Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 8, 2006
Paola Antonelli Safe: Design Takes On Risk Museum of Modern Art, 2005. 216 pp.; 325 color ills. Paper (0870705806)
Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 16, 2005–January 2, 2006
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Daniel Ferrara and Mia Ferrara of Ferrara Design, Inc. Global Village Shelter. 2001. Triple wall fiberboard corrugate. 7’ 5” x 8’ 2 1/2” x 8’ 2 1/2" (234 x 250 x 250 cm). Images by Mia Ferrara.

SAFE: Design Takes on Risk managed to organize an unwieldy set of objects ranging from respirators for firemen, giant foil bags for temporary housing, manhole covers, and even disposable sheets for prostitutes who have to make beds on the fly. While curators Paola Antonelli and Patricia Juncosa Vecchierini divided the exhibition into categories, it was the theme of safety and security, real or imagined, that unified the exhibition. The central problem the exhibition addresses is the difficulty in sorting out phantasms from real threats. Contending that most ”safety items” are ignored entirely or lie outside the realm of everyday attention—for example, the airplane passenger briefing cards, normally unread and squeezed between an inflight magazine and a vomit bag, here on display—the exhibition took it upon itself to reintroduce these objects within the sphere of appearances that is the museum gallery. Hinging not only on good design and clever problem solving, the exhibition curators locate the inspiration for the show in Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” in which safety figures as the second human need, following only food and water.

As a result, the exhibition places safety in the paradoxical position of being both biological necessity and simultaneously a socially determined construct. Despite its importance for basic human well being, for preserving life itself, safety as it is defined in the exhibition becomes complicated, paradoxical, and culturally specific. Each exhibited item figures somewhere on the cultural continuum between paranoia and indifference, a line laid across a series of factors on a slide rule of risk. Safety items may enable us to withdraw from the threshold of danger, but in so doing, they may also push the threshold so far back as to overcompensate and stifle activity, curiosity, and adventure. As Antonelli writes in the exhibition catalogue, risk and safety are an inseparable pair: “Risk is mankind’s propelling fuel. We crave discovery, innovation, and inspiration, no matter how dangerous” (15).

SAFE is divided into six sections, Shelter, Armor, Property, Everyday, Emergency, and Awareness. Shelter showcases temporary or alternative housing solutions; Armor features bulletproof, knifeproof, and waterproof items; while Property displays such items as hooks on chairs to frustrate would-be purse snatchers or a laptop case disguised as a pizza box. (In this context, the knuckle-rings that fold into a single ring to double as a “decorative accessory” (112) mark a rather strange curatorial choice in aligning the protection of property with the protection of one’s person, as if things were an appendage of the self.) The section entitled Everyday includes ergonomic baby strollers, the next generation of Band-Aids, particulate respirators, and tanks that remove arsenic from drinking water. Its own separate category even though it might seem to make up a substantial part of all of the above, Emergency displays obvious kinds of safety gear: first aid packs, Israeli government-issued gas masks, and a crank-powered radio. The final section, Awareness, which turns to detection and communication devices, might be taken as a metaphor for the kind of awareness—both to the design of objects and the cultural significance of their existence—the show hopes to impart to its viewers.

If any of the items in SAFE might fall under the moniker of real need, it would be those in the sections about Shelter and Emergency. The plastic tarps, collapsible water containers, and infant feeding cups all distributed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) are apparently effective and could hardly be simpler. Stored at depots throughout the world, they can, amazingly, be rushed by UNHCR to any site within seventy-two hours of a disaster. Similarly, temporary housing units are displayed in accordance with the standard expectations that they be cheap, easy to ship, and assembled without tools or directions. Designed by Shirgeru Ban (1999), Paper Log House—Turkey uses paper tubes for walls and plastic bottle racks for a foundation. Paper packed into the tubes increases the insulation factor. Originally deployed in Japan after the Kobe earthquake in 1995, the design was modified to handle larger families and colder weather after the 1999 earthquake in Kaynalsi, Turkey. Another temporary housing unit, the Global Village Shelter, designed by Daniel and Mia Ferrara (2001), ships flat, like IKEA furniture, folds out, and snaps together. The seams are sealed with tape. Unlike the gear in the rest of the exhibition that improves safety, like reflective materials on bikes or Kevlar helmets, these items ameliorate the imminent bodily peril of those subject to natural and human-instigated disasters.

While it is somewhat surprising to see fundamentally useful items displayed in a museum organized under the pursuit of modernist aesthetics, the effort is well worth the while as visitors learn to rethink the conditions of the world in which we live. Our current obsession with being safe is similarly evoked in designs for objects that mock the current culture of fear. Ralph Borland’s Suited for Subversion (2002) is a protest outfit that, unlike the above-named housing structures, is never really intended to be used. The fire engine red, heart-shaped costume has enough padding to absorb the blows of a baton wielding riot cop and a built-in megaphone to yell chants. It calls to mind trademarked characters found at theme parks—an incongruous conflation of the theme park, a capitalist fantasyland, with protests and activism. That it looks like a lumpy blob is at odds with the clarity of the humorous indictment: social protest—or at least in so-called democracies—should not require protective gear.

