Presently in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Architecture and Design Galleries, This Is for Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good celebrates the optimistic possibilities of contemporary design, its opportunities for improving life. Acting as a dark foil to that exhibition, MoMA’s online initiative Design and Violence was an 18-month experiment in addressing the brutality of 21st-century design.
Organized by Paola Antonelli, senior curator in MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, and Jamer Hunt, director of Parsons The New School for Design’s graduate program in transdisciplinary design, Design and Violence started in October 2013 and ended this May. In June, a print book was released. The project, which is archived online, offers a harrowing portal to the cruelty, suppression, and destructive actions facilitated by design. As the curators explain:
Design has a history of violence. It can be an act of creative destruction and a double-edged sword, surprising us with consequences intended or unintended. Yet professional discourse has been dominated by voices that only trumpet design’s commercial and aesthetic successes.
They add that in their definition, “violence is a manifestation of the power to alter circumstances, against the will of others and to their detriment.” The design objects mostly date from after 2001, when the War on Terror spawned paranoia and carnage, the internet grew as a realm of aggression, and 3D-printed guns revealed the potential threat of new technology.
Throughout the project, writers and designers like William Gibson, Maira Kalman, and Milton Glaser commented on and contextualized ideas like mountaintop removal mining, the teardrop tattoo, the conceptual Euthanasia Coaster that kills willing riders with its loops, and those increasingly ubiquitous plastic handcuffs. Camille Paglia considered the dagger-like stiletto heel as “modern woman’s most lethal social weapon,” while Rob Walker wrote that the 3D-printed Liberator gun from Defense Distributed is best viewed “not as an object but as an example of ‘design fiction’ — the practice of devising plans for or prototypes of objects and systems that, while impractical, express some critique of the present or vision of the future.”
One advantage of an online exhibition is that everything in it can have an equal profile, no matter how conceptual or small. For example, the hood is discussed almost as a symbol instead of an actual object, representing torture at Abu Ghraib and public execution. “The hood is both antiseptically technical and spectacularly horrifying,” wrote journalist Christian Parenti. “It is both practical and a highly theatrical form of humiliation. It is a direct control of the body and a micro-practice of power that reaches into the prisoner’s subjectivity by disorienting and demoralizing; stripping them of one of their most important and human faculties: the ability to see.”
Design and Violence takes the format of individual articles with comment sections that often add to the dialogue, such as one reader pointing out on the hood piece that it left out a discussion of Trayvon Martin. These also, perhaps unintentionally, reflect the hostility of this form of internet discourse design, such as the over 100 comments on the Serpentine Ramp, which was proposed by Temple Grandin in 1974 to more humanely kill cattle, directing them down a winding ramp instead of straight so they aren’t panicked by what’s happening ahead. This rumination on slaughterhouse ethics sparked far more dialogue than the moving post on lethal injection, which features an interview with Ricky Jackson, who was exonerated after over three decades in prison, including a stint on death row. That design of death, which originated in 1977, received only two comments.
Over 18 months of examining 21st-century applied design, Design and Violence considered devices of ruination as unintentional as a box cutter and as deliberate as an AK-47. The most startling message, even if it’s not directly stated, is the limits of human empathy. By curating these objects of violence both small and global in scale, Antonelli and Hunt make us realize our resourcefulness for obliteration.
Design and Violence is archived online by the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan).