Massive Change, Bruce Mau's mega-exhibition on the future of design, has undoubtedly been the most awaited Canadian show of the year, and, it seems (if the advance coverage in The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times is any indication), elsewhere too.
Much ink has been spilled describing the epic ambitions of the project. "It is not about the world of design. It is about the design of the world," declare the banners that were unfurled triumphantly from the portico of the Vancouver Art Gallery last week. No one can ever accuse Mau, or his posse of collaborating students from the Institute Without Boundaries (a Mau-engendered postgraduate think-tank he runs out of Toronto), of having modest ambitions.
As the banner declares, the exhibition doesn't set out to map the future of design in any way one might expect -- by predicting the foreseeable look and feel of mass-produced products (chairs, lamps, computers, tables, cars). Rather, the show resists the "tyranny of the visual" (Mau's term) and maps, instead, the often invisible design of things such as the global market economy, advances in medicine and agriculture, systems of ecological renewal and human transport. Every activity mankind engages in, everything that leaves our material stamp on the world, must be contemplated as a design project, says Mau. And we have choices.
Herein lies the (dare I say it, in these cynical times) uplifting thrust of the exhibition. We have choices. We've made bad choices. But the technologies and capabilities that we have developed along the way stand ultimately to better humanity and preserve the planet if they are harnessed to progressive ends. "Now that we can do anything," Mau asks in a text panel at the start of the exhibition, "what will we do?"
Taking a further leap of faith, Mau asserts that this change is already in the wind, and his exhibition sets out to provide us with compendious evidence that this is so. The show walks us through a variety of demonstrations of human ingenuity, giving the exhibition the unmistakable flavour of a kind of 21st-century world's fair, buoyant with new possibilities, jubilant in its internationalism and largely devoid of the imperialist impulses that characterized those earlier platforms. What Mau has designed is not so much an exhibition of objects in the conventional sense but, rather, a discursive space, within which argument will no doubt be feverish.
Straining to meet his own colossal aims, however, Mau can only be expected to stumble, and he does, to a degree. The show opens, for example, with the section devoted to the future of the city -- a giant, fur-bearing issue if ever there was one.
Lucite spheres hang in the space, positing questions such as, "Is urbanization our unspoken belief system?" or "Where does the reach of the city end?" (Nowhere, it seems.)
On a nearby wall, a series of images and texts are projected against the silhouette of an urban skyline. The voice-over describes such diverse phenomena as Hernando de Soto's redesign of property law (to provide collateral for economic growth for the poor in developing nations), the inevitability of the vertical city as something to be embraced, the efficiencies of the environmentally friendly factory-built home and the inspiring reality of Curitiba, Brazil, a remarkably livable city that has developed progressive transportation solutions for a cleaner, safer environment.
But there are moments here of breathless vacuity, like the formulation "Everything = City = Design = Hope." Worse, the invocation to "Reject the romantic notion of the singular. Embrace the plural" has an unsavoury, totalitarian ring -- at least to my ear.
One of the most startling (and, at first, refreshing) intellectual features of the show is the way in which the ingenious design of both the military complex and the global consumer-goods-exchange infrastructure -- from the U.S. military, to Wal-Mart -- is celebrated. These systems are admired, here, for their efficiency, and held up as something to be mimicked and conscripted to better ends rather than reviled, and this takes a little getting used to.
"For better or worse, the military project continues to be one of the most powerful engines of technological innovation and design," reads the wall text, prefacing our tour through a gallery of military inventions that have come to have civilian applications, from the Power Bar, to global-positioning-system technology, to night-vision lenses.
But nowhere here does the exhibition team pause to lament the transformation of man into an ever-more-lethal killing machine, or to consider in more than a fleeting way the threat to civil liberties posed by such penetrating systems of surveillance and control.
Other questions are raised in the show, tossed with a light, lemony vinaigrette and set out for our enjoyment. Where should the local protect itself from the global monoculture, or should it? Where does one come down on the issue of a genetically modified rice that will prevent child blindness? What if the Kalahari bushman doesn't welcome a laptop computer in his hut? And how do we feel, on a humanitarian level, about promoting the rickshaw as a mode of urban transport (a green solution if ever there was one)? There's a lot of very unstable meaning being generated here that could strike the viewer as either flaky or provocative. At the end of the day, I'm in the latter camp, but there were moments when it was touch and go.
The presentation of the show, too, is uneven -- by turns spectacularly dramatic and underwhelming. For example, the room devoted to portraits of the Earth (showcasing the different visual technologies that enable us to see, among other things, the Earth's gravitational field, its orbiting cloud of space debris, its seismological hiccups and its glittering diadems of man-made light at night) is extremely beautiful, elevating what could be a traditional science-centre display to the visual realm of installation art. But the display on recycling is pedestrian, with sad-looking potato-based take-out containers and organic T-shirts from Mountain Equipment Co-op relied upon to carry our high hopes for a brave new world.
As well, you are left craving an immediate, visceral experience of the objects and materials on offer here. In the section devoted to new materials (self-healing plastic, self-cleaning glass and the like), I found myself wanting to handle a piece of Aerogel (the lightest solid in the world, it is 99.8 per cent air), not just look at it in a vitrine. I wanted the chance to ride on Dean Kamen's Segway personal-transport device (rather than wait until Sunday between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to watch someone else ride on it), or even to watch a video of Kamen's ingenious stair-climbing wheelchair. (Instead, we see it unoccupied on an elevated dais.) I wanted to check out the intriguing-looking ZeeWeed water-filtration device in operation. With its filaments like angel-hair pasta, it can convert raw sewage to drinkable water. They could give away free samples. (Okay, maybe I'm alone in this enthusiasm.) While the exhibition can claim many dramatic visual moments, such as the retinally traumatic Image Gallery devoted to new visual technologies, it remains largely a reading experience, a three-dimensional version of the book, yet lacking, by necessity, the depth and texture provided by the book's many brilliant interviews.
These drawbacks can be at least partially alleviated -- as the exhibition organizers prepare to tour the exhibition to Toronto, various European venues (still to be confirmed) and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago -- but they are not fixable without further heroic efforts and lots more money and time. As Mau said to me on the eve of his opening last week, "Even though the group doesn't want me to say this, this is the prototype. Now that we can see it, it will change."
In my opinion, it would be worth the effort, because the underlying project is optimistic in a way that feels important. Since when has a museum exhibition prompted high-school educators to drop an entire semester's curriculum to study its implications? (King George Senior Secondary School, a downtown Vancouver high school, is doing just that.) Despite its glitches, I suspect it will be a great success, particularly with young people who have passed their tender years steeping in the silent-spring anxieties of their parents. The show galvanizes you to hope, not dread.
It's hard, too, not to be swayed by the sheer exhilaration of taking in so much fresh information. Walking through the galleries, I found myself thinking about Marshall McLuhan's famous line: "We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future." Unlike most of the rest of us, who maintain an arguably unhealthy infatuation with the past, Mau is marching facing forward. We'd be best advised to follow him, I think, albeit equipped with a rucksack full of questions.
Massive Change continues at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Jan. 3, and opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario in March. Futurist Alvin Toffler will speak on Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. Massive Change: Visionaries, a day-long discussion event, will be hosted by Bruce Mau and Charlie Rose on Oct. 16 (for information, 604-662-4747).