Paola Antonelli is senior curator of architecture and design, and director of research and development, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. She is on a mission to introduce—and explain—design to the world. In 2015, she was recognized with an AIGA Medal for “expanding the influence of design in everyday life by sharing fresh and incisive observations and curating provocative exhibitions at MoMA.” Antonelli has been rated one of the 100 most powerful people in the world of art by Art Review and Surface Magazine, and one of the 25 most incisive design visionaries by Time Magazine. Daniel Pittman interviewed Antonelli in New York on behalf of LA+ Journal.
“LA+ in Conversation with Paola Antonelli,” LA+ Journal, No. 9, spring 2019
I am intrigued by your statement, “It is important to stay relevant and to look to museums as the R&D of society.” What kind of R&D does MoMA do?
With R&D, one of the initiatives that was started right away were the salons. We’ve had 23 of them, and they have covered topics ranging from culture and metrics, to taboos, death, truth, and the changed role of the objects in the world today. These themes are at the same time philosophical and very real in the sense that they are central and important to every human being.
We are exploring the role of museums as engaged in helping society and citizens deal with important matters in their life, by offering art as a place for experimenting, thinking, and having discussions at a more active and inspiring level. That’s the kind of research that MoMA does. It’s research about the human dimension, the human condition. That’s what artists really do, too. They explore and dig deep into our nature, warts and all, and help us understand it so that we can build a more human and humane future.
You have spoken of your curatorial stance having to evolve with technological change. What kinds of technological change are you currently interested in and why?
I’ve always been interested in technology; I got my degree in architecture from a polytechnic, so I was very close to people in the engineering department. I believe that technology is the foundation that gives the reality check, spice, and true sense of possibility to architecture and design. The difference between design and art is that design has to be reality based – even when it’s speculative, it always emanates from reality.
I’ve always loved the grounding of technology, and I believe that design is the enzyme that makes innovation happen. Scientific revolutions, historical upheavals, and technological discoveries would not become part of our lives without designers. Designers are the ones that can take the internet when it’s still lines of code and give it an interface that makes it usable by everyone. Designers are the ones that take innovations like AR [augmented reality], or even something like microwaves, and create objects that make the technology usable. Of course, they collaborate with engineers all the time, but the last step, the last connection is made by the designers; so, technology and design go hand in hand.
Augmented reality interests me – I like the fact that it doesn’t detach you completely from reality. I’m also very much interested in 3-D printing, but not just as an artistic medium. Rather, I’m interested in the kind of 3-D printing that can also be achieved with biological materials. I’m interested in the wet revolution. I’m interested in how biology is front and center in the world of engineering and of design right now. I’m working on a new project that is called “Broken Nature” for the next Triennale di Milano. It’s based on the idea of restorative design – design that tries to reconnect some of the severed threads that we have with nature at all scales. There’s a lot of biodesign in it.
Do you see a continuity or consistency in how you treat these different technologies or does each create their own opportunities?
I work with a general theory of design that I apply to different fields. For example, I think of bio-bricks and code as the same kinds of tools as real bricks. Even though the theory and the approach might be the same, the outcome is different because the potential that these tools offer are completely different. Good design happens when you set goals and then use the means at your disposal in an economical, efficient, and elegant—even formally elegant—way. Though the realms are different, and the goals might be different, the way I evaluate design is always the same. How did you get to the goal that you set out for us, and does this goal add something to the world?
It might seem very theoretical, but if you go through some examples, you realize that it is a quite sensible set of criteria that can be used by every human being. I believe that my role as a curator is not to tell people what is good or bad, but rather to help them fine-tune their own critical tools.
You mentioned the wet revolution and biodesign earlier; is designing life the next frontier? Should we be reassured, or should we be afraid?
I don’t think there’s anything reassuring, no. It is exciting, and it’s also fearful. I had a very strange experience a few years ago when I realized that design is not all for good. It can be for evil too. When I heard about the 3-D printed gun, I experienced a flow of emotions that went from being stunned to being angry at myself for being stunned, because, of course, whenever you do something, it can be used one way or the other.
The same happens with biodesign. There’s something amazing about biodesign when it comes to ethics. It posits very deep questions, and it puts you as a human being in a state of crisis. It can provoke questions as simple as asking vegetarians if they would eat meat grown in vitro, delicious, normal-tasting meat, but harvested without touching an animal. I had a similar experience in 2008 when I did an exhibition called “Design and the Elastic Mind” that was about design in science. One piece (“Victimless Leather”) I showed in MoMA was an object of biodesign. It was in an incubator that nourished mouse stem cells to grow over a scaffold of proteins in the shape of a miniature coat. The designers Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr came to New York from Perth, Australia, and together with colleagues from Columbia University, set everything up for the exhibition. After a few weeks though, the coat was growing in a strange way. A sleeve was too long. It was growing too big and clogging the incubator.
So, I contacted Oron and Ionat in Australia and explained what was happening. They said, “Well, you know what? It’s not growing well. You have to stop the incubator.” I told them, “One second. That would mean killing the coat.” And they explained, “No, no, it was never alive.” Even though I’ve always had firm beliefs about abortion rights, I really had a hard time killing—I thought at first it was killing—that coat. It compels you to think about it long and hard.
