Paola Antonelli

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Paola Antonelli: “The museum is a mirror.”

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Another great Swiss Miss Creative Morning, this time with Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. I have a soft spot for former architects (or rather, “trained as but never worked as” like myself) because the interdisciplinary connections can be rich. She talked about this today, and her own attraction to “the curious octopus” — she says this is how she wants to live intellectually in her own mind — multiple arms reaching and grabbing and connecting architecture, design, art, science and technology. That’s how I want to live too!
I’ve seen Paola speak before and I marvel at her ability to engage an audience. I’ve never seen anyone do it quite as well as her, except perhaps this guy. She’s got an ease, a passion, a sort of casual fluidity to the way she speaks that belies her real position (considered to be one of the most powerful in the art world). Maybe it’s an Italian thing? I just got back from Rome, where this kind of bravado is really in the air.
Paola talked about design of course, and how the design community in NYC has shifted during the last 16 years. She started by comparing Milan’s regional strength (design) to New York’s (art) in 1994, when she arrived here. There’s a kind of normalcy in the way design belongs to life in Europe, and how it breeds a kind of everyday design culture that she felt was lacking in America (I admit, I still feel this). She traces this inferiority complex back to the 18th century, when we began importing culture from France. But she recognized New York’s strength in contemporary art (“in Italy art ended with Dada”) and today she traced the coming-together of art, design and architecture through technology and economic crisis from 1994 until now.
Here are a few notes:

  • Today ours is a generation of lost architects — only 70+ year old architects get to build — so many architects have turned to design (so true!)
  • While Apple has raised the everyday design standard there’s been a decrease in the object as we now turn to interdisciplinary, ethereal, conversational and experimental design.
  • Romanticized or not, Paola proclaims that this is a great moment for design — it’s a force that means good business, good politics and good image-building
  • Design education has shifted from silos to interdisciplinary programs
  • Technology pre-9/11 was a time of great promise but a lot of frustration (difficulty in making connections). Her Design and the Elastic Mind attempted to show how that has changed — how technology now seamlessly brings together design and science to create objects and scenarios, to plant the seeds. Of all of the exhibitions that she has created, this is her favorite.
  • When curating a show she likes to leave it unfinished. Like architects who have a desire to never complete the project, she says that if you leave an exhibition unfinished you give a gift to the public — you let them finish it. You leave them with somewhere else to go.
  • Her newest project at MoMA is called Talk to Me, exploring the overt communication between people and objects. Designers are the interface, bring innovation to life, write the script for this dialogue.
  • This is an exhibition about process, so rather than present a checklist, she’s blogging the show as it forms and transforms (a big “minestrone”).
  • Paola shows us a diagram: “media” (the real world) on the left, and “digital media” (the ethereal) on the right. The space in-between is where we’ll live in the future, the liminal space of augmented reality where the real and the ethereal merge
  • The “@” symbol: a non-acquisition for MoMA — her proudest in the last six months
  • With a mission to educate, she feels that this kind of museum acquisition (“tagging” rather than purchasing) is very important, a must for the collection. “It’s like the symbol is in the air, and we captured its shadow.” From the middle ages the symbol has been in use and in 1971 it was re-used, recycled and repurposed — this is what we want design to be.
  • The idea of “tagging:” objects that you really can’t have because they belong to everyone, things that are in inner or outer space (or even entire buildings — should they be part of a museum’s collection?)

More re: the “@” symbol: “The museum is a mirror, it makes us feel validated. These are the services that we already use, but can’t posses. The more design becomes conceptual, digital and liminal, the more we have to adapt our ideas about curating.”