Long Read – Ordinary objects, extraordinary times: The V&A curates coronavirus

Published by Florence McCrae on May 10th 2020, 3:03pm

Since its foundation, some 168 years ago, the V&A has prided itself on being ahead of the curve. From the very first museum in the world to have a café, to the first lit galleries, the V&A has consistently positioned itself at the forefront of change.

In 2014 the V&A made history once more, not for being able to eat scones inside, nor for the use of lightbulbs. This time, they entered the history books thanks to a pair of Primark trousers.

The foundation of the Rapid Response Collection was both a break from tradition, and a continuation of it. Intended as a collection which “represents a unique strand of the V&A’s collecting activity, with each new acquisition raising different questions about economic, political and social change, globalisation, technology and the law” the pieces collected would have to be both items of contemporary significance as well as objects of art and design. There could be no better place for such items than a collection once described as “an extremely capacious handbag” by prominent art historian, Sir Roy Strong.

While most other collections in the museum are united by time period or by object, the Rapid Response collection shuns both of these in favour of bringing together a wide range of pieces. There are few other collections in the world where a Pussy Hat, a 3-D printed gun and the flappy bird app fit together without batting an eyelid.

The V&A website, somewhat more eloquently describes the collection as “ranging from Christian Louboutin shoes in five shades of 'nude', a 3D-printed titanium handlebar used by Bradley Wiggins to set cycling's Hour Record, to a knitted Pussy Hat worn at the 2017 Women's March in Washington DC, the day after Donald Trump's inauguration; each new acquisition raises a different question about economic, political and social change, globalisation, technology and the law.”

The collection is by no means the only one of its kind in the world, with the National Museum of Ireland and the Jewish Museum in Berlin also collecting pieces of contemporary art and design as and when it happens. However, the Rapid Response Collection is arguably the most famous of its kind. The comparative pieces which are exhibited in such collections are as worthy of analysis as the collections independently.

Since its conception, some six years ago, the Rapid Response Collection has extended its reach in the most interesting of ways. From the recent acquisition of Extinction Rebellion propaganda tools, to the Corbyn t-shirt, the collection has succeeded in exploring the contemporary significance of art and design.

One of the founding objects acquired by the Rapid Response Collection are, upon first glance, a pair of fairly innocuous trousers – grey cargo pants to be precise. With a waist size 34 and leg 32 there is apparently little that is exceptional about this piece. They sold for somewhere in the region of £10, sold from the retail giant, Primark. Yet upon further examination, the trousers take on a far more sinister meaning.

On the V&A website the trousers are explained in more detail: “On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1133 workers and injuring thousands more. Pairs of cargo trousers like these were manufactured there for British retailer Primark.”

The brief explanation continues, writing of a reformed approach to fast fashion examining how the very concept emerged from the work of companies such as Walmart. While this alleged change in approaches to fashion is perhaps a touch optimistic (it is currently estimated that by the end of 2020 the average wardrobe will consist of 40 per cent second-hand clothing) this reflection is a wise one.

The collection is also home to someway more abstract pieces. This can be seen in the museum’s choice to acquire the game of Flappy Bird, the museum’s first acquisition of an app.

The story of the app's rise to fame is as unusual as the V&A’s choice to acquire it. The app was created by Dong Nguyen, a Vietnamese artist and programmer, and was first published on the app store in 2012. It reached the height of its fame in 2013 and was both critiqued and praised for its high level of difficulty.

On 10 February 2014 the app was removed from both the Google and Apple store, with its creator citing “Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed...(b)ut it happened to become an addictive product. I think it has become a problem. To solve that problem, it's best to take down Flappy Bird. It's gone forever.”

The case gets more interesting and bizarre in that phones with the game preinstalled were put up for sale for after the app was pulled, with one iPad air put up for auction at $80,000 receiving multiple bids. While these purchases were all rendered null and void due to a violation of eBay’s policy that phones must be restored to factory settings before being sold, the marked interest in this app indicates how items with no tangibility can still be given monetary value.

Current global events have offered clear fodder for the V&A’s collection as a whole, proving particularly valuable to the Rapid Response Collection. With the V&A’s most recent exhibitions put on hold – one on Handbags was due to take place in late April and another on Alice in Wonderland was previously planned to take place in June, curators have found themselves with time to react to the pandemic, as and when it happens.

Senior design curator at the museum, Brendan Cormier, noted that: “The pandemic has this weird way of bringing to the fore objects you would never have thought about.

“Everything becomes heightened.”

In light of the pandemic, he has tasked his team with acquiring objects that represent the response to Covid-19 from the comfort of their own homes. It is thus, Pandemic Objects, was born, a Rapid Response Collection for the coronavirus era. This online series will examine the way objects, which may at first glance seem unremarkable, have been appropriated during these new and uncertain times.

