Milan, Italy: The XXII International Exhibition of La Triennale di Milano, entitled Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, takes place March 1st to September 1st, 2019. Curated this year by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design and Director of Research & Development at The Museum of Modern Art, New York City, who together has assembled a fantastic team exploring current tenets of design in an expanded field, inclusive of what she calls “forms that become attitudes.”

La Triennale also reaffirms this year a decision to continue the tradition of the International Exhibition, the XXI edition which was held in 2016 after a twenty-year hiatus. It is composed of a thematic exhibition and 22 International Participations that represent all continents by offering different themes, perspectives and contexts, examining nexuses between design, ecology, philosophy and differences between theoretical and applied approaches to design thinking and methodology.

On the occasion of the opening, Selections’ Dorian Batycka sat down with curator Paola Antonelli to delve into some of the deeper themes behind Broken Nature.

DB: Materials and nature, inorganic and organic matter, the relationship between design and science, common issues and preoccupations around design. A quote from your TED Talk: “design as an instruction rather than a prescription in form.” Can you walk me through why you decided to make this exhibition now, which reads to me with a sense of urgency. What do you hope Broken Nature will accomplish?

PA: Well, we have a really great curatorial team so I want to also mention them first: Ala Tannir, Laura Maeran, Erica Petrillo and Laurie Mandin. We have three main objectives and designed and curated this exhibition thinking of people, not only experts and our kindred spirits, or those already sold, so to speak. People who are already ‘sold,’ so to speak, also need a little push. One, we want people to leave this exhibition having a sense of ‘long time,’ a sense in the fact that we are part of the evolution of the human species, which might go on for centuries before it extinguishes itself, but that we’re already part of it. The second objective is to enable understanding of the complexities of the systems we live in. So when something happens you cannot have a knee jerk reaction. You need to ponder the possible reverberations. For example Bangladesh, a building falls in Dhaka, killing 1,300 people, knee jerk reaction: I’m not going to buy clothes made in Bangladesh anymore. Wrong, because then you’re going to make the problem worse. You need to know your power and act on this acupuncture system in a different way. The third objective is that we want people to leave the exhibition with a sense of what they can do in their everyday life. For example, buying different materials for menstruation, or by buying electronic equipment that can be taken apart, reused, fixed and sourced fairly. So these are the three main objectives, which stem from the fact that we believe in the Buckminster Fuller quote: that every individual is a trimtab [small surfaces connected to the trailing edge of a larger control surface on a boat or aircraft] and that however small, many trimtabs can turn a transatlantic around. So in ways, you can pressure top political government or a company, for example, in order to make change happen.

DB: Interesting. One of the things I was reminded of when walking through the exhibition is Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth catalog (1968). I’m wondering how this exhibition functions with respect to holistic ideas around design and design thinking?

PA: Definitely. It’s funny because Stewart Brand is pretty much all over the show, not only his Whole Earth catalog, but also his de-extinction project and The Long Now Foundation [Brand’s Foundation]. And actually we asked Brand for an essay for the catalog but he said no. Oh well, what can you do [laughs]. The Whole Earth Catalogue is in the center of the exhibition, while Brand’s de-extinction and Long Now is at the beginning. We designed the exhibition thinking about Whole Earth and how it was about living in a certain way. It’s about using not only design but also commercial design, as a way to really change our behaviors, which I believe is one of the most important functions of design. So it’s very close to the Whole Earth catalog, but for today.

DB: In your curatorial statement you write: “a new attitude is imperative.” What exactly do you mean by a new attitude? Can you define this more precisely?

PA: Well, in my case, forms become attitudes. I believe if you look at Formafantasma for instance, the hook is in the absolute beauty and elegance of the furniture, you might think that it’s about a kind of rarified, sophisticated design, something that you can buy in Italian stores or galleries. Instead, it’s a hook to understand the toxic cycle of electronic waste. So I see beauty a little bit like a carnivorous plant. It’s a way to attract, well, in that case of a carnivorous plant, to digest. Beauty at its simplest is a way to change the metabolism and the form of human beings and our behavior.


DB: I read in an interview with you that you are more comfortable with objects than with people. What did you mean by that?

PA: When I talk about being more comfortable with objects than with people, I’m telling the truth. There are many people who say that they are shy, for example, which may seem cute and corny, but for me it’s true. I feel more comfortable with objects because I just plunge into them. I’m a listener of and to objects. I just imagine their surroundings, materials, where they came from, where they were manufactured, I really love the universe that is outside, inside, beside and in front of objects. So I’m incredibly comfortable with them, more so than with people [laughs].

DB: How do you see accident and experimentation in design? Is there such thing as noble failure in design?

PA: The idea of the noble failure has become a little bit of cliché. It’s been a cliché as a narrative and as a curatorial device but it’s still valid as a design device. The first thing that comes to mind is the Post-it Note, which was a mistake in the 1960s, glue that wouldn’t really attach, which later became a very successful product. Failure is important, I’m just tired of its celebration. We can talk about it, I’m OK with it, I just don’t want to see yet another exhibition about failure.

DB: I’d also like to bring up another thing that comes to my mind after walking through Broken Nature, which is the risk of turning highly sensitive and critical research into insensitive forms of entertainment and exhibition spectacle. Recently, the recipients of the Turner Prize—Forensic Architecture—who feature in this Milan Triennale, were accused by a journalist of doing exactly that: “turning sensitive investigative work into insensitive entertainment” (as per Phineas Harper writing in Dezeen). What do you have to say to critics who might level the same critique against your exhibition? I.e. that it risks turning sensitive and critical investigate research into “insensitive entertainment” and mere spectacle?

PA: There is no spectacle in showing. Spectacle isn’t bad unless you want it to be, but even in that case, it’s a device. I think that especially when it comes to design exhibitions, a certain formal intention is required. I’m not saying it has to be elegant, it can be punk, it doesn’t have to be pretty, but a formal intention is necessary. This is how we communicate with people. Beauty is a form of respect. It shows the fact that you really want to talk and to be understood. Being sad and unspectacled is just passè.

DB: I also read in the exhibition a reference to the Russian cosmic conceptual master Ilya Kabakov, who in a recently translated volume of his own writing says that the inherent qualities of art and matter are as “library of associations.” Located, at least for him, in and around conceptions of dust, dirt and garbage. Kabakov says, “dust” contains a “universal significance.” Where do you find yourself on the spectrum of installation art and its relationship to design? Was Kabakov a reference point for you in making this exhibition?

PA: I haven’t thought about it. My references tend to be in the world of design or in the world of science. I am not that much of an art expert, to be honest. I’m a real amateur when it comes to art. I love art, and I love Kabakov especially. But I didn’t think about Kabakov when I was installing this exhibition. Very often designers and architects get questions like where do art end and design begin? I used to tell my students that the only difference between an artist and a designer is that an artist can choose whether to be responsible towards other human beings, while a designer has to be responsible to human beings by definition. That’s it. Form alone does not qualify something as either design or art.


DB: Finally, where do you see the future of design going in the next few years?

PA: I like to think that designers will be used more and more in contexts that are about politics, that are about being part of the power structures that help shape the world. I like to think that in the future, design will go the way of physics: divided between theoretical and applied. A new way to use designers, like Forensic Architecture, for example, would be for them to move beyond the usual ways in which design functions. They don’t manufacture products. They are used much better at a meta level, when legislations are made, for instance.

The Milan Triennale runs from the 1st of March, until the 1st of September, 2019.