For more than 21 years, Paola Antonelli has been a curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Her career has been devoted to putting together provocative exhibits that spark new ways of thinking, and that often draws criticism.
In this talk, Antonelli shares why failure and rejection are two feelings creative people should not only become familiar with, but should learn to embrace. “[Our work] can be weapons to really help people understand how to be better citizens,” she said. “But only if we will be allowed to do exhibitions that shock, disgust, and sometimes, even fail.”
Drawing on her experience assembling blockbuster design exhibitions, Paola will share what she’s learned about the power of curation and earning your audience’s trust.
Paola Antonelli’s work investigates design’s influence on everyday experience, often including overlooked objects and practices, and combining design, architecture, art, science, and technology. In addition to her role as Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, Paola was appointed director of a new Research and Development initiative in 2012. She lectures frequently at high-level global conferences and coordinates cultural discussions at the World Economic Forum in Davos. A true interdisciplinary, energetic, and generous cultural thinker, Paola was recently rated as one of the top one hundred most powerful people in the world of art by Art Review.
Good afternoon everybody. Well, if genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, being a curator really entails dealing with rejection. I thought that nobody would really think about it that way. But yes, a lot of rejection, and a lot of provocation if need be. So today I’m going to tell you about the power of exhibitions that shock, fail, and disgust. And not in the way that you would think.
MoMA was founded in 1929. And part of its mission was that it presented, it educated the world about the art of our time. That our time makes it so that so many of us curators are treading on very thin ground and on quick sand sometimes because we call art, and we call design, and we call photography, we call into our domain objects that not necessarily everybody agrees upon. And I’m sure you hear Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. When they were presented at MoMA in the 1920s, shock of the new. Many people were perplexed. And of course, things change when you get to the 1970s and Bill Rubin. All of a sudden, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon are the canon. But before one makes the canon, one has to break a few eggs and make a few people mad. It always happens. And that happened also to the great Philip Johnson who basically founded my Department of Architecture and Design. In 1934, he did an exhibition that was propeller blades, ball bearings, coils. And he put them on white pedestals against white walls as if they were Brancusi sculptures and said, this is the beauty of everyday design. Wonderful. Right now, we’re all in awe. But it was not his first show. Because he presented it as his first show. And he was rejected by the other trustees. He was too soon. What is that? That’s not art. It happens all the time.
It happens also to this great curator. He’s kind of my paragon, Bernard Rudofsky, who in the 1940s did an amazing show called Are Clothes Modern? question mark. It was not a fashion show. It was a show about the absurdity of fashion. It was a show– he worked with Constantino Nivola. You see the statues up on top. Those statues showed how the human body should really look to accommodate the kind of fashion, the Dior new look that was available at that time. So it was really wonderful. But it took him awhile to push it through. And even more did it take him to push through his most famous show, Architecture Without Architects from 1964. He had made so many big modernist architects mad by declaring modernism dead. He wanted to show black and white pictures of vernacular dwellings from over the world. You know, caves, huts, things that had been done for centuries, millennia, and say that that was modern. You can imagine, 14 years later from the first time that he tried, he was able to mount this show at MoMA, which remains in history.
And so on and so forth. Mildred Constantine, Connie, on your left with her exhibition about packaging. Is packaging design? Really, art? Really, in the 1960s? Or my colleague Cara McCarty– who is now at the Cooper Hewitt– that did this great show that was about the diagrams of microchips that electronic engineers used to correct circuits and to make sure that everything was in place.
So you see, calling all these different objects art or design takes a lot of guts and a lot up thick skin sometimes. Because it doesn’t always go the right way. Or it takes very simply, a complete unawareness of anything that goes around you. You know, like Mr Magoo. And that’s pretty much my situation. My first show at MoMA was in 1995. It was called Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design. And like Mr Magoo, I walked completely blind from one truss in the sky to the other. And it worked out well. It was not only about the exhibition itself, but it was also about the fact that I felt that there needed to be a new way to express exhibitions to the public. So I did the first MoMA website. It was 1995, and MoMA didn’t really know what it website was. And I wanted a website. And they didn’t really know who should sign off– communications, marketing, publications. So they gave me a budget of $315. And I used it to take cabs to the School of Visual Arts where a graduate student taught me HTML. So I coded this monster. And it’s still available if you want to see it on the MoMA website. And from that moment on, the attempt to expand the idea of design is something that I have been celebrating, that I made my mission. There were many other exhibitions that I will not go into today because they were successes.
