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We all know that design is done within constraints, but design
projects naturally inspire efforts to ignore them. Among the most
common constraints are time, space and money. Once I was involved
in a huge ecology exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural
History in Washington, and we had not yet agreed on an exhibit
vehicle for demonstrating the process of evolution. The right film
might have done it, but the show already had several films in it,
and anyway there wasn't enough time or money for another. Late one
night I had the kind of idea born of extreme desperation and the
giddiness that comes with the final stages of charette:
What if we didn't show anything at all and instead helped
viewers to do it themselves? We could ask them to close their
eyes and imagine, for example, a short-necked giraffe. While they
kept their eyes closed a voice-over would explain how and why the
giraffe's neck became elongated, asking visitors (they would no
longer be viewers) to imagine that too. Ridiculous? Maybe, but it
would cost hardly anything, and take relatively little time.
Moreover, it would be participatory, which was at the time a
mandatory buzz word in exhibition planning.
The idea was not warmly received by anyone. The solemn young
biologist who was the exhibition's science adviser scoffed that it
would reduce the material to the level of a children's book based
on a fable. Others assumed that I was joking. Somehow, though, the
proposal reached the client and was immediately shot down not
because of the idea's absurdity, but from fear of liability.
Lawyers pointed out that, even if people were willing to do it, we
had no idea of how long they could stand with their eyes closed.
What if they were to faint, bump into each other, fall down,
develop seizures, go to sleep?
I don't remember what we did instead. Resistance to constraints
came to mind when I read that MoMA's Department
of Architecture and Design has now acquired the @ symbol into
collection. The announcement was unsurprisingly greeted with a
measure of bewilderment, ridicule, sarcasm and disbelief (some
assumed it was the teaser for an April Fool's Day stunt). When
challenged to justify this "acquisition" of something that has been
on our keyboards for as long as any of us can remember, Paola
Antonelli, MoMA's masterly and daring senior curator of design,
explained it as a reasonable extension of the department's mission
to collect and interpret design, asking playfully, "Why should we
be stopped by the laws of physics?"
Of course we all are routinely stopped by the laws of
physics. In the 18th century Samuel Johnson, irritated by Bishop
Berkeley's seeming denial that the physical world was real, kicked
a rock and said, "I refute him thus." Museums are normally subject
to the same laws, as they discover each time they wish to add
buildings or try to simultaneously hang two pictures in the same
space. But where acquisitions are concerned, museums have a
loophole. If "acquire" is defined so broadly that it doesn't
necessarily imply possession, museums can lay claim to whatever
they wish. That adjustment would not satisfy the rest of us, for
whom keeping up with the Joneses does not mean just
declaring that you have what others actually have.
If, like Janis Joplin, you want a Mercedes, you can't get one by
simply affixing a sticker to it, no matter how effective the
graphics. (For one thing, the real owner might drive off, sticker
and all. ) Same with symbols. Individuals can declare themselves
the proprietors of monograms or other glyphs if they are personal.
But not if they are in the public domain. Ayn Rand, for example,
may have thought she owned the dollar sign, but she didn't try to
copyright it, perhaps because that would have entailed dealing with
the federal government. Museums, however, can take a less rigid
position. Their exegetical mission permits, and may even demand, a
MoMA has a rich history of controversial acquisitions. Apart
from the customary feuds over paintings and sculpture that all art
museums are heir to, the Architecture and Design Department has
often mounted exhibitions that provoked skepticism, even rage. In
the 1960s curator Arthur Drexler was castigated for including the
panel of the Ramac computer in a design show. The industrial
designer Victor Papanek in Design for the Real World wrote
of the "fuzzy nineteenth-century thinking... seen when the Museum
of Modern Art exhibits the tangled color-coded guts of a computer
as 'Twentieth Century Good Design.'"
In such cases, the curator's urge is to expand public
understanding that design, like language and law, is subject to
change over time. In addition, though, I suppose folks who run
museums must always be frustrated by the restriction that they can
only display what they own or are able to borrow. In 1975 Lisa
Taylor, the indefatigable founding director of the Cooper-Hewitt
Museum, did something that presaged Paula Antonelli's friendly
takeover of @. Frustrated by building renovation delays, and
impatient to launch the museum, Lisa didn't wait for the official
opening. She ingeniously made the first exhibition at the
Cooper-Hewitt a show consisting of things that weren't there. The
exhibition, defiantly called "Immovable Objects," was supported
graphically by maps directing visitors to buildings in lower
Manhattan and captions telling their history and significance.
blog Paula writes, "The acquisition of @... relies on the
assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement
for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore sets
curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that 'cannot
be had'—because they are too big (buildings, Boeing 747's,
satellites), or because they are in the air and belong to everybody
and to no one, like the @…."
And not only are the curators thus freed, the @ is itself free:
"It might be the only truly free—albeit not the only
priceless—object in our collection," she points out.
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
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