality and self-reflexivity which themes like ‘Design and Violence’ require. After all, MoMA – founded in 1929 – still sets itself the task of advocating for the new. Museums also struggle to find coherent ways of reflecting differing viewpoints in their galleries, let alone dialogue. Antonelli concurs, ‘At MoMA I might have a hard time doing an exhibition about negatives or at least ugliness, but with a website you can really go back and forth’.

Cody Wilson’s 3D-printed gun was also one of the first objects to join the V&A’s Rapid Response Collection. Launched in July 2014 by Kieran Long, a curator who joined the museum to focus its approach to contemporary design after working as an architecture and design journalist, the Rapid Response Collection expedites the slow process by which contemporary objects are acquired by the institution. Criteria like ‘beauty’ and ‘rarity’ are not necessarily important when selecting topical designs. They include Christian Louboutin ‘nude’ shoes in an all-embracing range of skin tones; Flappy Bird, the smart phone game which was withdrawn by its designer after being perturbed by its addictive effects; and stainless steel spikes manufactured in Ireland and installed on the forecourts of buildings to deter rough sleepers. The new gallery has attracted considerable international attention. On the day I visit, one of his team is about to be interviewed by a US radio station. ‘The striking thing about the interest we’ve had’, say Long, ‘is that it feels like people have been waiting – including the design community – for a major design institution to come along and take the obvious things seriously and offer them up as evidence of how we live.’

Installed in a V&A gallery, the Rapid Response Collection emphasizes its topicality, not least by the display of at least one new object each month. This also means putting expiration dates on current exhibits too. Many owe their fame to the whirlwind effects of social media too. 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. 180,000 people signed a change-org petition, forcing their removal from the upmarket apartment building. When being confronted with exhibits like these, it is clear that things are not discrete objects that can ‘speak for the themselves’- they are tangled up in the economic, media and social systems which crisscross the globe.

One of Long’s first contributions to life at the V&A was to write – with other colleagues – ’95 Theses’ about how museums ought to approach their role in the twenty-first century. A knowing echo of Martin Luther’s attack on the Catholic Church in 1517 which kick-started the Protestant Reformation, Long set out to prompt self-reflection on the part of the V&A – a monumental institution with more than 2.5 million objects in its collections and 800 members of staff, many of whom are world-leading specialists in their fields. Rapid Response Collecting is a demonstration of a good number 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 and sinister objects demand the museum’s attention just as much as beautiful and beneficial ones do.’

One of the curatorial challenges facing Long and his team is that some of the most newsworthy objects are often the most banal. They have put a pair of cotton twill cargo pants – still bearing a Primark shop tag – on display in a glass vitrine. This garment typifies the the cheap clothing which was being made in a reinforced-concrete maze of sweatshops which collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1129 people in April 2013. 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 in the rest of world. Yet the display – with a long caption written in a cool, dispassionate tone and a photograph of the ruined factory – does not proselytize. This is the traditional 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 twentieth century ‘design icons’ next door. Surely many of these things have sinister histories too?

Rapid Response Collecting is one response to a problem which has long confronted curators of contemporary design. 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 museums and galleries around the world too. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam mounted a Marcel Wanders retrospective earlier in the year to mark the twenty-five year career of the Dutch designer. Oversize versions of his lamps and furniture, like props in some kind of postmodern update of Gulliver’s Travels, were accompanied by footage of a nude model garlanded with clouds – a human lampshade – and a dreamy musical soundscape. Jan Boelen, one of the most creative and thoughtful curators of design exhibitions in recent years, does not pull his punches when reflecting on this order of high aestheticism: ‘It is probably one of the worst design exhibitions that you could imagine at the moment because the goal and the place of the art gallery is to discuss, to debate and to educate. But what I saw there was a non-critical promotion of his works.’ The fact that Wanders has pumped-up or revamped his celebrated designs does little to impress Boelen: ‘I wouldn’t be able see a chair in gold or with laid-in diamonds [elsewhere]. But what is the value of that?’

Boelen has spent the last few years making Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium, into one of liveliest centres of contemporary art and design in Europe. Often combining art and design, Boelen is not much interested in the difference between the two: ‘The medium or the discipline is not that important,’ he says, ‘Topics are.’ At Z33 this has often meant social and ethical issues which ensue from developments in science and technology. ‘The Machine’ in 2012 exhibited many cautionary tools and instruments, most made by designers rather than engineers. Their interest in 3-D Printing and the hacking of mass produced goods was made all the more poignant by the postindustrial setting in which they were exhibited, a cultural centre in the buildings of a former mine in Genk.

