Massive Change Is About Designing the World

Massive Change, the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition opening Saturday (October 2), is more likely to appeal to science-fiction writers, social activists, and environmentalists than those interested in making the world pretty.

The show is subtitled The Future of Global Design, so don't expect cunningly fashioned can openers or stylish tiles. This exhibition examines the philosophical underpinnings of design and includes installations devoted to such broad categories as transportation, information, and economy. Although the topics sound about as exciting as the headings in a high-school social-studies text, Massive Change is bound to be controversial and thought-provoking. The health-and-living display, for example, investigates humanity's ability to redesign life itself.

"In the last century--when Crick, Watson, and Franklin unlocked the structure of DNA--we opened the door on a system of information that can be rendered as a design project," explains Bruce Mau, the Toronto designer who led the collaborative show.

This section and the show's Web site ( profile some eyebrow-raising forays into "designed" foods. A film introduces audiences to an Israeli researcher, Avigdor Cahaner, who has bred preplucked chickens from a genetic flaw that causes some birds to have bald spots. Closer to home, the show highlights the fatter, faster-maturing B.C. salmon genetically designed by Robert Devlin, a scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

As Mau writes in the catalogue essay: "Massive Change is not about the world of design; it's about the design of the world."

With his untucked black shirt, and his curly hair brushed back from his round face in an indifferent 'do, the 44-year-old Mau looks much like any of the black-clad sophisticates found in galleries and theatres--except for his enthusiasm. His hands gesture and his eyes twinkle as he discusses the project he knows will spark debate among designers and anyone else interested in answering the show's stated central question: "Now that we can do anything, what will we do?"

"This is not a utopian show," Mau says at least three times during an hourlong interview at the gallery. "It's not about something in the future: we can do all these things now."

That said, Mau's view of our ability to redesign the world is surprisingly optimistic. Listening to him talk about some of the featured projects--such as Dean Kamen's wheelchair, designed so the user sits at adult height and can climb stairs, or "golden rice", a crop with spliced genes for vitamin A that will prevent blindness in undernourished children--recalls that famous fin-de-sií¨cle hopefulness about the future. Of course, not since the fin of the last sií¨cle has anyone talked this way. Somewhere between the time when the bombs went nuclear and the ozone began thinning, universal enthusiasm for technology began to wane. By the end of the 20th century, the popular view of the future was that we were doomed to evolve into the bleak world of global corporations and dehumanizing technology found in Vancouver writer William Gibson's Neuromancer.

Mau hopes this show will address some of the relentless worldwide pessimism that he feels is unfounded. That's part of what persuaded him to do Massive Change, although initially he turned the VAG's invitation down. "It was just too big--too much to do--and I have a little business to run."

Mau's "little business" is Bruce Mau Design, which began in the mid-'80s as a "communications design" firm that specialized in "branding", developing a distinctive image and identity for clients in the marketplace. He worked with such celebrity architects as Rem Koolhaas (on the new Seattle Public Library) and Frank Gehry, and he has a diverse client roster that has included the Andy Warhol Museum and Roots.

And big doesn't quite cover Massive Change, which could well have been called Massive Undertaking. Three years in the making, it required the VAG to renovate two floors to accommodate the 10 installations, which could have used easily a floor each. Two weeks before the opening, two floors of the VAG are little more than a construction site where workers are still putting up walls, painting, hanging lights, and working day and night, literally, in two shifts, to make the deadline.

But it's easy to see why the word visionary is so often applied to Mau. Where he sees the Energy Gallery, complete with NASA's photographs and audio of the sun, all I can see is the reno that won't end. Mau points to some naked drywall on which he envisions a model of the cityscapes of the future, how high-density cities like Tokyo will look by 2015. Prefabricated housing and innovative use of both vertical and horizontal space will alter them beyond our recognition. In the centre of this space, where piles of construction materials now sit, will be an elaborate map that shows how some of the poorest parts of the developing world overlap with places that have the greatest potential for exploiting solar energy on a massive scale--if only someone can design an efficient system for harnessing that power. Around the corner, in bubble wrap, sit some tiny single-person cars with rounded shapes and enormous windows that wouldn't look out of place in The Jetsons.

"It's the largest show we've ever done," says senior curator Bruce Grenville, who is the VAG's coordinating curator on this project. After it closes in Vancouver on January 3, the exhibition will travel to Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario and Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, and they are still negotiating with galleries in Asia, Europe, and on the West Coast.

Although covering design and architecture has always been part of the VAG's mandate, director Kathleen Bartels's influence is the reason for the increasing number of design-focused shows. "We're trying to appeal to a broader-based audience, so we thought it was important to look at an issue that affects so many people in the world," Bartels says, adding that she expects Massive Change to be the kind of blockbuster show that will appeal to teenagers and the under-30 set.

"No one in North America has done this kind of a design show on this level. Other shows have focused on aesthetics--the beauty of hundreds of Nike running shoes--but from an artistic position, this show is groundbreaking."

Because of the scope and scale of the project, Grenville says the VAG particularly wanted to collaborate with Mau. "He is one designer who could deliver what he said he would and we knew he could do a show that was tough and engaging. But we also wanted to encourage the debate about what design really does, and I think Bruce has something to say about that."

