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Addressing the risky business of life

An ambitious show at MoMA displays items that make us safer, or that make us feel safer, and probes the difference between the two.

October 23, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

New York — "SAFE: Design Takes On Risk," which opened at the Museum of Modern Art last week as the first major design exhibition in MoMA's expanded building, is an ambitious attempt to explore the ways that products of nearly every size and shape make us safer -- or maybe just simply feel safer. Indeed, it is the no-man's-land between those two areas, between the specifics and the psychology of safety, that the show sets out to map.

"Safe" includes objects as small as earplugs and pill bottles and as large as a temporary shelter, with walls made of cardboard tubes, by Shigeru Ban. That it begins to resemble a catalog of items for sale after a while, with its baby strollers and surprisingly elegant razor wire and Swedish safety boots, seems entirely intentional. In America, as one snippet of wall text points out, "safety is an industry in constant expansion: because there is no end to what could go wrong, there is also no end to the creative and commercial possibilities that design can offer."

Consider the spare tire designed by Carlson Technology and manufactured by McLaren. Packed tightly inside its rim in wedge-shaped containers, to save space in the rest of your trunk, are the following items: "jumper cables, a one-gallon fuel can (with disposable bladders), an air compressor, a siphon pump (hand operated), a reflective warning triangle, a towing strap, a flashlight, three flares, a first-aid kit, fuses, a lock thaw, a Leatherman multipurpose tool, latex gloves, protective coveralls, a police aid sign, handwipes, and a rag."

It is a product perfectly designed for the American consumer -- a tidy marriage of the practical and the apocalyptic.

In the era of Hurricane Katrina and the avian flu, in a culture that has survived Sept. 11, coined the phrase "Sudden Infant Death Syndrome" and produced a half-dozen bestselling volumes of "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook" to go with four seasons of "Fear Factor," these themes could hardly be more timely. Indeed, if "Safe" lurches among the somber, the pragmatic and the pointedly absurd, it is only because our attitudes in the West about danger do the same.

The tonal dissonance struck by curators Paola Antonelli and Patricia Juncosa Vecchierini is, in other words, jarring but appropriate. After all, never before in human history have we been so well protected -- from disease, from accidental death, from boiling oil dropped from turrets above -- and also so absolutely paranoid about the dangers we face.

If you were to track life expectancy in America on a graph, for example, alongside a measure of anxiety about possible threats to our health and safety, you would see two lines rising in unison. Every day of the new millennium seems to bring a new technology to make our lives safer or healthier along with some new threat, sometimes real but more often imagined or exaggerated, to keep us up at night or jittery during our subway rides. This is the chief paradox of the Information Age. When Woody Allen turns 120, his body and hypochondria having been maintained by the wonders of Western medicine, maybe he'll make a movie about it.

Indeed, Antonelli and Vecchierini have included a number of objects that seem to make a point of encapsulating clashing or contradictory attitudes about risk. A design called Suited for Subversion, by 31-year-old Ralph Borland, is a case in point. It is an outfit for activists to wear during protests; it includes a wireless video camera to record police brutality and beam the footage digitally to a remote location where it can be stored. But since the suit is also inflatable and bright red, anybody using it resembles a giant overripe tomato -- an absurdity that is not just acknowledged by Borland in his photographs of the suit in action but exploited to full comic effect.

The design addresses a safety need -- protection against a wildly swinging police baton -- but seems more interested in suggesting the impotence, and thus the ridiculousness, of on-the-ground protest in an age when politics is contested almost entirely in the media. The friction between these ideas -- particularly at a time when a police beating in New Orleans has been on the news every night -- is what gives the design its bite.

There is also an "earthquake safety table" by a group of Swiss designers that includes bottles of water, a shovel and other practical items -- as well as a complete fondue set.

Not thinking big enough

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