Today I’m going to talk about rejection. So Design and the Elastic Mind was a success. Design and science, even though I had no idea how it would go, but that’s where I learned the power of vulnerability. I was listening to Chris Anderson before. The power of vulnerability is a lesson I learned at that time. Or Talk to Me, which was an exhibition in 2011 about the communication between people and object. Even though there was a little bit of a push to the definition of design here, they kind of sailed through. It went well. And today, what you see in the galleries of the Museum on Modern Art are expanded notions of design. This is the collection galleries as they look right now. In an exhibition called This Is for Everyone, of course inspired by the tweets that Tim Berners-Lee sent out at the inaugural ceremony of the Olympic games in London in 2012. And it’s an attempt to show that any kind of design, whether experimental and kind of conceptual and expensive, or mass produced for everybody, is for everyone. It all goes into the flow of this idea of improving society, and improving the world, and making us all better citizens. And visualization design is part of it. We also acquired recently the Arduino that Chris was also talking about. We acquired many more pieces of maker culture. And we truly try to expand as much as we can the idea of design.
We even acquired our first apps. The first apps were probably the first apps where John Maeda’s Reactive Books, which we acquired a long time ago. They still came on floppy disks, enclosed applications that do something decorative, or pleasant, or kinetic onto your computer. But the first downloadable app that we acquired was Biophilia by Bjork a few years ago. So we try to really keep expanding this idea. And to also remember that there’s not only a digital world, but also a physical one. Sometimes my committee members remind me, Paolo, how about a chair every now and then. I’m like, oh yeah, chairs, you’re right. Because some people still think that design is chairs. And I look at chairs. I really try hard to look at chairs. But I’m more fascinated by mushroom mycelium bricks. These are bricks that are grown– I don’t know if you know the company, Ecovative, that was founded by two graduate students from Rensselaer Polytechnic. They found a way to grow mycelium as a catalyst, as a consolidating material to put together any leftover corn cobs, and corn, and other organic material. So they make breaks they grow. And David Benjamin last year did a beautiful construction with that at MoMA PS1. This brick is in the collection together with other works of like, generative architecture and design.
So we try to really expand the idea. And you see here the work of Neri Oxman, which is quite fantastic on the left hand side. And instead, work by scientists from the Wyss Institute that is meant to model and simulate the behavior of organs as a first response trial for new medications. So the scope of the kind of work that we acquire at MoMA is quite wide. And at this point, it also comes at the junction of the digital and the physical. I don’t know if you’ve seen this 4D printed dress. It’s quite amazing because it is a 3D printed dress to begin with. And you can customize it. The software is open to everyone. So you can go and really model how much you want the tessellation to be draping on your body or not. And you can set it up so that it fits perfectly. But also, most importantly, it can be printed folded. You know, in 3D printing, the bigger the object, the more expensive the process because you need a bigger vat of resin. If you can fold the object in the computer and print it folded, you can fit everything in this much of a 3D printer. So it costs much less. It’s just mind boggling. And this coming together of the physical and the digital is what has inspired us at MoMA to also start thinking of how to acquire digital files. But also, digital doesn’t only mean files. It also means symbol. And a few years ago, we acquired the at sign. Which, you know, you can’t say acquired. It’s anointing in a way because it’s in the public domain. So that’s another way to look at curation.