Other examples of lighthearted, yet critical, safety gear utilize bulletproof materials. Tobias Wong’s Ballistic Rose Broach (2004) could only stop a carefully aimed bullet. By fashioning a gray rose out of Kevlar, Wong unseats associations with the fabric as a merely utilitarian material while also mocking our anxiety (perhaps real?) about the escalating risk of gun violence. Similarly, his Bulletproof Quilted Duvet (2004) with a black rose in the center made of ballistic nylon would seem to have limited applications, unless perhaps as a shield against a crime of passion. A group of students from the École cantonale d’art de Lausanne created the Swiss Fondue Earthquake Safety Table (2001). Attached to the bottom of a sturdy red enamel metal table are all the ingredients for fondue, a playful jab at Swiss military preparedness with its citizen army and legally mandated air-raid shelters in public buildings. At the flip of a switch, James Patten’s Corporate Fallout Detector (2004) can measure either how dirty or unethical a product is. It clicks furiously like a Geiger counter when aimed at greed and moral duplicity. Paul Kirps’s Protekt, Universal Protection Set (2002–3) looks like the white Styrofoam inserts that prevent electronics from breaking during shipping. These pieces protect the human body when the wearer slips her arm, neck, or leg through the hole; but they fit so poorly that she is incapacitated, or, as in one illustration, appears to be choking. Unlike the sleek, sheer, synthetic look of protective fabrics that cling to the body like a second skin, Protekt’s humor arises out of its clunky misfit on the body and the ironic indictment that our desire to protect ourselves results in extreme limitations on our activities.

A few objects straddled the serious-irony chasm with such aplomb that I was not sure how best to understand them. Mathieu Lehanneur intends to help patients acknowledge their illness and remind them about what steps they need to take to ameliorate their symptoms, or to realize that their lack of symptoms does not mean they are well. For example, The Third Lung (2001) glows to remind asthmatics to take their medicine. Liquid Bone (2001), constructed of a material that dissolves and effervesces on contact with water, resembles a cross section of a bone going from the solid outermost layer through the increasingly spongy core. My confusion about these pieces stems from their purported ability to aid the patient overcome denial and suppressed knowledge. Like court-mandated sobriety programs for drunk drivers that never address the core problem, and the endless stream of perpetually failed anti-smoking ads, these items cannot address the mechanisms of denial. Perhaps, they are best thought of as close cousins of the annoying alarm that sounds when one has not fastened one’s seat belt. They neither solve nor address the problem; they simply draw attention to its existence.

In the Everyday section, the Fresh Breath Checker (2003) is a halitosis monitor that rates breath on a numeric scale. Along with a number of other products from Japan, it relates safety to a constellation of sanitary concerns: a flapping penguin reminds children to wash after using the restroom, and a toilet that makes a flushing sound without running water muffles bathroom noises. Created by Ana Mir and Emiliana Design Studio, the Kleensex Disposable Pocket Sheet (2001) is for sex workers. Woven out of Tyvek and sealed in a bag, it spreads over a bed quickly. Here, there is a palpable sense of misplaced efforts: a sheet does nothing to prevent the spread of STDs, a bigger preoccupation for sex workers than dirty linens. Like safety, sanitation has just as much to do with cultural practice—if not more—as it does with preventing the spread of disease. As Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966) argues, sanitary habits often have little to do with a scientific germ theory of disease and everything to do with longstanding taboos surrounding pollution.

SAFE: Design Takes on Risk might have benefited from better and more numerous didactic materials explaining how the high-tech items work. In many instances, the objects were transparent, even if only to expose their ludicrous nature; but on occasion it was difficult to understand their function and place in the exhibition. For example, DrägerMan PSS 500 Art Unit (1998), an elegant, matte injection-molded plastic backpack, was meant to be a SCUBA-like contraption worn by firemen for low-oxygen environments. And yet, the viewer is left wondering about the designer’s choice of materials: would plastic withstand the highly toxic environments that might logically have caused such low-oxygen environments? Was this device even meant for these kinds of hypothetical environments? Most of the objects displayed in the exhibition depended on little special training or knowledge: safety items are meant to be easy to work and use with either no or minimal expertise, so perhaps there is not much interest in these devices outside of their immediate function. Knowing to pull the pin of a fire extinguisher before aiming it or tugging an orange tag to inflate a life preserver are more important from the perspective of safety than the chemistry of the fire-retardant spray or the mixture of gas that fills the life preserver.

Although neither the exhibition catalogue nor the exhibition mentions the double disaster of Hurricane Katrina—the flooding as a result of poorly built levees and the failure of the Bush Administration to evacuate those trapped in the city—it was the demands of situations like it that stimulated the creation of many items in SAFE. Yet Katrina illustrates that without distribution, chains of command, and political will, tarps and bottles of water will sit in warehouses and ice will get shipped to Maine. (As I write, portable housing units sit unused while displaced hurricane victims are sleeping in tents.) The overwhelming revulsion and outrage expressed by the U.S. public, along with the immediate comparisons of New Orleans to Baghdad, brought the war home, so to speak, even if in altered terms: there is nothing natural about the disaster in Iraq. However, New Orleans and the war illustrate that malfeasance—the human factor—kept the kinds of items on display at SAFE boxed, stored, and lost in the non-place of bureaucratic limbo. The World Bank’s recent attempt to measure corruption, which turns out to be a very difficult task, suggests that the relation between concrete objects, like those in this exhibition, and the invisible currents of human activity that swirl around them is, indeed, a tricky and nebulous space to navigate and illuminate. It remains to be seen what the consequences of displaying these items in a high art museum will be. Will the expanded conditions of visibility in which they circulate in this context lead to a greater willingness to understand the world we live in—and which we have created—or will they too fade in our memory as so much water under a bridge?

James Glisson
PhD candidate, Art History Department, Northwestern University

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