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

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.

Published August 11, 2015




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