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Gallery Review

Massive Change

the future of global design?

by Lara Bullock

Just what is it with contemporary curators and their ostentatious promises? Why must they wax lyrical about their exhibitions, pretentiously touting them as the next big thing? Aren’t they overdoing it just a little? On the other hand, who can really blame them? Everybody deserves some recognition for hard work, and art does not have the reputation as a source of inspiration for naught. But the slogan, which was plastered on the wall in bold-faced black when I entered the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), borders on massive egomania. It read: Massive Change is not about the world of design; it’s about the design of the world.

Massive Change:The Future of Global Design is an exhibition curated by Bruce Mau and his design team (Bruce Mau Design) in conjunction with the Institute without Boundaries (that he also created.) In case his name does not ring a bell among SAIC students, Mau was the May 2006 commencement speaker, who was awarded an honorary doctorate. Mau was a relevant choice for a speaker considering the new graduate design programs (the Master of Architecture, Master of Interior Architecture, and Master of Design in Designed Objects) that the School will offer this fall. And considering the amount of money and space that is needed to accommodate these new departments, getting in cahoots with such an illustrious designer, curator, and scholar is not such a bad move.

Massive Change was birthed as a result of a commission from the Vancouver Art Gallery where it first opened, and I first saw it, in 2004. Since then it has traveled to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and is scheduled to be the next major exhibition at the MCA opening in September 16 and continuing through December 31.

My response to the show when it first opened was mixed: I thought it was grandiose, unusual, thought-provoking, but in the end, somewhat disappointing. I am curious to see what changes have been made as the show has traveled. (I am also admittedly a little disconcerted that the exhibition seems to be following me around the globe; first Vancouver, now Chicago.)

Here were my problems with it:

First, the show was permeated with intrusive, and to me, somewhat obtuse statements, such as the initial ominous greeting message about the design of the world. It sets the stage for the entire exhibition in terms of its didactic nature. Although most of the declarations are optimistic, such as “We will eradicate poverty,” and “We will eliminate the need for raw material and banish all waste,” it feels as if these proclamations are being forced upon us, provoking a guiltily urgent feeling for the viewer. Mau has touted this exhibition (which is accompanied by a book, a website, and a speaker series) as being “about the human capacity to plan and produce desired outcomes.

“Rather than the traditional view of design as being about objects, we decided to look at it from a citizen’s perspective, as a process leading to outcomes. We realized that we now have the capacity to shape the world however we want. And based on this, we came to a new question: Now that we can do anything, what should we do?” We eradicate; we eliminate; we decided; we can do anything. Who exactly is this ominous “we?” Is it the patrons of the Vancouver Art Gallery? Because no normal person has the corporate-sized funds and resources to engineer a waste-less city.

Second, the message seemed to be somewhat inconsistent. The exhibition began with text, which continued to slink conspicuously over the walls and floors of the gallery. Instead of individual artworks, the exhibition consisted of what were more like stations. There was an educational video, kiosks with text and a room with all the lights out, except for illuminated flashlights hanging from the ceiling that you picked up to shine on yet more text on the walls. Among the text there were some objects, such as a tissue-engineered nose and environmentally sound cars, which were pretty enthralling. However, the lauding of the Hummer (one of the most environmentally harmful vehicles out there) did confuse things.

Sustainability through design is yet another aim of Massive Change. I questioned this premise as the “be all/end all” in addressing our problems. Mau says that “it’s clear that getting the nine billion people on this planet to get out of their cars is not the answer: sustainability is.” Okay, sustainable mobility is a noble idea, one that I support hands down. But all one has to do is watch the film Who Killed the Electric Car? to see that more than design alone is needed to implement these changes. Sure, it’s important to construct these cars, but it is capitalist greed that does more to prevent the actual implementation of these well-meaning utopian aspirations.

These aspirations are complicated further in the sponsorship of the exhibition. One sponsor, Altria, is a leading tobacco company, an industry somwhat in conflict with the ecological aims of the exhibition. As it stands, Massive Change is too optimistic, too naive, too self-concerned, and if it is serious, needs to provide additional design mediums to create the change it desires.

Next, I was also a little skeptical about the second floor of the gallery that contained one of three total Massive Change shops and human scaled questionnaires, which you answered by putting a piece of paper in a “yes” or “no” box. Is it just me, or is cutting up perfectly good paper to affect a colorful display in a clear Plexiglas box a waste or at least inconsistent to the so-called agenda of sustainability?

But the final straw was the last room, the “Market Economies” gallery. Upon entering the VAG we were handed a card with the Massive Change logo and barcode on the back. It looked kind of like a credit card, which is essentially what it was. The card was used by scanning it at different kiosks that touted the virtues of large corporations such as Walmart. This exhibit seemed inconsistent with the professed aims of the show; however, it made more sense to me when I later found out that the exhibition was sponsored by these billion-dollar companies. This is where I abandoned any hope of being able to say something positive about Massive Change.

In fact, it kind of makes you wonder about the motivations of SAIC itself in awarding Mau with that honorary doctorate. SAIC doesn’t even have a doctoral program. Students couldn’t get one if they wanted to.

It is a little scary to me how sincerely Mau seems to be taking clause number 31 of his An Incomplete Manifesto For Growth, part of which states: “By maintaining financial control, we maintain creative control.” And after experiencing the show, perhaps clause number 8 (“Allow yourself to wander aimlessly. Explore adjacencies. Lack judgment. Postpone criticism.”) should be revised as well.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some merits of the exhibition—some of its aims are truly noble. Maybe I was so put off by the fact that a space that is usually one of private contemplation and free thought was transformed into a didactic space that resembled more an educational science museum. What ever happened to art museums exhibiting art instead of corporatized propaganda?

Despite (or maybe because of ) my abhorrent experience at the VAG, I look forward to attending the MCA’s upcoming incarnation of Mau’s exhibition and seeing if there have been any ‘massive changes.’ I will get back to you . . .

September 2006