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Posts Tagged ‘design’

11 AUGUST, 2015

Design and Violence: An Intelligent Invitation to Nuanced Discourse in a Culture of Black-and-White Binaries

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Pause-giving meditations by William Gibson, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Rob Walker, and more.

“Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power,” Bertrand Russell wrote in contemplating the pillars of the good life in 1926 — an era of brief respite between the World Wars that marked two of the most violent episodes in human history — “but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.” Nearly a century later, Parker Palmer observed in his magnificent commencement address that “violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” And some of our greatest suffering stems from having our creative energies stunted and suppressed — a form of internal violence that we direct outward in destructive impulses. This relationship between violence and the creative impulse is as immutable as it is complex — nowhere more so than in the things we create that are meant to destroy, from firearms to fundamentalist ideologies. And nowhere do we stand a greater chance of ending the eternal war with our inner contradictions than in understanding the complexities of this osmotic relationship between creation and destruction.

In the fall of 2013, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli — a trailblazing thinker about our relationship with objects and the visionary responsible for acquiring the iconic rainbow flag into the museum’s permanent collection — and Jamer Hunt, director of the Transdisciplinary Design graduate program at Parsons, undertook a most unusual and ambitious curatorial experiment. Subverting the conventions of traditional exhibitions and transcending the limitations of museum hours and gallery walls, they launched an online project and series of live public debates exploring the complex relationship between creation, destruction, and the fabric of everyday life.

Teardrop tattoo (Photograph: Klaus Pichler)

Each week for a year and a half, Antonelli and Hunt selected one piece of design that somehow embodies violence — from the 3-D-printed gun, which unsettles our assumptions about civil liberty and censorship, to the STUXNET computer virus, which exposes the dark side of the digital universe, to the stiletto heel, which calls into question the brutality to which our culture’s beauty standards subject women’s bodies — and asked one prominent thinker outside the design world to write a short essay in response.

The result is a masterful and urgently necessary invitation of nuance amid a culture that increasingly commodifies life into black-and-white binaries.

'The stiletto heel—named after the slender Italian dagger of the Renaissance—first appeared in the 1930s. The inventor of this long, often steel-spiked, thin heel remains in dispute, but today many attribute its rise in fame to Roger Vivier’s work for Christian Dior in the early 1950s. The stiletto has woven its way in and out of fashion history, but remains a highly charged symbol of sexuality, aggressiveness, and fetishism.'

Design and Violence (public library) presents a curated condensation of this online experiment — “curated” not in the misused, overused sense made vacant of meaning by our contemporary vernacular, but in the proper sense of contextualized and cared for with great thoughtfulness and intentionality.

Inspired in large part by Harvard psycholinguist Stephen Pinker’s controversial assertion that, statistically speaking, violence has declined over time, Antonelli and Hunt instead argue that violence has mutated rather than subsided — we have moved from more visceral forms of violence, like public executions and the legal impunity for wife-killers, to less visible but no less pernicious manifestations, ranging from cyberattacks to environmental destruction to the devastating injustice of a criminal justice system that renders black men six times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers.

Antonelli and Hunt write in the introduction:

Not only does violence appear to be morphing, but how we experience, perceive, and assess it is also shifting.

[…]

Where there is transformation, there is design: indeed, the reshaping of everyday experience is at the core of the designer’s work… [But] design’s history of violence, unless linked overtly to political and social suppression, too often goes unexplored.

[…]

Throughout this experiment, one simple mission has inspired us: to wade into the ethical mire that design, and every act of human intention, draws us into. Considering the broad influence of design on the world and the contemporary pace of innovation — requiring continuous alterations and adaptations — design shoulders a heavy, yet shadowy responsibility. It needs to be brought into the light and grappled with. This project is our attempt.

They offer a helpful definition as a backdrop for the project:

Violence evades easy definition primarily because the term accommodates so many configurations, spanning the symbolic and the real, the individual and the collective. As we define it for this project, violence is a manifestation of the power to alter the circumstances around us, against the will of others and to their detriment.