What’s the job of a curator? Is it to take and possess? Or is it to show and educate? And I think it’s the latter. And so does the mission of MoMA. So if something like at sign is in the public domain, should I not show it at MoMA? Should I not include it in the collection just because it can’t be had? Well, no. It’s actually much more interesting. And the funny thing is that when people call us to ask us for the image of the at sign, you know the way they do when they want an image of another object in the collection, we just tell them, it’s on your keyboard. And they’re like what? And we said yeah yeah, just go like this. And we tell them, use American typewriter as a font because it’s the one that is closest to the teletype. It looks like the teletype that Ray Tomlinson used in 1971 when he decided he was making email happen. And he decided to adopt the symbol that had been in use for centuries to link the name of the person to the name of the machine. So it’s really amazing to see how much can be considered under the rubric of design.
But sometimes people get shocked. And you know the old paradigm for design and architecture is to consider space, time, and architecture as criteria. But when we decided to start acquiring video games a few years ago, we had to add something to this paradigm, which is behavior. And it’s really interesting because it was the first insertion of a new type of kind of unpredictable and much more humane and human vulnerability to the old paradigm of form follows function. Form doesn’t follow the function anymore, first of all, because when you take something like an iPhone, until you turn it on and things happen, you don’t know what the function will be. And that happens for so many different objects. But also, the way objects work with us and interact with us is something that really influences the way we behave with the object and amongst us. You know interface design and interaction design. So we tackled the setting up of the new criteria for video games very seriously. It took us ears, like scholars, deep scholars. We had these like serious meetings with game designers, game experts. We were testing video games. Hey, it was serious. And NYU faculty. And we came up with a selection of which I’m incredibly proud. That range is– my favorite is always Tempest. It will always be Tempest. It’s just the most amazing game. But we also have Minecraft. And Core War is fantastic. So a great selection, thoughtfully planned. And also the idea of how to show them. We decided to show them without any hardware. Nostalgia, so no arcade cabinets, only the screen. The device, the input device of course, because that’s important, and the interaction design. We decided also how to store them.
We just really thought of everything. And immediately there was a backlash. Not a backlash from people, real people, citizens. Because citizens usually are very supportive of what contemporary art and contemporary design curators do. It’s the critics that go crazy. They have to justify their existence. So you see here– [LAUGHTER] –The Guardian, Jonathan Jones from The Guardian comes out. Sorry MoMA. Video games are not art. And you know, usually, we’re all thin skinned. When you get a bad review, you hurt usually as a human being. Well, believe you me, I’m the first to hurt. I’m really, really sensitive. But in this particular case, it was like Lisa Kudrow in The Comeback. It’s so embarrassing, you hurt for the person on screen or for the person. So I was hurting for this guy because he was saying, Pac-Man is not Picasso. I’m like, well, I know. It can’t be close to each other. Four floors of distance, it’s not a problem. [LAUGHTER] But anyway, it was just this crazy thing. And The Guardian itself published a rebuttal of its own critics. So “Are video games art– the debate that should be”. Thank you The Guardian for the same thing. And then the New Republic weighed in with this beautiful quote. It says, “It’s a fascinating debate. But the answer to the above question, are video games art, put bluntly, is no. Video games aren’t art because they are”– sorry, the last line is cut– “quite simply something else. Call it code.” Oh my god. So if it’s code, it’s not art. So really the absurdities and the platitudes that were heard in this debate were fantastic. And then John came to the rescue, unprompted with this great post on why saying yes, they belong in the MoMA. And the case was closed, more or less. [LAUGHTER]
The funny thing is that you see, it’s not the first time it happened. These are some loans to the exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art that was to happen at MoMA in 1936. They were stopped by customs at the US border because the customs agent considered them not to be art. Like this, art? Please, right? So it happens all the time. And it’s really interesting. Rejection is important. These are some of the titles of the shows that I proposed and were rejected by MoMA. Broken Nature on the fact that we have to do more sustainable design. In Your Face about different typefaces from all over the world. Designed Bites about food from all over the world as great examples of design. Timeless, an idea of having a show with a collection of the Met and the collection of MoMA showing that ancient amphora from Greece are the same as Scandinavian amphora of today.
