MoMA curator: “[Humanity] will become extinct. We need to design an elegant ending”

In an exclusive interview, Paola Antonelli discusses the end of humanity, the idea of design reparations, and her forthcoming exhibit “Broken Nature.”

The human species is hurtling toward extinction. It’s not a matter of if. It’s when.


So suggests MoMA senior curator of architecture and design Paola Antonelli in the forthcoming exhibit Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival. The show, which headlines the XXII Triennale di Milano this spring and promises to be the most significant design exhibit of the year, has two tantalizing theses: Design can help prolong human survival, and, when that fails, design can help us cope with the end. “We’re proceeding faster than many other species that have become extinct,” Antonelli says. “I don’t see any other possibility.”

If that sounds unfathomably bleak, welcome to 2019. In a groundbreaking study last year, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that our current pace of greenhouse gas emissions could lead to mass food shortages, wildfires, and the decimation of coral reefs by 2040, with damage costing an estimated $54 trillion.

Make no mistake: The moral imperative falls to leaders in governments, institutions, and corporations to enact radical policy changes. But design plays a role in helping the public understand, and embrace, complex solutions. More immediately, Antonelli says, design can inspire people to mount pressure on those in positions of authority, before it’s too late and all that’s left to do is pick the wood grain on our collective coffin.


Fast Company: Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival is such a provocative title. Is the suggestion that design can fix what humans have wrought or that we’re nearing the end and we might as well make it as beautiful as possible?

Paola Antonelli: There was a recent article in the New York Times, asking: Would human extinction be such a bad thing? Personally I believe that we will become extinct, and I also believe that we need to design a better, more elegant ending.

It is frankly a fact of nature. Everything extinguishes itself sooner or later. Usually, it happens over thousands of years. We’re proceeding faster than many other species that have become extinct. We are particularly good at becoming extinct much faster than anything else. I don’t see any other possibility. Our sense of omnipotence and our sense that the universe revolves around us and we will last forever is very misguided.


So [hopefully] the next species will remember us with a little more respect and tenderness and maybe will incorporate part of us in the future of the planet and the universe. No matter what, whether we become extinct or not, we have a responsibility. We have to think of our legacy. And we have to be empathetic beings in the universe. Design can help us do that.

FC: Can you give me a sense for what that looks like, designing the end? Why do we need to design the end?

PA: If you knew when you would die, you would probably want to make it count. If you knew it would happen at a certain time. First you would have anger and despair. But then, you would probably try to make it so that even the end means something. It’s quite natural to want to go out with some elegance and want to be remembered in a positive way. Every human being thinks about their legacy.

Trinitite, 2014. [Photo: Enformable Nuclear News/courtesy the author]

FC: You’ve commissioned some remarkable projects for Broken Nature: melanin used at architectural scale (by Neri Oxman), electronic waste rethought of as a new material (by Formafantasma), an investigation of birds in Syria (by Sigil Collective). What is the through-line between these ideas?

PA: The through-line is trying to repair the threads that connect us to nature, to communities, to empathy. There are two main ideas: One is the attempt to bring about this concept of restorative design. Restorative design already exists in landscape architecture, but it’s very much about agro-biodiversity. Instead I would like to bring it back to the original idea of restaurants. Restaurants were born in 18th-century France, as places you would go after you had eaten too much rich food. You would go to drink bouillon and restore your health. It’s only afterward that they became places for pleasure and conviviality. But this idea of cleansing and restoring, and moving on to a new, different type of pleasure, is something I would like to show in the exhibition. I think we have already gone past the bouillon and chicory moment. We can have that pleasure, but we can be more mindful and responsible.

The other idea is the concept of reparations by design. It’s the Anthropocene. We have truly acted with arrogance as colonizers. We have enslaved nature, other humans, and animals. We have behaved with irresponsible narcissism. So we should pay reparations. We should try to restore and give back, and reposition ourselves in the universe. When we damage nature, we damage ourselves.


FC: Can you give examples that illustrate this idea of paying reparations?

PA: There are two in completely different areas of the world: One is Futurefarmers by Amy Franceschini. She has a project called Seed Journey, in which a sailboat goes from Oslo to Istanbul, and it carries artists and bread bakers and activists and philosophers and carries wheat seeds that are indigenous to those different places. It’s about trying to bring back these original breeds of seeds and to also bring with them that tradition. It’s a beautiful journey by sea of biodiversity.

Another project is Totomoxtle in Mexico by Fernando Laposse. He uses the husks of corn to create new materials, and he does so by harnessing the craftsmanship of the people who grow corn breeds in different parts of Mexico. He’s also trying to help local populations revert to the indigenous breeds of corn that are maybe yielding less each year, because so much indigenous corn has been substituted by genetically modified breeds that yield more each year. Ultimately, it’s about empathy, and a love of the land and the communities.


