The Execution of All Things

Author and MoMA R&D director Paola Antonelli reflects on her recent exhibition Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival and whether or not design has the power to shift paradigms around climate change and the extinction of the human race.

Interview by William Defebaugh

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William Defebaugh

So, how did the concept for Broken Nature come about?

Paola Antonelli

The concept of the exhibition comes—like any other exhibition of contemporary design—from reality. You just look around at what is happening in the world that is really urgent or interesting or revelatory, and then you—I mean at least I, that’s the way I curate—put an exhibition together around it. That’s really my way of curating. A show like this, on this particular theme, was long overdue if you think about it. And I started thinking about it in 2013, and then I waited for the next opportunity. So, it comes from necessity. You know, design comes very often from necessity, and the same with exhibitions on design.

William

Has the environment always been an interest of yours?

Paola

I would say that it comes from the escalating urgency. The environment, per se, has never been a central interest of mine, but life is and reality is—because that’s what design is about. So, I have to confess that, maybe when I was a child or growing up, I didn’t think about it that much. I started thinking about the environment when I started having the right information. So, it took me a while, too. I’m no saint. And I am going through the same steps that so many other people are going through. So, I know that the responsibilities of people like you or me are quite big.

William

I both love and fear this idea of “designing our own ending.” It’s such an eloquent way of putting it. How did this language come to you?

Paola

I don’t remember when it happened in particular, but I thought about it because I was reading so much about the Anthropocene, and I read the Elizabeth Kolbert book The Sixth Extinction, and I read The Watchman’s Rattle. I mean, I’ve been reading a lot of these books from [E.O.] Wilson—many, many of these books. So, I started dealing with the fact that extinction is a natural thing. We all become extinct as individuals and as a species. What happens is that, when you know that you will die, as an individual, and it should be the same as a species, you start thinking of your legacy. At some point in people’s lives, the feeling of mortality becomes real, and a person deals with it in different ways, but you often think of what’s going to happen after you’re gone. And I think as a species, we should do the same.

 

We should think of our legacy. We should think of how we want to be remembered. Do we want to be remembered the way we remember dinosaurs, as very, very big individuals with a very little brain? I don’t know if that’s very dignified. I would like to be remembered better. Maybe not as the most brilliant or sensitive species, but at least we tried. We tried to overcome our limitations.

William

The theme of this issue is “Latitude,” which speaks not only to the way the world is organized but also to freedom of thought and expression. To what extent, if any, would you say that choosing how we die or how we are remembered is the ultimate latitude?

Paola

That’s a very interesting question. Because I’m thinking right now also of the right death. The Right to Die movement, in a way, is based on this idea of latitude, of choosing your own destiny and really thinking of the way you want to go and when you want to go. I’m not sure that we will have so much latitude as a species, but maybe we can have a little more control over our destiny than we think. You know, at least we can give it a try.

William

It’s hard not to see this idea of designing our ending as nihilistic. Do you feel like this exhibition is depressing or do you find it hopeful?

Paola

It’s very funny. I find this exhibition incredibly hopeful. I find very depressing the idea of not doing anything. Once you accept that you will become extinct, knowing that you can put together a beautiful ending is very empowering and very optimistic, I think. Not doing anything is denial, and frankly, it’s about locking away your opportunity at being remembered in a really beautiful way. So, I find this exhibition the opposite of pessimistic. But it’s very funny because some people think that pessimism is really a dark attitude, and instead, I think it’s quite the opposite. Like if you are conscious of reality, then you can only be pleasantly surprised, you know what I’m saying? Instead, if you’re optimistic and blind, you can only be delusional and disillusioned.

Gabriel Ruiz-Larrea, Trinitite
buro BELéN, SUN+

William

Absolutely. The same applies to our Western idea of death. It’s something that’s so taboo even to talk about. And so, as a result, we consider it to be a very dark thing, when in actuality, when it’s something that we talk about or when we experience it in art and in movies, there are so many beautiful dimensions to how it can be understood.

Paola

Yeah, I think so. I mean, there’s been so much discussion about death. I do these R&D salons here at MoMA, and I’ve done one about death that’s been one of the most beautiful ones. It’s once again about how other cultures deal with death in a much more natural way. We’re the ones that try to push it away, to put it behind curtains, to not talk about it too much.

William

Coming back to this idea of latitude, in what ways do you think freedom and, in some sense, excessive freedom, has created the problem that we’re in?

Paola

I don’t know if it’s excessive freedom. Is it excessive freedom or is it just arrogance and stupidity? Freedom is what you make of it, right? So, not having freedom is worse than having it, but not knowing how to use it can have really dire consequences. So, we can go back to Plato and the whole idea of democracy. Is democracy good or not? And we can keep on talking about it for a long time, especially under the current circumstances. But truly, we are masters of our limited universe, and what we make of it is our responsibility, period.

William

Yes. So, it’s more about intent, I suppose, rather than freedom itself.

Paola

Yeah, absolutely. It’s about intent.

Kristina Parsons, Lavvu, an indigenous Sámi dwelling

William

Tell me about some pieces and artists in the exhibition that you’re particularly excited about and excited for the world to see.

