Utopia vs Dystopia: “Reality Show”

By NYCxDesign

By Laetitia Wolff

What should designers propose at a time when “to be one with the world” is “to be one with technology”?

Utopia – Dystopia, the inaugural exhibition of creative space A/D/O, asks this very question.

An ambitious combo of workspace, public gallery and programming, fab lab, incubator, designer-in-residence studios, and restaurant from a Michelin-starred restaurant team, A/D/O, the brainchild of car company MINI, is an experiment in creative and urban hybridization. Set in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in what was not so long ago a derelict urban fringe, the 23,000 square-foot design space has quickly become the darling of the design community and an illustration of how creative industries drive the revitalization of post-industrial areas.

For their first exhibition, A/D/O invited architect/thought leader Jeffrey Inaba of Inaba Williams, and graphic designer and former AIGA NY vice-president Glen Cummings of MTWTF, who are happily accustomed to challenging disciplinary boundaries, to conceive an exhibition on the theme “Utopia – Dystopia.”  Inaba and Cummings, whose firms have frequently collaborated over the last decade, created the entire exhibition, researching the theme, producing and creating the video content, and designing the physical experience of the hanging digital triptychs.

Laetitia Wolff caught up with Inaba and Cummings last month at “Beyond the Utopia – Dystopia Mindset,” a presentation and discussion between the designers and agent provocateur Eva Franch i Gilabert, chief curator and executive director of Storefront for Art and Architecture. They reminded the audience that the concept of Utopia is a way to critique reality, question social constructs, and while it doesn’t necessarily translate to good, it’s a place where everything is possible.

What is the exhibition Utopia – Dystopia saying about design?

Jeffrey Inaba: A/D/O asked us to consider possible roles for design in this particularly polarized moment when the effects of new technologies seem to be both humanity’s salvation and destroyer. But new technologies don’t reach the public until designers visualize their envelope, interface, and user scenarios. Designers both predict and enact the future by first imagining how new technologies can be used, and then giving them a form. Designers are experts at creating images that trigger imaginations and shape the way we see the world through the images, physical objects, and spaces we make.

The exhibit is built on this dichotomy between utopia and dystopia, how did you maintain a balanced discourse on technology?

Glen Cummings: There is this escalated sense that technology will either help the world transform for the better or it will deliver us to a dark place. We were interested in shifting out of this bi-polar mindset to look at ways that design can lead us to imagine alternative directions for our future.   

The exhibition uses four themes—Identity, Interface, Action, and Territory—to show how we are using design to construct just who we are, how we interact with the world, and how we understand our surroundings. The exhibition presents some of the trajectories of the human species.

Jeffrey Inaba: In the Identity section we look at how humans are enhancing themselves with technology. Under the Territory theme, we look at the emergence of new types of post-natural environments. Instead of asking “Will nature endure the harmful effects of technology?” We ask, “Can technology better support nature to become more resilient?”

How does MINI position itself as a design company vs. a car company?

Glen Cummings: That’s a question best answered by the A/D/O team. Our understanding is that MINI is a design company, whose most visible product is cars. It’s a familiar scenario for most designers, and for me as well in that MTWTF’s product is design, which takes the form of books and exhibitions and signs, but we are not a book, exhibition, or sign company. We research our projects, develop ideas about what they could be, and then imbue the things we work on with intelligence through design.

Exhibition Credits

Exhibition by Inaba Williams and MTWTF

Jeffrey Inaba, Glen Cummings, Sharon Leung, Sarah Dunham, Betsy Medvedovsky, and Zena Mariam Mengesha

Video animations by Alec Donovan

Design assistance and fabrication by Kin & Company

Joseph Vidich, Cody Pfleging, Maksim Drapey, Alejandra DaPatte, and Marco André Dwyer

Audio/Visual support by Sonic Platforms

Max Lauter, Melodie Yashar, and Michael Christopher