FC: Do you have a favorite project or object in the show?

PA: There’s one project, it’s actually not design, it’s photography. But it stands as a symbol of the whole exhibition. There is a photographer called Laura Aguilar. I saw her photographs a year and a month ago in an article in the New Yorker, and I was so moved. It’s the Grounded series. You see self-portraits of this body, her own body, in nature, and there’s such sympathy and empathy between her and nature, and such love. So I reached out to meet her, and she just died, like a week before. I had no idea. She was in her 50s. Right now, I’m struggling to get the work. I’m thinking, I will just have to go to L.A. and get it. It is just so beautiful. It moves me, as art should.

FC: How is the show itself designed?


PA: The exhibit starts in a very factual way. You start by entering a room of information design, where you get the facts. NASA has this website, Images of Change, that shows before and after images of different territories around the world. It’s so effective. We’re going to have these images of change on big screens. And then we’re collecting data sets now, to show people change has happened–it’s not an invention, things are moving at a very fast pace.

Then you enter a cosmic section, which shows what our futures could be, and what our past has been. So there’s going to be a work by Daisy Ginsburg together with Sissel Tolaas and Christina Agapakis that brings back the scent of extinct flowers.

From there, you’ll go into the every day. So you move slowly to the Ruby Cup [an eco-conscious alternative to tampons] to characters made of trash in Cape Town, South Africa–very mundane works. Then you go back to a systemic view of reality, in which you see work by [the Netherlands-based, Italian duo] Formafantasma, which is designed to make people realize that trash is not trash, but a material. So it has an atmospheric beginning, and then a back-to-reality mode, then at the end–empathy is the way forward. So Laura Aguilar, if I can get the print, will be at the end.


FC: There are projects from all over the world. Why is it important to have global representation?

PA: One of the factors that has held us back, especially in the northern hemisphere and Western world, is our self-centeredness. In a moment of scarcity of resources, we could really learn from places where resources have been scarce all the time. I’m in my mid-50s, and I was lucky enough to have a grandmother born in 1899 and a series of aunts and uncles that went through the first war and especially the second world war, and to this, I make chicken broth with the bones after we had wings. I still have that in me. It’s invaluable. I still have sweaters from 35 years ago. There’s something that comes from an education of scarcity, even though I’ve never been poor. But I’ve had that education from people who went through the war. It’s incredibly important. What makes a world first or third? Is it just money or is it wisdom? And who’s richer in that case?

FC: How much power do you think design really has to effect change and alter people’s behavior?


PA: Design has a lot of power that is still untapped and unexplored. There are many different types of designers. They all have influence on our behavior. Some have fundamental, earth-shattering influence, like the designers behind apps and electronic appliances and the interfaces we use all the time. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. That’s design of the system but also the interface. Other designers might have less effect, but they all act under different pressure points under the great acupuncture system of human life.

This is something I first thought of when I did [the MoMA exhibit] Design and the Elastic Mind in 2008. It was an exhibition about design and science. What I realized was that big revolutions might happen in science and technology and politics, but designers take these big revolutions, and they transform them into life. So by making microwave ovens, by giving the internet windows and buttons, [these technologies] can be used by everyone. Designers take these momentous changes, and they bring them to people.

Nobody has complete power, not science, not politics, not design, but it is the interaction and collaboration between all of these systems that is crucial. Design is the enzyme of progress. It makes the metabolism of scientific and technological revolutions happen.


FC: I’m curious if you can put the exhibit into the larger political context we’re in right now, here in the states but also in Europe–this refusal to tackle any environmental and social challenges head on.

PA: I’ve been trying to make sense of this kind of risky, dangerous, tragic situation that the concept of democracy is in right now. There’s this kind of entrenchment and feeling on the part of some governments that it’s me-first–America, England–and that goes completely against the kind of collaboration needed to counter a destructive path. Instead of being empathetic and collaborative, many governments are separating and being protectionists, and it’s hard to understand why. It’s also a chain reaction: One starts, the most important in the world, and the others go with it. If you are thinking only of yourself, then why should I think of others? It really is an incredible force that is pulling us in the wrong direction.

The citizens are the only ones who can do something. Right now, citizens are much more aware than governments are. I am hoping that [in Broken Nature], they will find inspiration and ideas for how to change their behaviors in their everyday life, and, bottom up, pressure institutions and governments and corporations to come to agreements in legislation that will help us move forward. It has to be a groundswell.


Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival will run March 1 to September 1, 2019 in Milan. It’s curated by Paola Antonelli with Ala Tannir, Laura Maeran, and Erica Petrillo.


About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D


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