Notes on Design And Violence

Updated / Tuesday, 15 Nov 2016 12:24

Artist, curator and researcher Ralph Borland writes about Design And Violence, a fascinating new exhibition currently running at Science Gallery Dublin

In selecting work for this exhibition, it soon became clear that design and violence are potentially all-encompassing themes that might overwhelm us with their breadth.

Violence, in particular, permeates everything around us, as one of the central organising principles of human affairs. One of the definitions of a modern state is that it reserves the right to violence for itself, while excluding it from others it terms dissidents or criminals. Most of the time, state violence does not have to be exercised, but it is always present in the form of a police force or army ready to enforce laws and boundaries.

Unless we include the geological and evolutionary processes that shape the natural world as some form of ‘design’, the boundaries of design can be more readily contained. But even confined to human actions, we embraced in this exhibition a broad definition of design as not just the work of professionals or the product of mass-manufacture, but as found in everyday, ubiquitous objects and in ad hoc or DIY processes.

This is political: part of the slippery nature of violence is the way it appears to be a disruption of the normal, an aberration, rather than part of the normal state of things. The raw materials and labour processes in the products we buy in the developed world may have been secured through conflict and poverty in the developing world. This is our violence too, not just that of faraway places and peoples.

Part of the slippery nature of violence is the way it appears to be a disruption of the normal, an aberration, rather than part of the normal state of things.

The urge to identify ordinary things as within the frame of design is a democratic one — while recognising the role of skills and experience in shaping efficient and beautiful objects and systems, we want to bring design, too, into the frame of ordinary, lived experience. We are interested in reading objects for the intentions encoded into them, as well as noticing the way that objects shape the human world around us.

South African artist Thembinkosi Goniwe’s work Dignities, for example, a portrait of the artist alongside his painting lecturer, shows both men sporting ubiquitous ‘flesh-coloured’ plasters on their cheeks. On his lecturer’s white face, the plaster blends in, while on Thembinkosi’s dark skin it stands out starkly. The work identifies the assumptions embedded in ordinary designed objects, and the undignified effect of these on the user. The humble plaster signifies here both the superficial violence of a small injury, and the deep, long-standing violence of racial inequality.

As an additional lens for the exhibition, we looked at how potential work fitted into the frame of ‘now’, asking ourselves how the exhibits reflected a world that is increasingly urbanised, globalised and networked, in which inequality is rising, and in which new forms of technology are changing the face of labour, warfare and political control. Environmental harm — especially the biggest threat of our time, climate change — is increasingly realised as the violent result of our designs upon the planet.

The exhibits referred to in the exhibition cover a range of iterations of design and violence. Blockchain, the new form of distributed ledger and digital currency that promises to replace trust with code, refers to the violence of our financial systems and attempts to reform it through design. The Thanatron, a DIY suicide machine, is an example of how the boundaries of individual rights, including the right to elective self-violence, are pushed through design. White Torture points to our legal and ethical systems as sites for design, and to the fact that violence need not leave marks on the body to be devastating to the human psyche. The public artwork Drone Shadows refers to the distance at which violence is increasingly enacted, and attempts to close this gap by conveying some of the feeling of living under the threat of a drone strike — an everyday experience in some parts of the world, though not in the countries which control the drones.

The urge to identify ordinary things as within the frame of design is a democratic one.

As one of the curators and the lead researcher on this exhibition, the topics it raises have particular resonance with my experiences growing up in South Africa during apartheid, and in independent Zimbabwe. From an early age I was filled with stories and images of violence; both the violence of the state’s suppression of dissidents, and the romance of violence as a means for revolution. This tension between violence as oppressive harm to another and as a symbol of our capacity for resistance has remained a constant source of provocation for me.

The work that led to my role in this exhibition, my art-design project Suited for Subversion, on exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art for much of the last ten years, came in part out of this provocation. Designed from my experience taking part in large-scale street protests in New York in the early 2000s, it is a disarming suit of armour, clownishly over-protecting the wearer in order for them to claim territory from the state, while humanising them through a pulse-reader and speaker that transmits the wearer’s heartbeat outside their body.

During the same period, I saw the artist Saul Williams performing in a park in Brooklyn, and one sentence he spoke (in an early version of his song Grippo) has stayed with me ever since as offering some resolution to this tension. It is with these words that I would like to end this essay, along with thanks to everyone at Science Gallery Dublin and The Museum of Modern Art, New York for our shared work on this exhibition:

“Using violence as a metaphor for victory”

Reproduced with permission from Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin. Design And Violence runs at Science Gallery, Dublin, until 22 January 2017.