Art Seen: National

PROFILE OF THE CURATOR // PAOLA ANTONELLI

by Dominique Moulon

Paola Antonelli studied architecture and wrote about design before becoming curator of the Architecture and Design department at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1994. She has taught at UCLA and Harvard, and is the author of Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of Design, and co-editor of the exhibition catalogue Design and the Elastic Mind. Below is a transcript of our conversation, which touched on the potentials of multiple museum platforms to exhibit contemporary design, the “object off-line,” and its transition from the digital to the physical, and the possibilities of acquiring Open Source works.

Paola Antonelli, source Robin Holland.

Paola Antonelli, source Robin Holland.

Dominique Moulon: I would like to start off by speaking to the differentiation between artists and designers—is it when designers confront societal or political issues that you consider them as artists?

Paola Antonelli: Not at all. Designers always confront political and societal issues. Artists, on the other hand, are sometimes very much disconnected from them. Now the difference between design and art is becoming less and less interesting in the sense that there are many designers who are using the tools of artists and artists who are referring to design. But one thing is for sure: artists can choose whether to be responsible toward other human beings or not, and instead designers have to be by definition. So designers, even when they make the iPhone, are doing a political act. And instead, artists are sometimes completely detached from the real world. I know very well what design is, I know what architecture is, so when people ask me about the relationship and the differences between design and art, after I talk about that role of responsibility, I just say, that’s it.

DM: Do you feel like you have become, over time, the expert in designers who make neither furniture nor vehicles?

PA: I don’t do it on purpose, it’s just that there is so much less really interesting furniture every year—there is so much going on in the digital world that is really interesting to me. I am not in the practice of rejecting furniture or objects, but perhaps I have become more demanding, and maybe also, it is not currently the time for great furniture design. I think that our culture as a whole has become more demanding. We all seem to want more substance, and we also want more justification for a book or an object to exist. We see waste when it is wasteful, and we recognize when an object adds something to the world. So maybe because of that, I have become more demanding with objects. Furniture and cars embody the stereotype that most people have of design—that is why I always attack furniture and cars and vehicles. But in truth, there is a lot of great design that is happening—for instance, in the infrastructure for vehicles. If you think of the self-driving cars, even though the car itself might not be interesting, the design of the infrastructure around it is extremely interesting. So the big achievement for designers and architects in the past few years is to have gotten rid of this shackle of the scale. You can be designing networks, you can be designing an object, you can be designing a vehicle, but in truth, most objects are accessed through networks and systems.

Museum of Modern Art, A Collection of Ideas, 2014, source Jonathan Muzikar.

DM: Does acquiring variable technology creations for a museum mean collecting instructions and documentations more than objects?

PA: It’s truly interesting. I ran this department of research and development, and we would run these salons that are discussions about topics that are relevant to society, in which MoMA has an expertise, and we just did one about the object off-line—objects that start digital and then become physical. One of my colleagues, David Platzker, in the department of Prints and Drawings, made a wonderful presentation on the pre-digital world that was all about artists doing art by instructions. So it is very funny that you bring this up, because it is not only something that is in the digital world, but it has existed even before. In a way, you could say that the way we acquire digital today is similar to the way conceptual art was acquired back then, because so much of it was based on instructions. Today, in order to acquire digital objects, we have to be very redundant. For example, when we acquire an old video game—such as Asteroids, you name it—what we do is we acquire the source code when we can, then we also acquire the arcade cabinet. Even though we do not show it as an object, we film the people playing with it. We are also very careful about the acoustics, and then we acquire the software emulations. Also, if the coder, the original designer is still alive, we interview him at length.

We have all these acquisitions that are made of many different parts, and they are all very important—they are essential to the preservation in the future. Of course, while these steps are not necessary to just show a game in the galleries, our job as a museum is to preserve them. So, yes—we are extremely redundant, and we do collect instructions and documentations.

DM: The technology used by artists of their time is that of the business world. Is that why their art pieces enter the museum through the design door?

PA: While I am interested in technology, I do not care about the business world. Sometimes I catch technologies before they even enter the business world. If you think of Processing, for example, by Casey Reas—this question might be better asked to an art curator. As far as I am concerned, technology is a very natural component of design. Since I am personally interested in contemporary design, I am always drawn to new technologies. I gravitate towards them, and then I wait for a good design expression of these new technologies. For instance, Casey Reas is interesting—what I have shown of his work is Processing, but I have not shown his artistic fractals, because that to me is art. I really care about presenting design and presenting the interaction, so some of these individuals might come into the museum collection through the design door because design curators are more receptive, but when they do art, we leave them to the art curators.

A Collection of Ideas

Museum of Modern Art, A Collection of Ideas, 2014, source Jonathan Muzikar.

DM: With research being at the crossroads of art and sciences, what are the criteria that make the result fit in a contemporary art museum more than in a science museum?

PA: First of all, whenever my name comes up, it is always in relation design, not art. I think the relationship between art and science is much more complicated, because of aesthetics. However, the relationship between design and science is really quite great. I did a show a few years ago that was called Design and the Elastic Mind, that was trying to put together designers and scientists directly, and I really loved it. In that case, it was quite clear that it was design: it was aesthetics, it was an intention to interaction, and it was not only the scientific example, but it was also the elegance that was conveyed and the whole aura of adding something to the world.

I have to say that the best examples of this kind of feeling have been places like the Science Gallery in Dublin—it is fantastic, a science museum that has design in its DNA. The question “What if ?” is a question that is asked by both scientists and designers there, and it is fabulous. Another place is the Welcome Wing at the Science Museum in London. Once again, great collaborations between designers and scientists, and then of course, the Welcome Trust, at Euston Square in London, Le Laboratoire in Paris, etc. So you see, this is what I am talking about: design and science, no art in the middle. You can see where the connection is. I think that when scientists work with designers they feel happy because they feel relieved from the peer pressure of the scientific process, of peer scrutiny, and they are free to not be so rigorous.

Designers really love having more pointed tools to think of possible futures. It is a great relationship (that fits perfectly in an art museum or in a design museum) but can also fit in a science museum. I am interested in these new models of museums, not the old kind of idea of science vs. art museums.

A Collection of Ideas

Museum of Modern Art, A Collection of Ideas, 2014, source Jonathan Muzikar.

DM: How can you favor Open Source culture in a museum dedicated to art?

PA: In this case, since MoMA is an art museum, you always have to think also of the aesthetics and the elegance. I always say: not beauty, but aesthetic intention. There needs to be intention.

Though I also have to say that we have acquired an open source project, maybe more than one, and we have also acquired some crowd-sourced projects. In Open Source we acquired the Eyewriter project. To me, the reason for acquiring the Eyewriter, even though it does not look gorgeous, is that it is almost transcendental in its beauty. It is such an amazing paragon of generosity, and of what open source can do when it is good, of the best intentions of design, that I decided to have it.

MoMA tends to be a quite positivistic museum. The VNA has acquired a 3D-printed gun; I never would. I think the 3D-printed gun is not only evil or at least problematic, but also, it is ugly. Actually I am currently doing an online project about design and violence. In this project, we have done an Oxford-style debate on the 3D-printed gun, but the motion itself was about Open Source. The two debaters were the designer of the 3D-printed gun and Rob Walker. I think it is important for a museum to tackle Open Source, but once again, it must not be a fad. You have to wait until you find the Open Source object that is also a good addition to the museum. It is always about finding the right thing.


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Founder of MediaArtDesign.net, Dominique Moulon is an art critic and independent curator. He has recently published the eBook Contemporary New Media Art and teaches in several parisian schools and universities.

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