This year is Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary, and it’s a big deal. Not only in the world of movies and fantasy, but also in the world of biodesign. The ethical implications are truly deep, and that’s what biodesign does – it allows us, when it’s speculative, to really ask ourselves questions. Then of course, when it is directly applied and becomes reality, it’s out of our control.
I’m sure that there are things happening in labs and universities all over the world that would scare the bejesus out of us, but at the same time, there’s not much that we can do. I don’t think that anyone could ever have a magic wand and make evil, or even just misguidedness, disappear from Earth. We should be afraid, but in the same way we should have been afraid five centuries ago.
Your contributions to MoMA’s permanent collection are famous and varied—the @ sign, ancient algorithms—what would you add if you could?
One of my obsessions (that now is actually becoming impossible) is to acquire a Boeing 747, but without having the plane here at MoMA, instead letting it fly. The problem is that 747s are being grounded now, and it kills me because it’s the dromedary of the skies. It’s so beautiful. It really tears my heart. The idea was to keep it flying by making a deal with an airline – two or three aircraft that are used to fly through New York would be the MoMA ones. If you happened to take a MoMA flight, you would get a special boarding pass that would point you towards the amazing design details on the 747. You would also be able to take a 10-minute guided tour before the plane took off that points out all these different features. The plane would have the same configuration as other 747s, because that’s a design choice, but maybe a different upholstery fabric and re-edited cutlery. Then maybe too the onboard store would sell MoMA design store items. It was this beautiful construct, but I know it’s never going to happen. Just having these discussions is so fascinating to me because it makes you wonder what the job of a curator is.
I believe that the job of a curator is varied – there are different kinds of curators. In the case of art, it’s important for museums to own the art, take responsibility and be accountable, because art often comes in a unique form. But, when it comes to design, we can also just produce lists. For instance, we did an exhibition in 2004 called “Humble Masterpieces,” and the whole premise was that we could have an exhibition with these objects, but in a way, you could have your own collection too. The show included things like Post-It notes, Chupa Chups, Jelly Beans, staplers, and the brown paper bag. These are masterpieces of design, but they’re humble masterpieces that you also have at home.
Design is a wonderful part of a museum like MoMA because as the founding director, Alfred Barr, said many, many years ago, design was the opportunity that everyone had to have art in their lives. At that time, they equated art with design and design with art. To me, design is not art, but still, it’s a beautiful field of human creativity. It’s even more beautiful because it can be had by many.
Your exhibitions are often framed with explicit acknowledgement of complexity and context. Is this going to be increasingly the norm given the material that you are dealing with?
I think it has to become more of the norm. It’s not yet. There are many museums and curators of design that still think of the object as disconnected from its context, but it’s changing. It’s changing in an irresistible way – in all kinds of philosophical or cultural studies, the idea of context has become fundamental. When you think of context in terms of design, the context is the whole system of production: the sourcing of materials, the design, manufacturing, and also the life cycle. It’s what happens to design when it is no longer in use and is being recycled or biodegrading. It really is important to remain conscious of the fact that an object is not coming from outer space. It’s something that has a past, a present, and a future.
So, if the planet is now an object of design, can design save the world?
It’s interesting because the most advanced designers and architects are the ones that have understood that the world is not an object of design, but rather that the world is a designer. There are many architects and designers who are trying to learn from nature’s processes, or even coopt nature to grow objects and buildings, as opposed to design them from the top down. The realization of how we have imposed our will on the planet has led some really interesting designers to look at things from the other viewpoint.
I don’t think that any category of thinkers or doers can save the world. First of all, I’m not even sure that the world needs saving. Maybe the best way would be for us to become extinct, and then the world would go on by itself to a better future. I think that we can all work together though. Designers are very good at building interdisciplinary teams and at understanding issues and setting goals. I believe designers should be more central to policymaking, to governing, to projecting, and to thinking long term. They should definitely be used better, and they should position themselves better.
I don’t know that it would save the world, but designers definitely could help our species design a better ending, so that the next dominant species will remember us with a little respect. I really believe that we should be better and that designers can help us be better because they have a certain clarity that is ethical, but also aesthetic. Aesthetics are a form of respect of human communication, so it’s much deeper than one would think.
Since MoMA’s Rising Tides exhibition and the completion of major public works in New York, works of landscape architecture have been somewhat in the spotlight. If you were to put together an exhibition on the contemporary landscape, how would you approach it?
I would approach it by mixing digital and real. I think it would make it much more interesting. When I think of digital landscapes, I’m not just thinking of Second Life or video games. I’m also thinking of very simple WordPress sites, because I consider those environments and landscapes too. We need to recognize that we spend a lot of time in digital environments. Sometimes they are on the scale of interior designs, and other times they are as large as territories. We need to learn from the real world to also apply critical tools to the digital world.
Of course, there are great examples of landscape design all over the world, and they can be organized in an exhibition in a very thoughtful way, but I think that it would be most interesting to create bridges and connections and be intersectional. Maybe have trios of Western world, non-Western world, and digital, and give a taxonomy that always leads you through these three different dimensions.