So rejections are gogo. And sometimes you let them be. Other times, you don’t accept the rejection. Other times, there are issues that make themselves urgent. For instance, Design and Violence was one such case. Design and Violence happened because, like Chris, I mean, Chris’s speech was fantastic before because he was talking about the chills that he got when he saw certain things happen. Well, the things that he saw happen maybe were more momentous because of what he made of them. But Design and Violence happened when I saw first the 3D printed gun that I’m sure you’re all familiar with. I remember that I had the chills, like Chris, but also my jaw dropped. And I was so stunned that design and 3D printing that I always considered to be so benign could be used– and open source, my god, open source– could be used to allow anybody to print a gun at home. In about 10 minutes, my disbelief transformed itself into self-hatred. That happens. Or not self-hatred, I just got mad at myself saying you’re such a Pollyanna. Of course, what do you think? That design is always so good, and that design is always for the improvement, and progress, and a better world? No. And at the same time, Steven Pinker published his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature that was arguing that our society is becoming less violent. And this perplexity just pushed me to really try and think of what would happen if we could understand better the manifestations of violence in contemporary society. And I only know how to do it one way, by looking at design objects.
So I proposed an exhibition of design objects that have an ambiguous relationship with violence. And I proposed that we look at our society through these objects. Nah, rejected. So I decided this time not to let it go. I had a co-curator. I still do, fantastical co-curator Jamer Hunt. We looked at each other and we said, let’s do what we do when we want to avoid asking permission anybody. We do a WordPress site. So we started a WordPress site. Every week we would publish a different object that has an ambiguous relationship with violence. We would ask, we had to ask a lot of favors. But it only took the first ones. We asked really authoritative people to write about these objects. At the end, we would ask a question, and then people could comment. You have no idea of how well it went. It’s been in the works for a year and a half. It’s almost finished. We only have one post to go. And I’ll tell you later what it’s about. And we’ve been talking about the box cutter, ambiguous relationship with violence. Comment by John Hockenberry, question. “Which other invisible everyday objects can become lethal weapons?” Or we talked about speculative design, republic of salivation. It’s this dystopian society of the future where people are forced fed so that food is rationed the right way. Question. “Do violent, dystopian visions ever need to positive, substantive change?” Substantive, sorry, change. This sparked a gigantic debate in the world of design theory about the value of speculative design. Other questions. “Can we design a violent act to be more humane?”, prompted by the Serpentine Ramp by Temple Grandin. Hundreds of comments coming afterwards. “Is execution always ugly?” Or, “Is euthanasia a form of violence or a form of compassion?”
Can you imagine being able in a museum to talk about these matters by using works that actually are part of your [INAUDIBLE]? We even had some live debates using some of the objects. The 3D printed gun became a prompt for a debate about open source in which Rob Walker, the fabulous Rob Walker– great writer, great arguer– argued with Cody Wilson, the designer of the 3D printed gun. And actually you didn’t really know who was the crypto-anarchist there, because Rob really could pass for one. It was fantastic, the debate that came out. And about other topics. So it almost became a platform. And then of course, MoMA saw the success of the WordPress site. It incorporated the site into the MoMA.org. Happily for me, I was very happy. And now it’s publishing a book which will come out at the end of this month. This operation lasted for a year and a half as I mentioned to you. And we talked about female genital mutilation. You see top right, we talked about the Arab Spring. We talked about human trafficking. What you see over there is a safety emergency number hidden in sanitary pads because the only place where women that are trafficked are on their own is the bathroom. And we talked about Taksim Square, about anything under the sun almost that relates to violence. We had the most amazing writers, amongst them the High Commissioner for Refugees of the United Nations. We had William Gibson. We had an ex-child soldier from Sierra Leone write about the AK-47. And we’re going to end in a few weeks, probably two weeks, with a post about the death penalty.
You understand, when people think that being a curator is putting together cute chairs and arraying them and laying them in a way that says something more about the decorative arts and aesthetics, I can assure you, so many of my colleagues– and myself amongst them– really want to tackle the real world. And we believe that museums can be weapons, can be weapons to really help people understand how to be better citizens. But only if we will be allowed to do exhibitions that shock, disgust, and sometimes, even fail. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]