MA Design Research social media editor Jenny Morris spoke with Amsterdam-based curator, author, teacher and D-Crit alum William Myers (class of 2010) for our Alumni Spotlight series. Myers’ work includes the books Biodesign and Bioart, as well as organizing exhibitions about these practices. His current focus is on starting up the Museum of 21st Century Design (M21D), highlighting topics like Carbon-Negative Design and the “Design of Dissent”. In the future, he looks forward to creating a series of “cookbook” guides for artists and designers to test drive emerging practices, like merging architecture with AI and Machine Learning. He is also organizing a new Bioart exhibition for the newly built MIT Museum, which will take place in 2022.
We’d love to hear about you, what you do and what led you to D-Crit.
What led me to D-Crit was the faculty. At the time, I was uncertain about what to study and where. I investigated PhD programs, MFA programs in writing and MA programs in the history of art and design; and then realized I didn’t want to be tied to one thing, that I wanted to write, teach, and curate exhibitions. D-Crit therefore made the most sense for me, as the courses offered to prepare me for all of those activities. What gave me a lot of confidence about it was the faculty at the time, like Paola Antonelli, Justin Davidson, Ralph Kaplan, Alexandra Lange, and Kurt Andersen. What I underestimated was how valuable the other students would become to me! To this day, some 12 years after meeting them, I still reach out to members of that class for professional or personal reasons.
Before D-Crit I worked for MoMA as the Manager of Business Development and Licensing for their Retail group for several years. It was a job that required me to learn about the Design Collection and exhibitions at the museum. The exposure to such content motivated me to want to work on the education and curatorial side of things, to make exhibitions and public programs.
What I do now is exactly what I had dreamed of before starting the D-Crit program: writing books, curating exhibitions, teaching, and participating in public talks and debates. The program was essential for me, not only for the training and the network, but for requiring me to produce my masters thesis, which served as the foundation for the first edition of the book: Biodesign, published by MoMA and Thames & Hudson. Since then I have organized several exhibitions on topics ranging from biotechnology and society to how machine learning is disrupting creative practices.
How do you feel the skills you picked up during the program have changed and adapted the way you now work out in the “real world”?
The skills I obtained in the program help me in all kinds of practical ways, especially how to pitch a story, book, or exhibition. I obtained the skill of how to edit and be edited, which is a lot harder than it sounds. It means to be able to see how a text can be stronger and give constructive advice, and also to be comfortable having the weaknesses in something you’ve made pointed out to you. This skill of course extends beyond the written word into areas like public speaking, exhibition design, or giving feedback on a design layout, just to name a few. The D-Crit program was a place where we all saw that we were on a mission to make things, like texts, as well as we could. It’s funny, people too often regard criticism as negative or the act of tearing down, but in the program I learned it as a project of strengthening. Criticism is also, in the context of the program, about inviting your reader or audience to develop greater sensitivity to quality in design.
Of course, the skills I picked up helped me develop the confidence I needed to strike out on my own to begin a cultural institution.
Let’s talk more about striking out on your own. What is the project you are most excited about that you are currently working on?
There are two projects: one is establishing a new Museum of 21st Century Design, which will focus on design with positive social or environmental impacts. The other project is curating an exhibition for the new MIT Museum that will open its doors in 2022. The topic is the rise of biotechnology and the ways in which artists are using or responding to it.
What is biodesign and can you speak to your work in this field?
Biodesign is design that is done with, for, or about biology. When “with” biology, it means harnessing processes like the growth of mushroom roots or the metabolism of bacteria to produce packaging or generate energy, for example. The category of “for”’ biology includes work like designing a platform underwater for corals to flourish. The last type, “about” biology, includes speculative works, perhaps in video, objects, or images, that comment on or critique the use of synthetic biology, for example.
Can you tell us about the Museum of 21st Century Design (M21D)?
Happy to do so! The museum’s mission is to enhance public understanding and appreciation of design of this century that makes positive social or environmental impacts. We will present temporary exhibitions in galleries and public spaces and maintain a virtual collection. As the mission suggests, we’re more likely to exhibit a Fairphone than an iPhone. The exhibitions we are working on revolve around themes like “Carbon Negative Design,” which would present works that sequester carbon in their lifecycle. Or the “Design of Dissent” — design that supports acts of protest. A priority of the museum is engagement. We think putting beautiful, precious objects under glass or on pedestals is not very inviting. Visitors should be welcomed to talk in the exhibition space and also to touch objects, activities that we’ve all been conditioned not to do in a museum.
At the heart of it, M21D, which has just been established, responds to the need for a design museum that is in touch with the 21st century priorities of social and environmental justice. Our goal is to celebrate and provide platforms for design that advance justice and address the climate crisis. We aim to be nimble, prototyping programming and new exhibition formats to discover how best to serve the public. Our exhibitions will pop-up in places, sometimes galleries, but also in other public spaces or other environments like shopping centers, so we reach audiences where they are.
We just hired our third employee, and we will be announcing a call for a guest curator very soon.
What is one piece of wisdom you’d like to impart on current students going through the D-Crit program?
Be sure to forge strong ties with your classmates. They will be your champions, collaborators, and even friends, for many years. Do not hesitate to challenge one another, find your stances on the design issues that are important to you, and develop them further.
Thank you William!
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