“From the branches of a mango tree, in its spreading shade on a hot May morning in a north Indian village, the bodies of two teenaged women hang”—Nivedita Menon
“Every three seconds, somewhere on this planet, a person is forced to flee his or her home”—António Guterres
“Violence begets violence”—Judge Shira Scheindlin
Design and Violence, an online curatorial experiment that explores the manifestations of violence in contemporary society, is a year old. The project has been an experiment in more ways than one, and challenging and exciting in every way. Given the thought-provoking (and often tough) designs on which the exhibition has focused, it’s a time for contemplation and consideration more than cake and candles.
For those of you who haven’t yet come across it, Design and Violence exists in several formats. The project, a series of reflections on the intersection of contemporary design with myriad forms of violence, was inaugurated online (where the greater mass of the exhibition still lives). (Anne-Marie Slaughter’s response to Sissel Tolaas and Nick Knight’s Scent of Violence was the first post back in October 2013, and we’ve just made our 50th post live this week—sociologist Alex Vitale writing on designer Ralph Borland’s speculative protest suit.) Design and Violence also exists physically. In MoMA’s galleries, we have displayed some of the works from the Museum collection that have been included online (for example, Nobel Laureate and guiding light of the international campaign to ban landmines Jody Williams wrote about Mine Kafon, currently on display). We’ve also produced a series of public debates on the interconnection of design and violence which we invite you to join us for more of in spring 2015 (watch this space).
The website is the critical lynchpin of the project. There, each week, one author engages with one design object chosen by co-curators Jamer Hunt (director of the program in transdisciplinary design at Parsons The New School for Design) and yours truly Paola Antonelli and Michelle Fisher. These weekly posts run the gamut from designs that are connected to violence in immediate fashion (self-guided bullets, the box cutter, and concealed carry signage) to others that connect to it in more subtle and ambiguous ways (the use of a stiletto heel as a weapon of force, for example, is perhaps obvious once suggested, but its percussive click as its wearer moves, and its intangible persuasive power, demonstrates there’s more than one form of violence inherent in its design).
It is perhaps not surprising—especially given the sentences the open this post—that we keep finding new material to include in our project. Each of the sentiments above opens a recent essay on the Design and Violence website. Feminist writer Nivedita Menon took on the Nirbheek pistol—a gun designed specifically for women in India to resist potential sexual attack—writing a devastating and provocative mediation on some of the global and local responses to rape culture. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres engaged with a data visualization charting global displacement. And Judge Shira Scheindlin, responsible for a landmark challenge to New York City’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy, wrote on plastic flexicuffs and the bite mask used in the criminal justice system. Each of the 50 authors over the past year has brought their singular, powerful perspectives to bear on equally unique and challenging designs. In the coming months, we’ll focus on secret signals used by trafficked women, posters that take on female genital mutilation, and weapons used by child soldiers, among others.
At the end of each post is perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle—a question designed to open the conversation up to audiences reading all over the world. What has been surprising—to the team at least—is which posts have galvanized the most comments (and which have not). Two particular designs have become lightning rods for discussion and dissent. Temple Grandin’s Serpentine Ramp, a powerful post by PETA’s president Ingrid Newkirk that turned into a fierce debate at the Museum this past April, precipitated our longest comment thread to date. (The question, “Can we design a violent act to be more humane?” spurred over 140+ comments from vegans, vegetarians, meat lovers, and the carnivorously undecided alike.) Michael Burton and Michiko Nitta’s speculative design project, Republic of Salivation, engendered a similarly heated discussion, with some comments arguing for the positive impact imaginative future design projects can have on the real world, and others arguing vociferously that speculative and critical design (SCD) is the preserve of the privileged and does more harm than good.
However, when it came to haunting, profound posts such as Aminatta Forna’s on the effects of civil war on her birthplace, Sierra Leone, written through the lens of hacked militia vehicles (“technicals”), or professor and artist Bahia Shehab’s blue bra graffiti created in response to sexual violence in Cairo during the Tahrir Square protests, there were no comments left at all. Given the fact that we, avid online readers ourselves, almost never comment on online articles or essays, we realized that perhaps a better metric of engagement was our ever-active Twitter feed. But the question has lingered—does the differing volume of responses indicate that we (and we include ourselves) care more about the abstract (speculative designs, or killing another species) than we do about the violence that is meted out to humans near to and far from our own tiny circles of experience?
George Nelson demonstrated in his short film “How to Kill People”—made in 1960 and contemplated on the website by design critic Alice Rawsthorn—that newspaper headlines are always dominated by humankind’s capacity to maim, hurt, torture, and kill. Today, we live in a time when news media increasingly report instantly on some of the most horrific acts of violence, destruction, and misfortune across the globe. Violence is a constant part of our existence—sometimes even posited as an inevitable part of the evolutionary process. Is it—dare we say this—natural, part of our biological makeup. (Would Darwin say it was designed?)
So, as Design and Violence begins its second year, we still wonder: Is the act of looking, even in earnest witness, the most violent and, contrarily, the most inherently natural one of all? Do we do any better if we turn our thoughts and actions away?
We invite you to test the limits of your own understanding of design, and engage with the questions and comment threads under the posts on the Design and Violence site. All the discussions remain open for the entirety of the project, so you can still have your say on the Serpentine Ramp. But go ahead and surprise us—and perhaps yourself—by being the first to leave a response somewhere else.
Stay tuned for a second series of Design and Violence debates in the spring, as well as a publication of selections from the project in book form in June 2015. Sign up to receive a weekly e-mail with the latest Design and Violence post.