No Nukes

Graduate students just starting out in Industrial Design work to invigorate the dialogue around nuclear disarmament.

FACELESS spotlights notions of identity, destruction and complicity.

How can we invigorate public interest and engagement in reducing global nuclear threats? That’s the question incoming graduate students in the Industrial Design department’s 2.5-year program were asked to consider in an introductory Wintersession studio taught by Assistant Professor Tom Weis MID 08. As a means of familiarizing students with the basic tools and vocabulary of design, he wanted to provide a real-world challenge they could sink their teeth into.

Enter N Square, a collaborative initiative of the Ploughshares Fund and four of the other largest peace and security funders in the US working “to innovate our way to a world free from the risks associated with nuclear weapons and fissile materials.” After Weis met N Square’s program manager and design strategist, Morgan Matthews, at a PopTech conference last fall, the two began thinking about ways to get RISD students involved with the challenge N Square is tackling.

As Matthews explains, the path to nuclear disarmament has become muddy in part because the experts and policymakers forging it don’t see a clear way forward without tapping into new perspectives and fresh ideas from outside their ranks. She connected RISD students with off-site advisors so that they could “collaborate, ask the right questions and develop a design point of view” in developing projects that evoke emotion and bolster the conversation around global nuclear security.

Allison Davis MID 18, Erica Efstratoudakis MID 18 and Charlotte McCurdy MID 18 responded to the challenge with Faceless, a sculptural piece made of faces cast in wax and a series of lightbulbs triggered by a motion sensor. The activated bulbs slowly melt the wax faces, making the audience “a complicit force” in destroying the work.

During final crits last week, the design team explained that they were trying to spotlight notions of identity, destruction and—most importantly—complicity. They hoped that viewers would experience discomfort in interacting with the piece.

“I like the assignment because it’s complicated, it’s messy,” said visiting critic Andy Law, an associate professor in ID. “Nuclear weapons are a shared problem. They’re everybody’s fault and nobody’s fault.”

Another group of students presented their work dressed in hazmat suits, which definitely heightened the reality of the nuclear threat. They focused on the aftermath of a nuclear bomb, noting that decisions made during the first 72 hours post-detonation are critical and pointing out the severity of mistakes made in the days following the Fukushima accident in 2011.

Students researched governmental resources and interviewed local first responders (firefighters and police officers). Discovering a dearth of useful information and products, they designed several devices (stretchers, respirators, garments) meant to help the injured after a blast and protect survivors from contaminated air and nuclear fallout.

A key problem in the wake of a nuclear explosion would be the inability to disseminate information or track family members and friends in the absence of electricity, cell service and web access, noted President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID at the crit. “People don’t know their neighbors anymore,” she pointed out. Somerson remembers participating in atomic bomb drills as a young child and said that while the duck-and-cover protocols may have proven useless in an actual nuclear attack, the training raised awareness and at least made people “feel more prepared.”

Other student projects focus on the exorbitant sums of money spent on developing and housing nuclear weapons, the long-term environmental effects of nuclear fallout and prospective changes in the balance of power as the result of total global disarmament.

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