The range of contributors is as varied and dimensional as that of the objects — science fiction legend William Gibson contemplates a collection of unofficial embroidered patches from the secret world of classified military intelligence; former Ugandan child soldier China Keitetsi confronts the AK-47; Grammy Award-winning musician and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Angélique Kidjo tackles a poster campaign for female genital mutilation awareness; Judge Shira Scheindlin, who famously declared NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics unconstitutional, responds to the plastic handcuffs and anti-bite/spit mask; political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter considers a vial containing a scent designer’s olfactory approximation of the smell of violence, made from sweat samples collected at cage fighting matches and chemically analyzed via gas chromatography.

'Violence' by scent designer Sissel Tolaas and photographer Nick Knight

In her essay on the vile veil, Slaughter examines violence as a highly contextual experience — a silhouette cut out from the negative space surrounding it:

The thought of a smell wrung from the sweat-soaked t-shirts of cage fighters creates a ripple of distaste and even fear at the imminent prospect of inhaling, a sensory reaction before the sense in question is even engaged.

The vial is incongruously clear and white and sterile-seeming; I imagined a blood-red glass rose, with twisted petals and a black heart. The smell seems to hit me even before I uncap it — old socks? No, it is far, far stronger — too strong to hold to my nose for more than a second or two. It is rank, but rank like musk, and held at a distance it summons images of stags or musk oxen or elk fighting—horns locking, hoofs pawing, the raw pushing of strength against strength. The violence of sex.

Would those images come to mind without the context of cage-fighting? I cannot know. But once the initial disgust at the smell inhaled deeply and close has worn off, and I smell it again and again, a transformation takes place. The smell itself separates from its context and becomes a spectrum of different scents, as if it is flattening and elongating under my nose. I think, for an instant, that I catch a whiff of rose, surely suggested by the pictures of torn petals but also reminding me that roses have many different scents blending into one. Again and again I smell it, until it begins to become denatured — an essence, yes, but of what?

Surely not of man. As I kiss my sons goodnight and press myself against my husband’s back in bed, I think about how we know each other by scent just as we recognize voices — instantly and individually. Lovers know each other years later by the deep smell of skin; parents inhale their children’s hair and neck and chubby folds. So perhaps the violence here is the transformation of the individuality of all men into the hormones that define them as male; the testosterone that creates the characteristics we identify with men rather than women. That is the transformation of design, the claimed search for an essence that is in fact a brute reduction and destruction of infinite variation: the distinctive features and feelings even of the two men fighting in a particular cage on a particular night with a particular set of instructions, much less of all the men who fight and love and work and care and create.

But by distilling something to an essence — not the essence but an essence — we also create building blocks for something new. We reduce complexity to simplicity to build a different complexity. If that is the violence of creative destruction, it feels far gentler than grappling for a death-grip in a cage. But I may never again look at a vial of perfume without thinking of torn petals and crushed calyces, a violence at the heart of beauty.

The Liberator by Defense Distributed, a firearm that anyone could fabricate using a 3-D printer

In his response to “The Liberator,” an amply unnerving 3-D-printed open-source gun designed Cody Wilson and his Texas-based nonprofit, Rob Walker exerts his formidable powers of cutting through the many layers of surface motives to unearth the very core of a cultural problem:

The real function of The Liberator has very little to do with making an excellent weapon, and everything to do with making a point. Wilson, whose Liberator work competed with law school studies, is a strident Libertarian. He might choose a different label, but clearly his project means to express a point of view about the individual’s relationship to the state in general, and gun regulation specifically. Thus the Liberator has—consistent with that self-important name—been promoted with bombastic, sometimes bellicose, and essentially propagandistic rhetoric and aesthetics. Wilson and his associates, for instance, operate under the name Defense Distributed. They are freedom-loving rebels, you see.

This is why it’s almost more useful to think of the Liberator not as an object but as an example of “design fiction”—the practice of devising plans for or prototypes of objects and systems that, while impractical, express some critique of the present or vision of the future. It’s a trendy strategy these days, but I’m guessing almost no one associated with it shares Wilson’s politics. Similarly, tech enthusiasts who have rhapsodized about the “disruptive” possibilities of 3-D printing frequently strike quasi-libertarian notes, but they have largely recoiled from Wilson and his Liberator.

