Researcher at MoMA I April 27, 2018
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Though born in a time of conflict and confusion, Ala Tannir who works in research at MoMA has built a life that seeks to find order amidst chaos, to hone in on the imperceptible threads that connect the world around her. Tannir explains that her experience as an immigrant has made her more attune to the bonds between a number of subjects—even ones as disparate as human migration and jellyfish overpopulation.
Life in Beirut
From the beginning, Tannir’s life was one of transition. A series of conflicts erupting shortly after her birth in 1990 led her family from their home in search of better prospects.
“I was born in Kuwait. But that year was the Saddam invasion, so my family had to move back to Beirut.”
Growing up in Beirut, Tannir was exposed to a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, attending a French high school and later the American University of Beirut, where she studied architecture. She recalls her cousin’s passion for the art being her initial gateway to the field.
“I remember when I was young I’d sit and watch her work and I was just fascinated by it.”
However, after completing her degree Tannir realized that her passion had always lied in the research aspect of design. She felt an urge to pursue this passion further, but recognizing the limitations of studying design in Lebanon, she instead turned elsewhere.
“There were only a few design programs in Lebanon. I just thought there were more opportunities and resources in the United States. So I put together a portfolio and applied to design programs.”
A Place that Has Something for Everyone and Everything
Apparently Tannir’s portfolio impressed, as before long she was accepted to a two and a half-year program at Rhode Island School of Design, one of the top design schools in the country. With her program set to start in the fall, she had nearly 9 empty months stretched out in front of her with no pressing responsibilities. This was something that, for Tannir, simply would not do.
“I’m the kind of person who always needs a project at all times, so I sent out several applications to internships at places like the Guggenheim and MoMA.”
After a few months went by, Tannir had almost completely forgotten about the applications when suddenly she received an email from the staff at the MoMA. The following day, she had an interview over Skype, within the week she had secured the position. With just a few months left before her program at RISD began, Tannir made the move to New York City.
“I was overwhelmed at first but everyone was so welcoming. They did away with the intimidation. In the end, I feel like I learned more here than I could have anywhere else.”
It wasn’t just her colleagues at the MoMA that inspired Tannir, but the vibrance and pulse of the city. Though not her first time in New York, Tannir recalls how the city’s liveliness began to seep into her own personal outlook.
“I always knew that I loved New York and was fascinated by the city. The energy is unmatched anywhere else in the world. It has something for everyone and everything.”
After her internship at MoMA came to its end, Tannir made the transition to Rhode Island. In spite of her growing familiarity with the United States, Providence taught her a valuable lesson early on that not all American cities are the same.
“I arrived on a late night in January and I remember thinking I could just take a cab to where I was staying. I was in the empty city center with two suitcases and it was snowing, and that’s when I learned that there aren’t too many cabs in the center of Providence. I remember when I got there I was calling my mom crying and saying, ‘What the hell did I do?’”
One of the key lessons that Tannir learned during her time working at the MoMA was in regard to her own personal flexibility. Her work was mostly in a curatorial department, which meant that she was constantly able to shift her role, taking on projects from a variety of disciplines. This fluidity carried over to her time in RISD, where she also jumped on any project that interested her, regardless of whether it pertained strictly to her field of study or not.
“I don’t like to trace the boundaries between the disciplines. All of my backgrounds, in terms of my trainings, my formation, where I was born, where I lived, they all feed into who I am and what I do today.”
Tannir recalls her thesis as an example, in which she explored the links between human migration and overpopulation of jellyfish in the Mediterranean Sea. Though her experience in Lebanon provided the geographical inspiration, her fascination with jellyfish came from simple chance.
“There was this nature lab at RISD, and in it was a small tank filled with jellyfish. I remember I spent hours just watching and writing, watching and writing and drawing. At first it was an aesthetic fascination, but then it turned into a study of their social habits.”
Today, Tannir continues to explore the little links and bonds that exist in the world, but now as a full time employee at the MoMA. The connections she had made during her internship proved to be long lasting, as she was able to secure the position shortly after she had completed her master’s program with RISD. Just as before, she revels in transcending boundaries and drawing connections from the seemingly unconnected. It is her own experience as an immigrant in the U.S. that helps her to provide the MoMA with a fresh perspective.
“My background has influenced the work I do at MoMA. It helps me give voice to projects and topics that are very important but are sometimes not very well known here, or overlooked.”
The upcoming project she is working on at the MoMA, Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, echoes her own penchant for finding these unseen connections,. It seeks, as Tannir explains, to trace design’s potential to repair the collapsing bonds we have with the natural, social, as well as cultural environment.
As always, we closed off our interview with Tannir by asking any advice for those prospective immigrants who are hoping to find their way in the United States.
"In New York City in particular I would say just never give up. For me, persistence is key. Be committed to what you want to do, and you will end up doing it.”