Cormier says that: “There are so many designed objects and inventions coming out of the pandemic”. From the face visors, to hands-free door openers, designers across the world are certainly responding to the pandemic in full force. However, Cormier notes that: “it’s going to take time to work out which ones are actually useful.”

Objects which do not come to fruition are another aspect of the Rapid Response Collection, with a Kickstarter drone one piece of the pre-existing roster of objects. It is entirely possible that innovations such as the “vapourwave” may sit in these esteemed company in a few years’ time.

While Cormier does appreciate the importance of the Rapid Response Collection, he notes that it may be best to think first and act later, considering pieces which are immediately accessible for acquisition. He asks: “Is the pandemic revealing anything new, about things we take for granted?”

Indeed, one of the first subjects for the new project has been the signs in the windows of shops and homes alike. A move from the 1990s inkjet printer, these hand drawn signs, complete with a range of spelling mistakes and doodles, seem to indicate a more human response to an inhuman crisis. “In the moment of need, when the situation is changing so rapidly,” Cormier considers, “we’ve gone back to pen and paper.”

The range of signs visible on our daily state sanctioned walks show a sense of solidarity that we have perhaps been missing in the past. Rainbows have become a particular icon of hope, with Damien Hirst co-opting the imagery in a downloadable piece, freely printable for those who still have their inkjets to hand.

In a blog post focusing on the subject, Cormier writes that: “Navigating London over the first few days, I felt a strange closeness to these signs, a gentle guide – the language is almost always polite – for how to act and behave in the rapidly shifting scenario – as if carefully following orders from an unknown messenger.”

Indeed, he considers the revival of handwritten signs as objects that tell “us a lot about a layer of the city that we don’t talk much about anymore.”

While Cormier is considering the present, his colleague, Natalie Kane, is looking to the future, specifically the way in which current circumstances lend themselves to exhibitions. Her focus at present is the rather mundane use of door handles, an enemy in the Covid-19 world, especially considering the way in which the virus can live on surfaces for up to three days. Photographs of ingenious ways of opening doors are now becoming concerningly commonplace, with the more creative openings, the better.

Ella Kilgallon, assistant curator of designs at the institution, is also considering the human response to coronavirus. Her focus is perhaps more familiar – looking to Google Street View to find the most interesting responses to Covid-19. Inspired somewhat by The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, a work by Jon Rafman, which trawls the resource for the most peculiar of scenes including a moose mid-canter down a motorway, Kilgallon is, according to The Guardian, looking for “glitches in the lockdown matrix.”

While Kilgallon is looking for contemporary instances of unruly scenes, her work is well grounded in previous projects, including the 1897 work by the National Photographic Record Association. The association tasked themselves with cataloguing daily life, capitalising off the increased popularity of cameras at the turn of the decade. The collection was the proud possessor of 5,883 photos by 1910 – for context, 200,000 photographs are uploaded to Facebook every minute as of 2013. Intended to act as a “memory bank” in the hope of fostering “national pride”, one cannot help but be reminded of Historic England’s photography project to capture the country’s response to Covid-19.

In her post for the V&A blog, Kilgallon writes that: “In our own period of isolation, we too are seeking solace and adventure in virtual travel. For many of us, travel is an essential part of our lives, a necessary escape but also a way to fuel our curiosity.”

Indeed, she concludes that, in the time of travel constraints: “Perhaps only now, without the possibility of hopping on a flight, many of us are discovering the joys of virtual travel. After all there is (almost) no limit to where you can go, and no knowing what you might see.”

The collection also hopes to consider the unexpected heroes of the pandemic, from toilet paper, to cardboard packaging and the renewed interest in the sewing machine. Cormier notes that: “Despite all the hype around distributed manufacturing and downloadable customised designs, not many of us have a 3D-printer at home.

“Yet the great 19th-century invention of the sewing machine is still a ubiquitous household item.”

The sale of sewing machines has increased dramatically amidst the pandemic, while those more accustomed to the “Make Do and Mend” movement are even working to mass produce face masks. Cormier does wonder exactly how these will be distributed, particularly given the existing PPE crisis.

Prior to the pandemic, the Rapid Response Collection was shut, as part of a renovation project encompassing the entire Twentieth Century Gallery. While it is clear the pandemic will postpone this project, it is heartening to see the museum continue to operate in these increasingly uncertain times.

When the gallery reopens, alongside the reopening of the museum as a whole, one wonders which of the esteemed everyday objects will have been selected to fit into the Rapid Response Collection to reflect the global crisis. From mass produced PPE, to these handwritten signs and 3-D printed door openers, one cannot help but consider the material legacy Covid-19 will leave behind.

Curating the present for the future is an interesting predicament to be in indeed. One hopes that the V&A is able to collect pieces which go some way to reflecting the Covid-19 era. Only time will tell whether the ordinary objects collected will best represent these most extraordinary of times.

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Authored By

Florence McCrae
Literary Editor
May 10th 2020, 3:03pm

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