Consider the Museum of Modern Art 's latest curatorial project, Design and Violence, as comparable to an experimental online course. It has an intriguing class description, set topics for each week, and a comments section akin to the discussion following a lecture (and like most classes, the success of this part depends on the quality and quantity of student participation).
The catalog description might read something like this: Designer Victor Papanek once said, "There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them." Design and Violence will explore the concept of violence in design in the context of today's world, and deconstruct the ambiguous relationship of design and violence. Violent design often arises as the byproduct of designers making commentary, protesting, and sometimes succumbing to ambiguous morality and mistakes. "Violence," here, is defined as "the manifestation of the power to alter circumstances against the will of others and to their detriment."
Like any other course would be, there's a bit of novelty and ingenuity involved. The project is helmed by a curatorial staff and selected weekly "authors," whose expertise ranges from science fiction (William Gibson) to journalism (John Hockenberry) to policy planning (Anne-Marie Slaughter). And the shelf life for the project is not a quarter, nor a semester, but TBD: It may last for several months, or even years. Having begun in October, it's too early to tell.
Fountain, 1997, Diller + Scofidio; Photo: Michael Moran/OTTO
The project's concept of violence is broad: While the curators have determined set categories -- hack/infect, constrain, stun, penetrate, manipulate/control, intimidate, and explode -- the violent objects that the project actually studies sometimes fall into more vague categories. There's the fragrance made of sweat samples culled from cage fights. There's also the Merrick Lamp -- a simple IKEA design, exposed to a computer virus and conceived via a 3-D printer. (In its final version, it looks like a lamp stricken with elephantiasis.) Within the broad array of designs, many of these are objects that don't necessarily inflict violence, but have been subject to it.
While all of the intriguing objects fall within the overlap of design and violence, they also occupy other intersections: of design and commerce, or design and protest. There's the Guardian Angel handbag, a felt purse imprinted with the outline of a dangerous weapon, for one. According to designers, it was a handbag made in response to the media's reaction to street violence in the Netherlands. It was also a handbag for sale, toted by pop icon Rihanna and selling for prices reaching upwards of 500 dollars.
Exhaust, 1997, Diller + Scofidio; Photo: Michael Moran/OTTO
Exposition on the curated objects ranges from the personal to analytical. The authors alternate between mining their personal associations with the object at hand (martini glasses with a built-in cigarette holder) to writing more analytically (perhaps the Liberator, a gun manufactured by a 3-D printer, is not just a DIY weapon; maybe it's also a critique of gun control and a reaffirmation of the Second Amendment!). Like a classroom, a lot of the analysis involves a close-reading of the objects, some of it grounded in fact and history, some in semi-indulgent reflection.
As the MoMA curators will tell you, this is a project that captures the cultural zeitgeist, with all of the selected designs made after 2001. But the project is more than rooted in the past, and for the future of the project, the curators are looking to expand with their proposed phase two. The plan is to add a Google Earth component, one that will pinpoint worldwide locations in which each object can be found. It's supposed to allow any curious -- and travel-ready -- audiences to be able to physically see the object, much like a traditional exhibition display. And as the project shifts to include a more conventional exhibition space, it'll be interesting not only to see how the curation shifts, but also to determine the success of the online component of the project itself. It is, after all, an experiment.
For more information visit designandviolence.moma.org.