Paola

There are many that are really exciting. There’s this woman, her name is Chiara Vigo. She is the last person—she’s based in Sardinia—she’s the last person that knows how to make bisso. It’s basically sea silk. It’s a particular mussel, and she takes these filaments that the mussel uses and extrudes to attach itself to rocks. You can take them and spin them. They’re almost like golden silk. And then she makes embroideries out of that. So, the object in the exhibition is small and absolutely gorgeous. And it is done with this tradition of centuries that she’s the last representative of. I’m really excited about having her in the exhibition. Also because I was born in Sardinia, so it’s even nicer from that viewpoint. There are some commissions, one by Formafantasma. They are a duo of Italian designers who live in the Netherlands, Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi, and they have done this whole project about electronic waste. Basically, they are looking at waste not as waste but rather as a new material and demonstrating that you can do beautiful furniture with it. In this case it’s office furniture. So, their work is also fascinating, and I’m really excited about having them in the exhibition. These are two examples that are pretty far away. And then there are many others that I could tell you about.

William

I had read in one interview that you were trying to get works from Laura Aguilar. Did you end up getting them?

Paola

I did.

William

Incredible. Her work is breathtaking.

Paola

Oh my God, it’s so beautiful. I didn’t get the “Grounded” series. I didn’t even get the last “Color” series, because it was not available. It was touring. I got the self portraits with nature that are really a little bit earlier on, black and white and just beautiful work.

Laura Aguilar, Nature Self Portrait #7
Laura Aguilar, Untitled #111

William

Tell me about the experience of the exhibition. What are you hoping that people walk away with when they see it?

Paola

The exhibition is really for citizens. I mean, I’m sure that also people in the design community and the art community will find a lot for their own nourishment, but we are really thinking—and I’m talking about myself and the curatorial team—we’re thinking of citizens. We would like people to come and see the show and leave having a sense of what they can do in real life about having a more restorative attitude. Whether it is buying objects that last longer, whether it is substituting plastic or one-time use plastic objects with biodegrade ones. Whether it is thinking of changing some habits to make them much more sustainable. So, leaving with an idea of what to do, number one. Another legacy we would like to leave with these citizens is a sense of long-term perspective. You know, you were talking about latitude, that there really is a need to also think in latitude in time. So, having a sense of the length of time that it will take for us to become extinct, which is much longer than one’s lifetime or even two or three generations. And still, we are part of that extinction. We’re part of that process. It’s not something that doesn’t touch us. So, having a sense of being part of this long-term dynamic. And also the third thing, having a sense of what to do in real life, having a sense of the long-term, and also having a sense of the complexity of the systems that we live in. So, your actions have reactions that are not immediate and near you but that can reverberate far away and remotely. So, we would like people to really have a sense of the scale of the issue.

William

I think that’s something that goes back to the word “pessimism.” There’s such an attitude of people like, “Okay, things are already in such a difficult place. Why bother?” And what we’re missing is that sense of empowering people to change how it ends, even if it does end.

Paola

Yeah. It’s so important. You have to remind them that it’s about how they will be remembered.

Julia Lohmann, Oki Naganode
Daniel González, Haiti—KayCasaMaisonHome

William

I’m hoping you can speak a little bit to the power that design itself has to really shift people’s perspective.

Paola

Well, design is the way we intend pretty much everything. So, under the umbrella of design, you have architecture, you have urban planning, information design, product design, furniture. All types of applied creativity that can be shared with other human beings. From that viewpoint, you see the penetration that design has in people’s lives is incredible, and so is its power to change behaviors. I’ll give you a really simple example: By creating a really affordable, very practical, and also elegant recycling system for the home, you can change the way people recycle. It’s as silly as that. It’s just by making things inviting, easy to use, easy to also discharge. So, something so pragmatic is one example. Another example is video games, like the ones that we have in the exhibition. One is called Never Alone. It’s a video game that was done with the Iñupiat, a native people of Alaska, and it’s about being alone in the wilderness in Alaska. Another one is about saving the planet. So, it goes from a recycling system for the home to a video game. And design has infinite other ways, points of entry, in people’s lives. What is also important is to change the language. I believe that by changing language you can change behaviors, too. So, I don’t use the word “consumption,” “consumer,” or the verb “to consume.” I just don’t. Not when I’m talking about human beings, when I’m talking about people that experience design or use design, because the particular term is already an attitude. And, instead, by not using it, maybe I’ll be able to exorcise it.

William

What do you think it is about the word “consumer” or “to consume” that distances you from it?

Paola

The fact that it’s become synonymous for a particular step in a process of production and sale and planned obsolescence. It’s become really almost like a fattening the ducks for their liver. That’s what it makes me think of.

Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists, The Great Animal Orchestra

William

Speaking of language, the exhibition will be in Milan, but it features artists from all around the world. In what way do you think design has the power to transcend global boundaries in speaking about issues like this?

Paola

So, there are designers that are working on boundaries, that are working on the problem of boundaries. There’s a beautiful piece in the exhibition by Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman called Political Equator, and it is noticing that at a certain latitude in the world, there seems to be a concentration of problematic borders. So, it’s fascinating. Teddy normally works on the border between Tijuana and San Diego, and now he’s noticing that the problem is more pervasive, and it happens to be at that particular latitude. Or there are the architects and the researchers of forensic oceanography in London that are helping various scholars understand what really happened with some NGO ships, like the ship that was in the Mediterranean with migrants. So, there’s a lot of work on issues like borders that are addressed by designers and sometimes by artists.

William

Wonderful. Thank you for taking the time to speak.

Paola

Thank you very much. Ciao.

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY TRIENNALE MILANO

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