Interview with Curator Alexandra Midal

March 3, 2016 | By Dorothée Charles

Professor Alexandra Midal is a freelance curator. Midal started her career as Dan Graham’s assistant before becoming Director of the FRAC Haute-Normandie. She is currently a professor at HEAD, University of Art & Design (Geneva). In the last years, she has produced films of visual theory: Hocus Pocus: Twilight in my Mind; An Introduction to an Eames Atlas; Domestic Psycho, and more. Recent curatorial projects include Politique-Fiction, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, Tomorrow Now: Where Design Meets Sci-Fi, and shows with Marguerite Humeau, Noam Toran, Superstudio, Auger-Loizeau, and Carlo Mollino. She has published numerous works including Design, l’anthologie; matali crasset: Works; and Antidesign, Design: Introduction à l’histoire d’une discipline. In 2016, she will curate the show Eames & Hollywood (ADAM) and will publish Design by Accident (Sternberg Press).


Dorothée Charles: In collaboration with the citywide NYCxDesign festival in NY Cand the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, MAD invited you to present a two-part shorts program titled Designers Screenings. How did you conceive of this series?

Alexandra Midal: Design and film are at the intersection of two traditions, modern cinema, invented by the Lumière brothers, and design, invented by American protofeminist Catharine Beecher. Early designers, Frank and Lilian Gilbreth collaborated with the Butt Film Company in the 1910’s as a tool for their research in the French tradition of Etienne Jules Marey. The recording devices invented by the physiologist Marey and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, considered to be the true foundations of design by Siegfried Giedion, had already closed the presumed gap between the realms of film and design by means of a series of representations capturing movement in space. But it was within a scientific framework: film was a medium accurate enough to capture details the eye couldn’t grasp. What is at stake with Designers Screenings is a different story. Cinema and design are two disciplines born within the modern era and linked to industry. Far from the functionalist mantra of object production, film or video have become one of the designer’s many languages. The relation between film and design is part of the history of design, it is particularly vivid today and it deserves to be screened and presented to a large audience. The two series articulate a strong dialogue, they demonstrate how contemporary designers play with storytelling and make their own statements through film. 

DC: Could you talk about the selection of films made by designers you curated and the diversity of the program?

AM: It is quite an intense program that is going to be screened over two Friday evenings. The two evening series present very different films by El Ultimo Grito; matali crasset & Juli Susin, Brynjar Sigurðarson; Marguerite Humeau; Alexandra Midal; Noam Toran; Jasper Morrison; Onkar Kular, and Michaël Mouyal. While some films gather a series of objects or props that generate their own fiction, such as Noam Toran’s MacGuffin, Jasper Morrisson shows how a designer can communicate through other vehicles, languages other than words. 

DC: You are a design theoretician and historian, an independant curator, teacher at the HEAD (Geneva). In creating your films (Hocus Pocus: Twilight in my mind / Domestic psycho, Politic Fiction, Villa Frankenstein, etc. ) you have a visual theory perspective and approach. Could you explain these projects?

AM: Video is a possible language for an art historian, Hocus Pocus: Twilight in My Mind was the first of my series of visual essays. In this ’design thriller’, I was wondering: can such a thing as the aesthetics of crime be considered within the discipline of design?  As a reference to Thomas De Quincey’s essay  On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts (1827), can crime, deceit, or treachery, remarkably missing from the designer’s vocabulary, be included within design history? From the spectacular hoaxes realized by Barnum for his Museum to the Prestige presented by French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the arts have hosted fascinating sort of treachery. But, the most compelling of all is the Machiavellian house that serial killer H. H. Holmes designed to commit 27 murders. The first U.S. serial killer used the most recent technological innovations in his “castle” where, fascinated by the potential of industrially assisted murder, he took the full measure of the association between progress and design. 

Writing is one of the many languages that I can use. I was always interested by the importance of editing and it is a constructive process that I value. My propositions frame a complex set of hierarchies between images and theory. The reason d’être of my visual essays is to forge a third meaning from the confrontation of word and images.

DC: What is your next publication?

AM: Design by accident: for a new history of design at Sternberg Press, which will explore the ambiguity at the origin of the unintentional project that is design history. The notion of the accident expresses the idea of the history of design as an incursion into a narrative preoccupied by architecture and industrialization as well as the fine arts and decoration. Both Pevsner’s and Giedions' narratives offer visions which, taken together, can be a read as a single historiographical project that provides a continuum that is an apt space for reflecting upon the construction of a new history of design. This book will interrogate the validity and permanence of the history which coalesced through and around these texts; it will analyze the evolution of this history with reference to its original reception, and explore the key traits which characterized its retrospective construction, with a view to articulating the history of design as a discipline.

DC: What is your forthcoming exhibition project?

AM: I curated a show entitled Eames & Hollywood at ADAM (Brussels, through September 2016). It claims that the Eames’ projections of slides (they shot more than 750,000 photos) aspire towards an ideal model of seamless transmission, one capable of bypassing language altogether. This dream of a universal, purely visual transmission of ideas is one which is shared by a number of other designers, who hoped that a language of forms and signs might supplant other, more explicit forms of communication. The idea of an image-based Esperanto that would be understood by all and that would be freed from all constraints, formal and linguistic...it is no coincidence, that Eames utilized photography to achieve this goal. In this, he joined a long history of figures who aspired to a perfect transmission of thought that would ultimately make it possible to “think in chorus.”

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