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Paola Antonelli and Alice Rawsthorn’s Instagram Live Series Examines COVID-19 Designs

The design.emergency initiative has unpacked everything from collaborative PPE production to object hacking and the power of symbolic imagery.

As a part of the design.emergency initiative with Paola Antonelli, Alice Rawsthorn recently spoke to Antwerp-based designer Dries Verbruggen about collaborative efforts being made in the fashion-focused city to create over 100 thousand gowns, coveralls, masks, and other PPE. Courtesy design.emergency

In the era of the pandemic, the design world’s museums, galleries, manufacturers, organizations, and independent talents have all gone virtual. An endless list of COVID-19-induced cancellations has driven most to find clever ways in which to present their work and engage their audiences. Many have opted for viewing room and interactive exhibition formats, while social media and video communication services have also played a vital role.

The domain’s fast adaptation has been a testament to its inherent resourcefulness. Utilizing features like Instagram Live and Zoom, a slew of companies, institutions, culture-makers, and creatives have joined established publications—Metropolis included—in creating thematic talk series. Though this flurry of activity has quickly oversaturated the market, a few recent initiatives have been able to stand out from the crowd.

Among these is design.emergency, an interview series launched in early May by MoMA senior design curator Paola Antonelli and renowned critic Alice Rawsthorn. The duo has tapped into their shared wealth of knowledge to explore design’s implication in the current pandemic.

Twice-weekly conversations with leading experts and creatives in various fields have covered subjects as varied as health-care architecture, medical illustration, hacking, data visualization, symbolism, and collaborative PPE production. Antonelli spoke to Metropolis about the impetus behind this entirely new curatorial endeavor.

Alice Rawsthorn Design Emergency
Also in May, Antonelli and Rawsthorn examined various examples of hacking as a design practice in response to the current pandemic. Courtesy design.emergency

Metropolis: You’ve covered a wide range of topics so far through design.emergency. For you, what is is the through-line that ties these different stories together?

Paola Antonelli: Alice and I have both spent our careers expanding the definition of design. At MoMA, I’ve worked with video games and information design. In her latest book Design as an Attitude, Alice goes so far as to consider gesture as another application. We share the belief that this discipline is enmeshed in every aspect of our world; the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s important to show that design is not only cute chairs, and prove the power of this discipline; those who are producing design might not even know they’re doing so.

From this vantage point, it’s easy to see how our general culture has not yet fully formulated or accepted the idea of design. A crisis like COVID-19 presents an excellent opportunity to reveal how it can come alive, especially when in reaction to an emergency but also in providing reparative and informative solutions. Design is all about helping people deal with changes that are sometimes uncomfortable—and making revolutions become life.

Though the situation is rapidly changing and we acknowledge that other significant issues have come to light, our goal is to continue our focus on COVID-19 and to reflect its evolution in the topics we choose to cover going forward. Eventually, we’d like to publish a book.

Federica Fragapane
In early June, Antonelli spoke to Italian information designer Federica Fragapane. The two discussed how interactive data visualization projects, like Migrants’ Contribution to the COVID-19 Response and Bringing Greater Precision to the COVID-19 Response, can help better expose the fragility and inequity of system—and offer means by which to find new solutions. Courtesy Federica Fragapane / Surgo Foundation

Metropolis: Instagram is itself a type of design in this respect. Why did you choose this particular platform?

PA: Having been a guest in a number of Instagram Live talks early on during the pandemic, I realized that this would be the perfect tool for Alice and me to develop a new project. She had already been utilizing her feed for a series of Design in a Pandemic and Design and Disaster posts. It made sense for us to continue to employ this service. Zoom would have been too formal. Different social media platforms reflect different personalities, it’s not just generational.

As critics, we need to find the right channels and the right voice to bring people in to create universal interest. And one way truth is achieved—even though I often say that I’m more comfortable with objects than with people—is when you show humans making things happen. It’s one thing to write a persuasive post about the image of the coronavirus concocted by the CDC, explaining that the S proteins were augmented to create this kind of hell raiser picture. It’s another thing to talk to medical illustrator Alissa Eckert, who can offer a more in-depth and personal perspective.

Spiky Blob COVID-19
The “spiky blob” illustration was created with the intention of giving the virus an identity, a mug or beauty shot, something the public could recognize over time. Courtesy Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins / CDC

Metropolis: In your ongoing research for this project, have you uncovered any new methodologies that have emerged out of this crisis?

PA: There aren’t entirely new categories per se, but perhaps more a sense of recalibration and reorientation. Architects and designers are now using their 3D printers to create shields and other PPE. Game designers are developing new programs that replenish ICU workers. Whenever there are major changes in our world, designers are the ones that help politicians, scientists, and sociologists pivot. Much like the 2008 economic crisis, COVID-19 is forcing us to make big adjustments and realign our priorities.

In terms of methodologies, practices like hacking have always been around in some form or other. What has been emerging for a few years now is the idea of forensic design that relies heavily on deeper investigations and more applicable results. This has taken the place of what was before called critical or speculative design. This particular approach was too cute and self-conscious at times. What is currently arising is less fluff and more real things. Bigger issues like environmental degradation and social injustice are still present. There’s no space for obfuscation in this regard.

You may also enjoy “After COVID-19, What’s Next for Landscape Architecture?”


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