A number of Z33 shows have formed a stage for speculation and design fictions. But perhaps more importantly, Z33 – like many contemporary art centres – has made a ‘performative turn’. In the last decade or so, the exhibition has been reimagined as a fluid and participatory affair in which the exhibits are not necessarily fixed or finished and audiences are imagined as participants or co-curators rather than viewers. Increasingly, curators want their shows to be busy places filled with people and exhibits doing things. A 2010 ‘Design by Performance’ at Z33 audited performances as well shape-shifting and self-generating objects created in the previous decade by designers like Martino, Gamper, Tjep, Studio Glithero and Jurgen Bey. And, at the beginning of 2013, a visit to Z33 involved a welcome from a performer-invigilator who would share stories of ordinary objects in the gallery or even the possessions in the visitor’s pocket. Conceived by London-based graphic design collective Åbäke, ‘All the Knives (Any printed story on request)’ turned the gallery into a living anthology of stories about things. In this case, there are clearly echoes of the techniques employed by artist Tino Sehgal in his ‘constructed situations’ and employment of ‘interpreters’ to talk one-to-one with visitors in galleries and museums. Are Abake indebted to Sehgal? Perhaps so. But the fact that this is an experimental technique – and, as such adaptable and reusable – is more important than originality. In fact, this summer Hans Ulbrich Obrist, the curator of the Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, worked with Sehgal to present original plans and models of Cedric Price’s unbuilt Fun Palace scheme (1960-1) as well as material from the archive of Swiss sociologist and art historian Lucius Burckhardt. Well cast and well informed students from architecture schools bring this material on trolleys to visitors and present it in person. There are no spotlights, blown-up text panels, interactive screens or any other conventional exhibition paraphernalia. The qualities that distinguishes the Swiss Pavilion from the encounters with architecture and design in most galleries and museums, according to V&A curator Long, are its ‘intimacy’ and ‘generosity’.

A Z33 project might take the form of a performance, a concert or, of course, a website. ‘We do the research and then find the right medium’, Boelen says. Moreover, launching a website to generate and share new knowledge last year, Z33 staked a new claim to be a research-based institution – more like a think tank than just a gallery. There is little new, of course, about on-line publication, but it means that the themes of a Z33 exhibition can be sustained long after the exhibits have been packed away. ‘I am trying to put things on the agenda,’ says Boelen. ‘Let me give one example where one can feel that things are happening: in April 2012 I made “The Machine” exhibition which referred to the new industrial revolution. It ran through out 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 this might seem 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 should not only act as an awareness machine but they should also 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 Boelen, as well as Antonelli at MoMA and Long at the V&A, not only have to shape new kinds of exhibitions; they need to gather new kind of audiences too. A few years ago, French philosopher Bruno Latour called this dingpolitik – the politics of things. Things are of common interest even and perhaps because they are often the focus of disagreement. The challenge of 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. Comparing Parliament Square in London where UK government has banned protest since 2005 and the V&A’s Porter Gallery where a show on ‘Disobedient Objects’ employed in protests around the world is on display, he says ‘Those two things are continuous. Both are part of the public funded, public realm … I don’t see the things here [in the V&A] as being outside the world; they are just in a different part of the part of the public realm.’ And, as he stresses, that recognition of the Museum as a public realm has special importance when that order of space is diminishing – sometimes for political reasons (as in the case of Parliament Square) and sometimes for economic ones. Britain, as he points out, has seen a massive wave closures of libraries whilst 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 containing the Raphael Cartoons. Originally designs for tapestries in the Sistine Chapel, the site of the Papal Elections, they are now on loan from the Queen. Here one of the ‘95 theses’, that ‘Museums should provide a setting for democratic encounter’, may well be realized in a literal and provocative way.

Making things truly public – the challenge issued by Latour – means many things. Perhaps more than ever, it requires the kind of 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 which allow for exchange with their audiences too. None of the techniques employed by these design curators is a perfect solution to the task: on-line exhibitions forego the encounter with material things whilst the intimate interpretation in-situ are no doubt costly. But perhaps the idea of a solution – a word which once occupied a central place in the professional vocabulary of designers – is itself a distraction. Contingent, responsive and often provisional, their shows don’t pretend to have all the answers.


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