The Most Modern Curator

Why Paola Antonelli put Pac-Man, a mine detonator, and a vial of sweat in the Museum of Modern Art

John Cuneo

On the third floor of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, if you go to the bank of windows overlooking 54th Street and then turn right, you will find some synthetic sweat. The liquid, stored in a short glass vial, mimics the perspiration of cage fighters—collected just after a bout and chemically analyzed using a technique known as gas chromatography. It is slightly viscous. It is slightly yellow. It is slightly disgusting.

Which is the point. The vial is part of Design and Violence, an installation co-produced by Jamer Hunt and Paola Antonelli, one of MoMA’s most prominent, and provocative, curators. As a physical representation of some of humanity’s most enduring features—sex, aggression, smelliness—the bottle’s manufactured contents are both entirely and not at all natural. “We wanted objects that have an ambiguous relationship with violence,” Antonelli says, by way of explaining the installation’s selections, each of which—a stiletto heel, a self-guided bullet, a chalk outline of a drone—is meant to emphasize design’s power not just to solve problems but also to create them. “Design is so multidimensional these days,” she continues, in a lilting Italian accent. “Sometimes it’s not even immediately functional. People think form follows function, but that doesn’t work anymore.”

Most of the objects in Design and Violence were created after 2001, and are imbued with recent history: There’s a mine detonator designed by an Afghan student. And a gun made with a 3-D printer. Design itself, Antonelli argues, is much more than Eames chairs and Braun toasters. It also has, as she says in her curator’s note, “a history of violence.”

This dark sentiment springs from an unlikely source: as provocateurs go, Antonelli is an exceptionally charming one. Petite and energetic, she is prone to fanciful descriptions of the world and its things—a verbal extension, perhaps, of a kind of object-oriented synesthesia. Design, to her, is everywhere. “Sometimes I tell people that I live in a Looney Tunes cartoon, where the fire hydrants go, ‘HELLO!’ ” she says. “You become almost an animist when you look at things that way.” Colleagues and critics alike describe her as “brilliant.” She has said that she believes “the age of design is upon us, almost like a rapture.” And she is spreading the word not just through her exhibitions at MoMA but also through books (five of them), TED talks (three), and an appearance on The Colbert Report. As Nicola Twilley, a design writer and sometime curator, says, she is “probably the person doing the most to expand the definition of design.”

One of Antonelli’s most remarked-upon MoMA exhibitions is an explicit attempt at this dilation: a collection of video games that includes Pac-Man, Myst, Tetris, SimCity 2000, Space Invaders, and Minecraft. The games are displayed, yes, but they are also meant to be played: they’re examples of interaction design, or what Antonelli calls “the design of a behavior.” In this case, that behavior is in noisy contrast to the hushed reverence typical of an art museum. As she walks me through the exhibit, the walls echo with the tinny theme music of Tetris and the delighted giggles of children. “I like when the kids come,” she says appreciatively. She especially likes watching them show the games to their parents. “It’s like, You think I’m wasting my time. But look, it’s art.”

You don’t bring Minecraft to MoMA, however, without provoking some “whither culture?” chattering among the art-world elite. Pac-Man so close to Picasso! As The Guardian sniffed in late 2012, months before the exhibit opened: “Sorry MoMA, Video Games Are Not Art.”

Antonelli dismisses such dismissals. She is, as an operative in the field of cultural curation, progressive. And she is, in this, part of a long tradition at MoMA. During the museum’s early days, in 1934, the architect and curator Philip Johnson put on an exhibition he called, simply, Machine Art. It took familiar industrial objects—a cash register, a propeller, a microscope—and, by displaying them outside of their normal contexts, called attention to their form. Antonelli aims to do something similar with her own acquisitions: to remove them from their familiar settings and encourage us to see them differently. She likes objects that are a bit dirty, a bit messy. (On the one hand, Apple’s Bauhaus-inflected products have “had an amazing influence,” she says, encouraging “people toward this purist, perfect design.” On the other hand, she confesses: “I think that a little dirt is good.”) She puts a vial of sweat on a pedestal at MoMA, and dares us to draw our own conclusions.

Design, Antonelli argues, is much more than Eames chairs and Braun toasters.

Antonelli was hired by the museum, in 1994, after answering an ad in i-D magazine. Since graduating from architecture school in Milan, where she grew up—and after deciding not to fulfill her earlier career goal of becoming an astronaut—she had been lecturing and also working as a part-time curator and as a staff member at design-and-architecture magazines like Domus and Abitare. She is modest about all this, though: the MoMA position, as she tells the story today, “just happened.”

And then something else just happened: the proliferation of digital technologies and media, and with it a whole new array of potential museum acquisitions with no tangible physical presence—for example, computer code. As Antonelli has written, in the digital age, physical possession of an object is no longer a “requirement for an acquisition”; curators are “free to tag the world,” acknowledging the existence of things that “cannot be had.” This revolution has defined much of Antonelli’s recent work at MoMA. Fittingly, if improbably, she was the one who designed the museum’s first Web site, in 1995. She was curating her first show, Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design, and managed to wrangle roughly $300 to establish a Web presence for the exhibit. “It was hilarious, because nobody knew what I wanted to do,” she tells me, over tea in her office. “Nobody wanted to sign off on it. Communications said, ‘It’s not communications.’ Marketing, Publications, they were all like”—she shrugs. Then she pauses.

“I’m going to show it to you,” she says, swiveling her chair toward her computer and clicking around for a moment. “Here it is! I coded it myself.” The site is sleek even by today’s standards, let alone by those of the GeoCities-ized mid-’90s. Antonelli used the sum MoMA had granted her to pay for taxis to and from New York’s School of Visual Arts, where she took classes in HTML.

In 2012, Antonelli founded MoMA’s Research and Development Department, a kind of in-house think tank that tries to determine, as she puts it, “how to translate the mission, and the whole spirit, of the museum—the DNA of the museum—for the future.” Design and Violence, for example, exists primarily online, with only a few objects displayed on 54th Street. The digital exhibit includes images of MoMA-curated objects paired with essays (from thinkers like Steven Pinker, Camille Paglia, and Anne-Marie Slaughter) considering the objects’ relevance. The undertaking also involves another experiment in meta‑museuming: a series of public debates in which experts discuss the ideas embodied by the collection. A recent event about 3-D-printed guns promised to consider “open-source design, the limits of gun laws and rights, and our assumptions about the ethics of design.”

Antonelli’s efforts figure into a larger debate: What, in the age of the Internet, is a museum actually for? People talk about museums as laboratories, Antonelli notes, and as “participatory” institutions; the challenge, though, is that people’s sense of participation itself is evolving thanks to the Internet’s influence. “What caused the problem with movie theaters is not Netflix, but YouTube,” she says. “What is making the old temples crumble is not smaller temples, but it’s rather this kind of polytheism—you know, you make your own gods.”
Which means that museums “really have to help people do their own form of art. And when you say art, it’s not Plasticine sculptures anymore, but it may be a spoken word.”

Or, she says, “it might be a video game.”