"The idea for Massive Change got under my skin," Mau says, explaining why he eventually took the job. "I was troubled at the time by the mood of the day. What I saw was incredibly positive change, but the more I read [in the media], the more I saw people being convinced that the world is going to hell in a handcart."

That's when he came across a quote by English historian Arnold J. Toynbee that had found its way into Lester B. Pearson's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1957. (Pearson won for introducing the concept of peacekeeping through the United Nations.)

"The twentieth century will be chiefly remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or technical inventions, but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective."

"I realized that that was exactly what I had been seeing--design projects that made human welfare a practical objective. That's when I thought I had to find a way of doing this project."

Along with Toronto's George Brown College, Mau established the Institute Without Boundaries, a one-year postgraduate course that involves students in a public project and prepares them to work in the increasingly interdisciplinary world of design.

"No one [outside of the art world] cares about our disciplines," Mau explains. "Often what the client wants is to have an effect on the world. So we try to find the best possible way to achieve it."

Given the complexity of the world, Mau says complex design projects are increasingly being handled by teams of people who have backgrounds in a wide range of fields, including science. Mau quotes one of his frequent collaborators, Bill Buxton, on this: "Bill says there is no such thing as a Renaissance person anymore, so we have to have a Renaissance team."

The first stage of Massive Change involved testing Mau's thesis about how design played a role in improving human welfare.

"We concentrated on the idea of what design makes possible, its capacity. We think of design as visible, but so much of it is invisible--we often don't notice design until it fails--so this show is about taking aesthetics off the table and focusing on the capacity of design."

His students interviewed experts in a variety of fields about their cutting-edge projects and aired the conversations on University of Toronto's radio station, CIUT. The interviews have also been compiled into the Massive Change catalogue and edited to serve as the exhibition's audio guide.

"Most of them didn't think of themselves as designers," Mau recalls. "It's interesting that in the colloquial we understand design better than in the profession where we use the word all the time."

As VAG staff frequently mention, Mau is "pushing boundaries", so, naturally, he has his critics. In Design and Crime, an essay collection, Princeton art and archaeology professor Hal Foster even implies there's something sinister about the Canadian designer's work. Over three pages, he takes Mau to task over his book Life Style, a record of Mau's projects and design philosophy. "We are asked to think of 'life style' as conceived by Nietzsche," writes Foster, who criticizes Mau for using design techniques to render everything, including culture, intelligence, and history, into commodities that can be sold. "[Mau] seems confused about his role," Foster writes. "Is he a cultural critic, a futurist guru, or a corporate consultant?"

But Grenville suggests that Foster's brand of Marxist criticism has more to do with the art world's discomfort about the evolution of design. "Bruce blurs a lot of boundaries and pushes outside of the traditional constraints of design--for example, he goes into installation art, a territory artists claim for themselves--and that causes a tremendous amount of anxiety."

Although Grenville expects the average person to associate "design" with "beauty", he has been surprised that there has also been some criticism of the fine-art gallery coming from people he would expect to welcome a show like Massive Change: artists, curators, and designers.

"The anti-aesthetic has been around for more than 30 years--aesthetics is just not central to the argument in visual art--so it's kind of funny that we're having that discussion again," Grenville says.

But Mau sees that resistance to change--he repeatedly points out that this exhibition shows us not what might happen but what has happened--as part of a deeply entrenched romanticism.

"I was at the Venice Biennale recently where I noticed almost all the architectural displays were committed to smaller objects, when the problems are plural. We don't need smaller buildings standing alone--that's a very 19th-century notion. There are one million people a week being born: do we intend to build homes for them?"

Then he adds wryly: "If cars were being designed at the rate of architecture we'd still be driving wooden cars."

That small swipe is the only hint of how hotly this subject is being debated in the design business. But it's also clear Mau sees the 19th-century-style pessimists less as Luddites swinging hammers at knitting machines than as Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein to remind us that the power of technology has to be used responsibly.

"We used to think of cities as objects in a field of nature--another 19th-century idea--but there is no difference between the city and nature, and we have to manage it in the same way. We have to be responsible stewards of nature. That's a capacity we didn't have 100 years ago, but now that we can do it, what are we going to do?"

Grenville says the exhibition isn't an endorsement of every project in the show: "It's about the implications of design, so we're not just showing the nice things. But I hope the debate isn't just knee-jerk--activists who say any genetically modified food is wrong. We want people to think about the complexity of the relationships and the interconnectedness.

"I think [the exhibition] shows objects as tools," Grenville adds. "It's repressive to talk about objects as bad. Take cars: it's out of whack with the notions of transportation to change the way urban environments are set up; it makes more sense to redesign the car."

It's that thinking that makes this exhibition peculiarly Canadian. As Grenville notes, both he and Mau thought this was an important show for Canadians to produce because it echoes the hopefulness of Pearson's 1957 speech, which seems to encapsulate the national view of global concerns. After all, this is the country that thinks of its military as a tool for peacekeeping rather than invasion.

Although no one actually says it, it's hard not to hear the echo of the gun-lobby slogan in the discussions of Massive Change: design doesn't harm people, people harm people.