January 27, 2016

by Arthur Leung

Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture & Design and Director of Research & Development at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, was invited to teach at Harvard GSD this past fall. Co-taught with Michelle Millar Fisher, Curatorial Assistant of Architecture & Design at MoMA, Antonelli’s course–States of Design: The Present and Future of the Field in Twelve Parts–explored different modes of working within the field of design. This transdisciplinary approach was also seen in her recent project with MoMA, co-curated with Jamer Hunt, director of transdisciplinary design at Parsons The New School. An online curatorial experiment that has been published into a book, Design and Violence takes on a critical view of the intended and unintended consequences of design that engender violence. Experts from diverse fields each selected a design object, project or concept that exhibits a darker, violent side, such as Teardrop Tattoos (contributed by tattoo artist Mark Mahoney), the Female Genital Mutilation Awareness Poster Campaign (contributed by Grammy Award-winning artist and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Angelique Kidjo) and the Euthanasia Coaster (contributed by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio). For Antonelli, the main take-away from the exhibition is the stimulation of doubt and criticism in its audience in this dialogue on the power of design.

We asked Paolo Antonelli and Michelle Millar Fisher a few questions:

R&R: While inspired by Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, what do you think of his claim that violence has declined over time? With the ubiquity of designed tools like the Box Cutter / Utility Knife that were allegedly used by the plane hijackers during 9/11, has violence become invisible? Has risk become invisible?

PA+MMF: I think the introduction to our Design and Violence book answers these questions quite well.

“In 2011, acclaimed scholar Steven Pinker published The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, a commanding attempt to correct what he sees as a widespread misconception: that the world is more violent today than ever before. On the contrary, Pinker argues, violence has for centuries been on an evident decline…

 Pinker’s argument is undoubtedly seductive. Certainly, public executions, once a widespread form of punishment, are no longer as prevalent. Nor is, for example, legal impunity toward the killing of wives. We have undeniably curbed some of our instinctual tendencies toward brutality. Yet what if violence were merely mutating rather than disappearing? What to make of the fact that in the United States African American males are six times more likely to go to prison than white males (despite comprising a much smaller proportion of the overall population); and that, if trends continue, one in every three black American males will face incarceration in his lifetime? Or that, because of our thirst for fossil fuels and our appetite for material possessions, the temperature of the planet is rising, possibly irrecoverably, to dangerous new highs, launching us on a course toward new conflicts? How, in other words, do we even begin to explore the unanticipated consequences of our collective actions? These may take subtler, less measurable forms, but they are violence nonetheless.

Not only does violence appear to be morphing, but how we experience, perceive, and assess it is also shifting. Since at least the 1960s (and more likely as far back as the abolitionist and suffragette movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), minority-, gay-, and disability-rights struggles, along with feminist and anticolonialist ones, have each illuminated the pernicious ways in which unequal access to basic human rights such as education, employment, and housing are themselves insidious forms of violence.” 1

R&R: Is our black-and-white world becoming progressively grey?

PA+MMF: Again, I think we can answer this question most fully by quoting from our book regarding a comment on the Euthanasia Coaster:

“[Prof. Antonio Damasio’s] objection to the possibility of a “joyful euthanasia” lay in the very chilling possibilities for its misuse by an increasingly technocratic society. In a comment, one reader countered with the following:

Your post extends from a singular premise—that death is necessarily
 a tragedy.
As somebody who is in pain every day, I do not believe this is the case. Sometimes life is the tragedy. When one’s only experience is overwhelming pain, it is a tragedy to be prevented release. For many there is only one option for release and that is the final option. I feel it likely that one day in the distant future I may choose this option myself. Doing so through the experience of something so amazing that the human body cannot withstand it sounds a whole lot better to me than a boring gray room.
To remove all violence from humanity would be to utterly sanitize
 life, to remove the experience of anything but grays. Certainly the specter of interpersonal violence is undesirable, but I WISH to be violently happy, violently sad, violently moved. I wish to feel violent acceleration and violent relief. Conflating violence with anything that challenges us is to remove all value from the human experience, to paint the world gray.

Profound, wrenching, revelatory, this comment reframes certain experiences of violence and affirms the worth and necessity, even, of the project’s open, participatory framework.” 2

R&R: With open-source technology (such as that used for 3D-printed guns) becoming so pervasive, what has become of the role of the design professional?

PA+MMF: This is a very broad (but interesting!) question, and one that has been asked repeatedly throughout history—what happened to the painter in the 19thC. when photography came on the scene (as you will know, literature on Impressionism/Post-Impressionism talks about this moment) or to the craftsperson when the Industrial Revolution happened (William Morris! Werkbund Debates!). Public and professional dialogue occurred, and some of the greatest designs of that period happened both within the new space of technology and as a direct reaction to it. This current moment has a lineage. At the same time has, as your question asks, open-source technology become totally pervasive? It depends on where your vantage point is. It is actually the minority of the global population has access to the Internet—one of the tools of open-source design—though this minority is, of course, in the places and spaces where we also encounter the professionalization of design.

MoMA: Design and Violence
AK-47s and flexicuffs: design and violence
A blueprint for killing: design and violence
Design and Violence: An Intelligent Invitation to Nuanced Discourse in a Culture of Black-and-White Binaries
A Catalogue of Violent Design in the 21st Century


  1. Paola Antonelli and Jamer Hunt, “Design and Violence,” Design and Violence, eds. Paola Antonelli, Jamer Hunt and Michelle Millar Fisher (New York City: The Museum of Modern Art, 2015), 9.
  2. Ibid, 14.