Meetings: Paola Antonelli, MoMA

 

As senior curator of architecture and design, and director of research and development, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Paola Antonelli doesn’t see a museum as an institute for housing ancient relics. For her it is a living, breathing part of society, somewhere to explore ideas and have conversations about pertinent topics.

Ahead of our special event with Paola on 27th February we revisit an edit of our interview with her from issue #4. 

What has your evolution been like at the museum since the early days of your career?

I realise in hindsight that there was an evolution—not necessarily linear—that was about examining differentpoints of view about design. I’ve never been one formonographic shows so the exhibitions I do have always been thematic; my goal was to show a wider audience that design is one of the highest forms of creative expression.

Who do you surround yourself with at the museum?

The team here changes all the time, but the curatorial assistant is always my partner in crime! I can’t tell you what symbiosis and rapport there is—it’s a true exchange.

When it comes to curating, my two main types of work at MoMA are exhibitions and collections. For exhibitions, you have to think of it like a movie; I am the director / producer, MoMA is the studio, and I assemble the team. It becomes a big production with some key people and many who come and go. Everything is done in-house.

When it comes to acquiring for the collection, it’s much more about teamwork than people think—especially when it comes to digital artefacts. Lately we have begun to acquire video games and digital fonts. As well as my curatorial assistant, other experts do a lot of the work. We bring in the general council and the digital conservators; it’s a big team. 

What are some of the challenges of acquiring digital artefacts?

It’s fascinating, and it comes from our mandate. Our founding director Alfred Barr, who was 27 when the museum was founded, said that the museum is concerned with the arts of our time, and nothing is more of our time than looking at this liminal space between physical and digital. We dove into this digital space with abandon, but also with a lot of curiosity when it comes to the modalities.

For example, when we choose to acquire a digital artefact such as a video game, we first try to acquire the Holy Grail, which is the source code. If we can get this, we solve our mandate of preserving objects for the future of mankind, because when you have the source code you’re more likely to be able to migrate it to new platforms in the future. There are plenty of video games that are completely orphaned or lost because they were only on floppy disks.

If you cannot get the source code, you try to do emulation. If that’s still not possible, you have to get the tethered programme—the cassette, the cartridge—but it’s really not desirable because it’s so perishable.

Besides that, we film people playing the game and record audio, we interview the designer in depth and we acquire the hardware. I’m not interested in showing the hardware, but I want to have it for complete documentation.We need to set up certain conditions that will enable curators of the future to actually display these games. So you can see that this type of acquisition is much more complex than acquiring a chair! 

Why did you set up the Research and Development department at MoMA?

There is a very famous quote that ‘culture makes a country worth defending’. I noticed early on that one of the problems for the cultural sector was that it doesn’t have good metrics to prove its importance to the wider culture and community. It really is important for us to be able to prove the bottom line; otherwise it’s so easy to dismiss culture.

So in 2008 when the credit crisis happened, I thought that was our moment. It had become clear that the financial sector and the industrial sector were not doing any good to society, and were actually manipulating metrics in order to get one over on so many people. I felt that this was the moment for the cultural sector to show its importance.

I thought we could start by having a Research & Development department at the museum that tries to prove that museums can be the R&D of society. It’s a very small department comprising of a twelve-month intern and me, and what we do is create food for thought for the whole museum.

Our biggest endeavour is the series of salons that we run. These discussions focus on a variety of topics that are very relevant to the museum but also to the outside world. We’ve done salons on taboos, on philanthropy, on copyrights, on culture and metrics, on big data. I’m really proud of them—the salons are always packed.

Why do you think it’s had such a positive response?

I believe that museums really can be used as the R&D of society: if there’s one place where you can come together and have precious conversations with like-minded and excellent people, it’s the museum.

One example is a project we did called Design and Violence. About two years ago, there was the announcement about the 3D-printed gun and I remember being really shocked—and then shocked at myself for being shocked. I was also amazed by my naivety in thinking that technology could only be used for good.

I decided to think about an exhibition that used objects as a way to understand the manifestations of violence in contemporary society. A co-curator, Jamer Hunt, and I proposed it to MoMA as an exhibition but they turned it down, probably because it’s not a very palatable subject.

But when you are in my position, you get used to rejections—it happens a lot. Some rejections you forget about and move on, and others are ideas that are just too good to throw away. So Jamer and I questioned how we could do something with this idea without asking permission, without needing any money; and we decided to build a WordPress site.

We assigned objects to very well known writers to write a commentary about, with a small introduction by us, and then we asked a question and opened up the conversation to people for comments. Amazingly, it’s been going for a year and a half and it’s been so successful that MoMA decided to make a book out of it, which is coming out in June. I’m extremely proud of the project.

Why did you decide to stop adding content to that website?

Good things come to an end. We want the last post to be about the death penalty and we found this man who spent 30 years on death row before being completely exonerated and given $1million as reparation. He agreed to be interviewed and the featured object will be an ampoule of one of the main ingredients in a lethal injection.

Do you realise how amazing it is to be able touse the platform of the museum to talk about euthanasia, about the death penalty, about eating animals, aboutfemale genital mutilation, about child soldiers? If you look at the website, I’m extremely proud of the tight connection that it builds between an allegedly ethereal, elitist institution and the real world. It’s about breaking down this idea that museums are elitist—they’re not, necessarily.

I don’t really care if an idea becomes an exhibition, a documentary, a website or a book; I just think that ideas should have their ideal platform. If Design and Violence had been an exhibition, it wouldn’t have had the interactive commentary, which would have been a real loss. So in a way I was lucky that it was rejected as an exhibition. Instead of it lasting three months, with the risk of aestheticising the objects in a gallery setting, the website has been a place for reflection and for arguments.

Which exhibitions that you’ve curated were real markers for you, professionally or personally?

They’ve all been meaningful to me, except for one that I wiped from my résumé! The one I remember most fondly was Design and the Elastic Mind in 2008. It was this perfect convergence of things—I had the idea and started working on the exhibition before I knew quite what it would be, which normally doesn’t bode well with the committees! I was allowed to do my thing and the thing was to try to understand the relationship between design and science. Sometimes you just have an intuition and build around it, and people will help you fill in the gaps.

ENDS

Click here to watch a fascinating talk by Paola on the beauty of failure. 

All photography by Clement Pascal

Interview by Max Fraser