But really, he has done nothing more than call their bluff. He didn’t subvert the dream of a future where we can all manufacture whatever we want, whenever we like. He’s hijacked it. And in doing so, he’s made plain the full stakes of that dream — something that should probably happen more often in our global discourse about how to reckon with technology’s powers.

3-D-printed parts of The Liberator pistol

Spectacular as the forty-three essays may be, some of the most provocative and piercing insights come from the co-called public, emerging in the comment section of the online exhibition. In response to John Hockenberry’s essay on the seemingly unassuming and old-fashion box cutter, designed in the 1920s and used by terrorists in the September 11 attacks, one woman observes:

I am struck by how remote violence is from all of us contributing to this site. We are either the lucky survivors expunging our guilt or we’re harboring wounds too deep to share.

Euthanasia Coaster by Julijonas Urbonas: Challenging the physical and psychological limits of the human body, this speculative design is intended to slowly ascend 1,700 feet into the air before launching passengers down seven loops at a mind-boggling speed of 330 feet per second. The roller coaster aims to give its riders a diverse range of experiences from euphoria to thrill, tunnel vision to a loss of consciousness and, eventually, to the end result: death.

In response to a piece in which neuroscientist Antonio Damasio eviscerates the Euthanesia Coaster — a hypothetical design by a former amusement park engineer, using “gravitational aesthetics” to offer a more humane and euphoric alternative for those who have chosen to end their lives — one reader exposes the breath-stopping dimensions of the issue visible only to its true stakeholders:

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.

Complement the profoundly pause-giving Design and Violence and its online archive with Hannah Arendt — a major influence for Antonelli and Hunt — on violence, Leonard Bernstein’s moving speech on the only true antidote to violence, delivered shortly after John F. Kennedy was shot, Tolstoy and Gandhi’s little-known correspondence on violence and human nature, and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the six pillars of nonviolence.

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14 JULY, 2015

Little Red Riding Hood, Reimagined in Beautiful Laser-Cut Illustrations

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“All the better to eat you with!”

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm are among the most beloved and enduring storytelling our civilization has produced. Wildly whimsical and highly visual, they have bewitched generations of lay readers and a multitude of celebrated artists, who have reimagined them a thousand times over in the two centuries since Jacob and Wilhelm penned their forgotten original edition — including some extraordinary interpretations like those by Maurice Sendak, Lisbeth Zwerger, and Shaun Tan.

In her exquisite take on Little Red Riding Hood (public library), German illustrator and graphic designer Sybille Schenker blends the beauty of delicate papercraft with the Grimms’ original starkness of sensibility to produce something unusual and utterly beguiling — something partway between Kevin Stanton’s die-cut illustrations for Romeo and Juliet and Andrea Dezsö’s gorgeous black-and-white illustrations of the Grimm tales, yet something wholly original.

Ethereal layers of laser-cut and die-cut paper overlay Schenker’s graphic silhouette illustrations, making tangible the beloved story’s inherent duality of darkness and light from which its enduring enchantment springs.

Complement Schenker’s Little Red Riding Hood with Edward Gorey’s illustrations for classic fairy tales and David Hockney’s vintage twist on the Brothers Grimm, then revisit the die-cut masterpiece I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, which reimagines a Victorian “trick” poem in traditional Indian folk art.

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01 JULY, 2015

Legendary Victorian Art Critic John Ruskin on the Value of Imperfection and How Manual Labor Confers Dignity Upon Creative Work

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“It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.”

Long before Anne Lamott admonished that perfectionism kills creativity, long before Joseph Campbell asserted that “what evokes our love … is the imperfection of the human being,” the great English art critic, draughtsman, watercolorist, and philanthropist John Ruskin (February 8, 1819–January 20, 1900) made history’s most beautiful and enlivening case for the value of imperfection in his 1853 book The Stones of Venice, eventually included in the altogether illuminating Ruskin anthology Unto This Last and Other Writings (public library).

