03 July 2019

Broken Nature. Interview with Paola Antonelli

The catalogue of Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, the XXII International Exhibition at the Triennale di Milano, concludes with the thought that our only chance of survival rests on designing the best possible ending. Curated by Paola Antonelli, the exhibition brings together more than 100 architecture and design projects in order to tackle in a crosscutting and disenchanted manner the troubled relationship between man and nature. Broken Nature picks up the threads of a thirty-year debate with an in-depth exploration of the relationship between man and nature, a profoundly compromised, if not entirely severed bond. Although its curator is convinced that the human race will inevitably be wiped out (just as dinosaurs were), the exhibition explores the concept of restorative design, illustrating objects and strategies, on various different scales, that reinterpret the relationship between human beings and the context in which they live, including both the social and the natural ecosystems. The message is not the salvation of mankind, however, but the legacy we will leave on earth and the possibility of existing (and co-existing) better on and with Mother Earth for the time that is left to us.

We asked Paola Antonelli to tell us about Broken Nature.

As an icebreaker, could you take us metaphorically by the hand and lead us through the exhibition? What is the overarching narrative or, as we would say these days, its storytelling power?
When the subjects are quite so wide-ranging, one has to look for a common thread. Thinking about the public that the Triennale would draw in – not just designers and professionals – we set ourselves three main objectives. First of all, that everyone who visited the exhibition should take home a long-term view. We hope they would not think just in terms of one, two or three generations, but that they would understand that the past, made up of many centuries, and the future, made up of just as many eras, are an integral part of our continuum and therefore that we are responsible for what will happen even several hundred years in the future. The second objective is to give our visitors a sense of just how complex the system we live in really is; actions breed not just reactions, but we should always consider the collateral and reverberating effects that our actions will have on various world systems – natural, economic and sociological systems. The third objective we set ourselves is that everybody should leave the Triennale with some idea of what they can do in their everyday lives to build a more restorative attitude to nature and the world in which we live. Therefore, the exhibition starts with a very broad perspective, looking to the long term in an attempt to understand the great transformations that our world and mankind have undergone. It then gradually becomes more everyday with, for instance, a biodegradable pregnancy test and suggestions on how to use sun creams without leaving a lasting effect on our oceans. From the quotidian, it then moves onto the large systems – from circular manufacturing to global and cosmic systems and finally artificial intelligence, suggesting what constitutes a restorative attitude, fuelled by empathy and love.

Is there a common thread or a common goal that links the projects commissioned from Formafantasma, a Neri Oxman, Sigil Collective and Accurat? Where do the concepts they explore originate?
Neri Oxman, Accurat, Sigil Collective and Formafantasma were commissioned to create the four big Broken Nature projects. What they have in common is this notion of a restorative attitude and a desire to reconnect parts of the way in which we interact with nature. When I say nature, I don’t just mean flowers, plants and animals, but also the other human beings and systems that we human beings have created. So Neri Oxman hasn’t just tried to come up with a new method for building more efficient edifices thanks to the introduction of tyrosinase, an enzyme that leads to colour formations and darkens as the sun reaches its zenith, acting as a natural filter, she is also trying to create a monument that will invite reflection on racism, on the arbitrariness of some of the criteria that we adopt for the sole purpose of judging other individuals different to ourselves. So this project encapsulates both an extremely practical and a consistently restorative function, with a profoundly moral and intellectual component. The same is true of Sigil Collective, which attempts to open the world’s eyes to ‘faraway’ and ‘blurred’ places. We’ve heard of the Golan Heights in Syria, but we have no idea of how people live there on a daily basis. What the Sigil Collective is trying to do is to build a direct bridge between a place in Syria –the Golan Heights, in this case – and another locations, related to the commission – the Triennale or the Biennale. The Formafantasma team, Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi are trying to impart an extremely valuable lesson, which is that waste is not just waste but a material place. There are many ways in which we can adopt a restorative attitude: obviously there’s recycling, reuse, using less, acquiring objects created in a more ethical and responsible way, keeping them for longer, and many more. What Formafantasma tells us through these wonderful objects, these elegant pieces of furniture, is that waste can be seen as a new material and, equally, that it shines a light on the very dark and, sometimes, criminal backdrops to the traffic in electronic waste. Accurat’s project helps us build an all-round vision of what has happened to the human species over several millennia and relate it to planetary, cosmic and specific phenomena on our planet.

The terms ‘extinction’ and ‘survival’ are, to all extents and purposes, contradictory, how do they co-exist not just in the title but also in the exhibition?
The Italian title of the exhibition does not contain the ambiguity of the English one. Takes can in fact be a noun or a verb. It could be translated as ‘visions of design on the survival of humanity’, assuming takes to be a noun, or if one assumes it is a verb, then there are two potential options: translating it as ‘confronting’ in the sense of ‘taking on board’ or as ‘confronting’ in the sense of ‘acting as an antagonist to human survival.’ The exhibition itself actually wants to demonstrate the fact that there is a very real danger of man dying out as a species but that our heritage could be carried forward by another species in another way.

How does Broken Nature manage to imbue new meaning into the now rather hackneyed terms ‘sustainability’, ‘circularity’, ‘green design’ and reuse’?
I don’t think there’s any need to give a new meaning to these terms. ‘Sustainability’ is too vague a term, so in some sense, it’s not a matter of giving it new value but, perhaps, of not using it any more because it really is a bit too passé. ‘Green design’ is just so wrong that it no longer has any meaning and I would never use it. ‘Re-use’ indicates one of the possible strategies of a restorative attitude. ‘Circularity’ is a term that I literally embrace, because it is one of the most important ways of thinking It means metabolism, it means organic connection with the different parts of the system. I’m not trying to give it a new life; I‘m trying to understand it. But the term we want to use most is ‘restorative’, which implies restoring groups, restoring connections, restoring understanding. This is not an exhibition on green design or sustainable design. Broken Nature goes much further and tries to motivate people to have a more restorative attitude. Design is just one example of this attitude that, one hopes, goes way beyond the sphere of design.

Would you claim to have learnt something from Broken Nature? Is there a project that has tempted you to reconsider your position on the extinction of the human race?
I’ve learnt a huge amount, I always learn a great deal from the exhibitions I curate. Generally speaking, I’ve learnt a lot from the designers, from the visitor reactions. Also from peeping at social media. On Instagram you realise what the ‘stars’ of the exhibition are, which objects have had a greater direct impact on the public, such as the baby octopus that goes into its shell, or the Bonobos at the end, but also the Capsula Mundi, which shows how a burial pod can turn your body into a tree. I am delighted to have included a project such as the algae platform by Atelier Luma, which is incredibly effective, and obviously I’m hugely pleased about the Great Animal Orchestra, a splendid place you can spend hours in. There are also the incredibly interesting national entries. So there’s lots to see, there is also a lot to learn from all the designers who send me their comments. Exhibitions are never things you put in a showcase and then, as curator, get up and leave – there’s continuous feedback.

Why does Broken Nature end with the work of Laura Aguilar?
Because her work literally took my breath away when I saw it for the first time. You see this body that you would not consider traditionally beautiful but which becomes transcendental because it’s beside a rock that looks incredibly like that body. Laura Aguilar said she identifies herself with rocks. That moved me. It made me think that this loving attitude towards everything is the best way to carry on living as a species and as individuals.


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