At the XXII Triennale di Milano, Preparing for Human Extinction

While attending Milan’s Design Week 2019, I was struck by the Triennale di Milano exhibition Broken Nature (running until August 31) and its unconventional perspective on the environment and global warming. In a city full of spectacular design events, it was Broken Nature that I kept thinking about.

The XXII Triennale di Milano, Broken Nature

The exhibition’s large-scale format can be overwhelming at first. With over a hundred artifacts, concepts and installations, the wide spectrum of projects on display explores a multitude of human relationships with their natural environments and cultural ecosystems. Presenting perspectives from international art, design and architecture, each installation is independent, yet together they initiate a timely and moving conversation.

Unlike anything else I’ve seen on the subject of our current environmental crisis, Broken Nature has decisively moved away from discussing ways to ensure human survival to preparing for extinction and curating our human legacy. Instead of urging action to prevent an imminent doomsday, MoMA’s Paola Antonelli, curator of Broken Nature, has turned the exhibition into an invitation to ask crucial questions. Her bold inquiries prompt visitors to envision opportunities and face the inevitable with a new sense of humility and openness.  Instead of seeing the end as tragic, she suggests, we can turn it into an occasion to embrace design as a tool to connect us with our natural environments—while we still can. As Antonelli says:

“Even to those who believe that the human species will become extinct at some point in the—near? far?—future, design presents the means to plan a more elegant ending. It can ensure that the next dominant species will remember us with a modicum of respect: as dignified and caring, if not intelligent beings. Our only chance at survival is to design our own beautiful extinction.”

Patricia Piccinni’s Sanctuary(Copyright La Triennale di Milano, photo by Gianluca Di Ioia)
"Restore and repair, don't simply build and consume," MoMA's Antonelli says

One of Antonelli’s strategies for becoming dignified and caring humans is to design communication that is more inclusive and diverse—language that allows us to cultivate our interconnectedness with the natural world.  Without recognizing the limitations of our current communication, we remain oblivious to finding other ways of relating.  Antonelli believes that “it is also important to find the adequate language—visual, spoken, sung, legislated, or other—that materializes and represents a necessary shift towards a more inclusive multispecies justice… ”

There are certain aspects of design that we generally don’t question: the production of sustainable goods, robotics, the classic vision of the mid-twentieth-century domestic lifestyle. Broken Nature challenges these views. It also urges us to realize the vital role design can play in human legacy. Each exhibit encourages us to depart from the traditional terms of design, and instead, to embrace its new phase as a key tool for representing human legacy and our reparation for it.

Even if we feel more comfortable talking about human survival instead of human legacy, the immediate goal remains the same. We need to start recognizing design as a tool to repair our natural environments and build social and economic justice for all. Ultimately, it’s time we begin to redesign our way of relating to the planet and its many species. As the Mayor of Milan said in his comments on the exhibition:

“Visiting the XXII Triennale di Milano is a way of getting informed, participating, discussing and renewing our way of inhabiting the Earth.”

XXII Triennale di Milano Broken Nature is on until August 31, 2019.