Writing a generation after the Industrial Revolution had finished revolving society into a new era of manufacturing, Ruskin considers the dehumanizing effects of separating creative work from manual labor, arguing that any creatively fulfilling vocation must marry the two. He calls for “a right understanding … of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy” and a “determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.”

To put this “right understanding” into practice, he prescribes “the observance of three broad and simple rules”:

  1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.
  2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
  3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

Ruskin adds:

The rule is simple: Always look for invention first, and after that, for such execution as will help the invention, and as the inventor is capable of without painful effort, and no more. Above all, demand no refinement of execution where there is no thought, for that is slaves’ work, unredeemed.

Cautioning against the perilous separation of head and hand, Ruskin counters the common objection that those who are creatively gifted in the art of ideation shouldn’t be wasting their time with the execution of their brilliant ideas but should instead be delegating that work to mere laborers:

All ideas of this kind are founded upon two mistaken suppositions: the first, that one man’s thoughts can be, or ought to be, executed by another man’s hands; the second, that manual labour is a degradation, when it is governed by intellect… We are always in these days endeavouring to separate the two; we want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers, and miserable workers… It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.

Art from 'Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times,' a visual history of Soviet children's book illustration. Click image for more.

This dialogue between thought and labor, Ruskin argues, is precisely what demands a necessary degree of imperfection in any healthy creative work, for unskillfulness is evidence that the mind “had room for expression.” Ruskin puts it unambiguously:

No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.

This, Ruskin asserts, happens for two reasons, “both based on everlasting laws.” The first — which Zadie Smith would eco a century and a half later in counseling aspiring writers to resign themselves to “the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied” — has to do with the necessary discontentment that drives all artists to continue creating:

No great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution, and the latter will now and then give way in trying to follow it; besides that he will always give to the inferior portions of his work only such inferior attention as they require; and according to his greatness he becomes so accustomed to the feeling of dissatisfaction with the best he can do, that in moments of lassitude or anger with himself he will not care though the beholder be dissatisfied also. I believe there has only been one man who would not acknowledge this necessity, and strove always to reach perfection, Leonardo; the end of his vain effort being merely that he would take ten years to a picture and leave it unfinished. And therefore, if we are to have great men working at all, or less men doing their best, the work will be imperfect, however beautiful. Of human work none but what is bad can be perfect, in its own bad way.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

The second reason springs from life’s inherent cycles of growth and decay, from the notion that our mortality confers meaning upon our lives. Imperfection, Ruskin argues, is both a reminder that we are on a journey the final destination of which is total decay, and a celebration of the beauty of our impermanence:

Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent… And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.

Accept this then for a universal law, that [no] noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect.

Much more of Ruskin’s enduring wisdom on everything from art to morality can be found in Unto This Last and Other Writings. Complement this particular meditation with Simone Weil on how manual labor mediates creative work and discipline, Alan Lightman on why we long for permanence in a universe of constant change, and Anaïs Nin on the magic of bridging head and hand.

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18 JUNE, 2015

MoMA Acquires the Rainbow Flag as a Design Icon: A Conversation with the Artist Who Made It

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“Flags are soaring symbols of pride and community, as well as emotional, incendiary sparks for those on the other side of the barricade. They are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design.”

In 1976, a young man named Gilbert Baker conducted that great creative act of “bisociation,” bringing two unrelated concepts together into something revolutionary. He fused vexillography — the art-science of designing flags — with the groundswell of the LGBT rights movement, spearheaded by his friend Harvey Milk. Baker incubated the idea for the next two years and on June 25, 1978, he raised the first two rainbow flags at the United Nations Plaza in downtown San Francisco. He was twenty-seven.

Nearly forty years later, the Museum of Modern Art acquired the iconic rainbow flag into its permanent design collection — a visionary move by Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, who has previously acquired the @ symbol in her continual quest to expand our understanding of design as a force of culture and an agent of civic discourse.

There is a poignant parallel between this acquisition and Antonelli’s 2011 exhibition Talk to Me, which examined the communication and interaction between people and (mostly digital) objects. The rainbow flag is an utterly analog yet highly interactive object — a flag only flies on the wings of wind or human hands, or else it collapses into limp fabric — that speaks to and with people powerfully. It embodies Antonelli’s famous words from her Talk to Me essay: “In our relationship with objects, as in any relationship, indifference is the worst offense and laziness the worst sin.”

