Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

The hidden history of design violence [October 5]

When you see the word ‘design’ what springs to your mind? Images of elegant and useful objects? Clever technologies to improve your quality of life?

Chances are you don’t immediately think of the design of the AK-47, or the lethal injection used to deliver capital punishment in the USA. According to Paola Antonelli, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the field of design has a hidden history of violence.

Italian-born Antonelli is one of the world’s foremost experts on contemporary architecture and design and she recently co-curated a year and half long MOMA investigation into the relationship between design and violence. Using weekly posts on a WordPress site, the inquiry aimed to provoke questions about the dark side of the world’s ‘second oldest’ profession.

Antonelli says she had always been a ‘cheerleader’ for design until she heard about the development of the 3D printed gun.

‘In a Pollyanna-ish way, I had thought that design was for the betterment of society. But when I heard about that printed gun I had a sudden epiphany – design is always a two-edged sword. I started looking at objects one by one and making a list of those with an ambiguous relationship with violence.’

It turns out history is replete with ingenious designs for violence. From Paleolithic hunting tools to Medieval torture instruments to the French guillotine, humans have worked hard to perfect the art of cruelty. To narrow the focus, Antonelli and her co-curator Jamer Hunt took their cues from contemporary society.

‘We looked at objects such as the plastic handcuffs called flexicuffs and the lethal concoction used for executing death row prisoners in the US. Then we invited experts to contribute an essay about each object. With the flexicuffs, for example, we had a contribution from the judge who had declared New York City’s (allegedly racist) ‘stop and frisk’ police program unconstitutional. For the lethal injection we heard from a man who had spent thirty years on death row before being released.’

The curators then posed questions for visitors to the site to consider. After a post about the slaughterhouse re-design initiated by animal welfare advocate Temple Grandin, visitors to the site were asked – is it possible to re-design a violent act so it is more humane? Many posts provoked heated debates, which was exactly what the curators intended.

As Paola Antonelli points out, violence isn’t always physical. As well as selecting objects, the MOMA curators chose a series of action-based themes to investigate the ways design can be used for ‘evil’ rather than for ‘good’. From hacking (‘disrupting the rules of the system’) to manipulating (‘drawing into the realm of violence with suasion’) to exploding (‘annihilating visibly and completely’), design can be employed to exercise control.

‘As we define it, violence is a manifestation of the power to alter circumstances, against the will of others and to their detriment,’ says Antonelli. ‘Design can be used to intimidate. Totalitarian regimes have had a famously good sense of design, as historians have noted. Sometimes objects are designed for violence and sometimes they are ‘tweaked’ for violence.’

One MOMA post focused on the box cutters allegedly used by the 9/11 plane hijackers – tools originally designed for benign use but employed in the 2001 terrorist attacks with devastating global consequences. ‘Those events were a watershed moment of change in our understanding of violence – a big awakening in the US.’

The curator says one of the inspirations for the MOMA inquiry was Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature in which the author contends we are becoming progressively less violent. Antonelli’s response: ‘Maybe what’s changed is the nature of violence ’.

Design can tell us a lot about how much we trust each other. I believe humans are fundamentally good but sometimes things go awry. Design is the same. Well meaning acts of design that were originally aimed at the betterment of society can be tweaked to have the opposite effect. It has been easy for designers to overstep, indulge in temptation, succumb to the dark side of a moral dilemma, or simply err. We need to be more aware of the circumstances of design.’



(This article was first published on the ABC Radio National webpage in October 2015)