There is also a profound resonance with her more recent Design and Violence project, as the rainbow flag was a telegraphic response to the Stonewall riots that catalyzed the political momentum of the LGBT rights movement. The flag became an inclusive celebration of those violently excluded by nation and state, the people whose basic human and civic rights were being denied and outright violated by the very entities supposed to protect them — the same entities belonging to which traditional national flags symbolize.

I spoke with Antonelli about her rationale behind the acquisition and its broader cultural implications:

Flags are soaring symbols of pride and community, as well as emotional, incendiary sparks for those on the other side of the barricade. They are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design. They are made of icons and become icons themselves — even more so when they come to represent a long struggle, as does the rainbow flag: bright, simple, luminous, positive despite everything. The epitome of grace under pressure, a design feat. When it was born almost 40 years ago, it defied violence and prejudice. Sadly, it still does, in some places. There is no prouder addition to our collection than a great design object about real life and tough issues.

Antonelli and her curatorial assistant, Michelle Millar Fisher, kindly shared this exclusive recording of Fisher’s conversation with Baker about the origin story of his iconic creation and its enduring impact in the world. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

On being inadvertently initiated into vexillography and how the rainbow flag was born:

It started hitting me in 1976, [which was] the bicentennial of the United States… I began to notice the American flag — which is where a lot of the rainbow flag comes from… All of a sudden I’m looking at the American flag everywhere — from Jasper Johns paintings to trashy jeans in the GAP and all kinds of tchotchkes. And I [realized] a flag is something that’s really different than any other form of art — it’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth, it is not a logo. It functions in so many ways, it’s interpreted in so many different ways.

And I thought that’s the kind of symbol that we needed as a people — something that everyone instantly understands. It doesn’t have to say the word [like] it doesn’t say “United States” on the American flag, but everyone knows visually what that means… I decided that we should have a flag, that a flag fit us as a symbol, that we’re a people — a tribe, if you will — and flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate that we have that kind of symbol.

On being at the right place at the right time — a fruitful intersection of culture, conviction, and craft:

I was a big drag queen in 1970s San Francisco [and] I knew how to sew — I was in the right place at the right time to make the thing that we needed. It was necessary to have the rainbow flag, because up until then we had the pink triangle — the pink triangle came from the Nazis [and] was the symbol that they would use to still label us, but it came from such a horrible place of murder and Holocaust and Hitler. We needed something beautiful — something from us, and the rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in the sense of our race, our gender, all of those things, our ages… Plus, it’s a natural flag — it’s from the sky…

[…]

Because I was in San Francisco in the early seventies [knowing how to sow] translated into being the guy that would make banners for protest marches… and that became … my role in the movement. My craft … became my activism.

On how the rainbow flag came to telegraph the most important message Harvey Milk championed for a community that had remained invisible for most of modern history:

Harvey Milk … carried a really great message about how important it was to be visible, how important it was to come out… That was the single most important thing — our job, as gay people, was to come out, be visible, to live in the truth… to get out of the lie. And a flag really fit that mission — because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility.

On being very deliberate about the birthplace of the flag and how this inclusive intention has since been reflected in the universal language the flag carried around the world:

The United Nations Plaza wasn’t an accident. That was very deliberate — because, even in those days, [our] vision was that we’re a global struggle, this is a global human rights issue.

[…]

Much has changed for some [but] as a global vision, we’re way far from that. We’re still dealing with huge, massive resistance — even here, in our own country; even here, in our own city; in our own families… What the rainbow has given [gay people] is a thing that kind of connects us. I [travel] and I see a rainbow flag and I think … that’s a kindred spirit or it’s a safe place to go… It’s sort of a language onto itself… The beauty of it is the way that’s connected us, and that’s the wonder of it.

See more of Baker’s work — including a series of limited-edition handmade rainbow flags — on his site. Complement this milestone for design and human rights with the illustrated biography of Harvey Milk, the the greatest LGBT children’s books, and these vintage photos of the first-ever Pride parades.

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