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Massive Post
Part 1
“The twentieth century will be remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or tech inventions, but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.”

– Arnold Toynbee via Lester B. Pearson* via Bruce Mau (as his definition of design)

I entered the exhibit of Massive Change at the Vancouver Art Gallery determined to keep an open mind. I was prepared to be critical, but I was also intent on understanding as best I could, what it was all about. I had a press pass, a notebook, and the desire to leave no element unexplored. I was there for 2 hours one day and another hour the next. This, in the first of 4 parts, is my report.

When I entered I received a “Market Economies Card,” which, equipped with a barcode, I understood was to be used as an interactive device. Massive text (there’s a lot of really big text here—more on that later) told me I was “a part of the project” and “inside an interface.” I was oddly excited; I couldn’t wait to use the card.

Bruce Mau is the curator of Massive Change. This may also be an accurate description of what he does in the world as well, as we discussed briefly here. The 10 unnamed postgraduate students from the Institute without Boundaries are the ones responsible for the content and display of this exhibit. It is a collection of ideas, innovations and products from a variety of fields assembled under the cause of designing a new future for the human race. “Aesthetics are off the table,” Mau says in his 9-foot high, 3 panel introduction. We are encouraged to think in the framework of “economies,” and we are told that “even nature, even life [is] falling to the power and possibility of design.” That got my back up, but I was heartened by an acknowledgement of the conflict between our dominion over, and subject to, the forces of nature.

Actually, to be honest, I was heartened by the entire introduction. Its optimism is undeniably contagious. There is a peculiarly Canadian sentiment in the nobility of the text which strikes me at the core of my prairie soul. I take a grain of salt, consider the possibility of marrying Bruce Mau, and enter.

urban economies

The first room has a long wall (approx 50 feet by 6 feet) of video images: 6 screens showing anywhere from 1–6 images (where, when one, it is 50 feet long), viewed at a distance of about 15 feet. A voiceover narrative booms through the space, telling of sustainable housing, the greening of cities and the integration of the city into the natural environment (an eventual loss of boundaries between urban and nature), all the while words and phrases are superimposed over the images.

This is information overload. I can’t watch 6 wall-sized screens, read moving text and listen to a barrage of information at the same time. The viewing distance is too close, and the effect is almost dizzying. But I sit through it twice.

Ultimately, despite the feeling of being overwhelmed I was also completely sold on the message. Sold and inspired. They could have recruited me right then and there. I would have signed on the dotted line: “I, Marian Bantjes, do hereby give up all my worldly possessions and agree to dedicate my life to the betterment of cultures around the world, building better homes in sustainable environments, hand in hand with Bruce Mau.” I’m serious.

But the clock is ticking. Move along, move along.

movement economies

Along one wall is a museum-like display of a line of vehicles in various stages of tech and with varying combinations of pedal and electric power. They document the use of third-world materials practicality, like the rejuvenated Indian bicycle rickshaw and the African bicycle ambulance (designed by Vancouver’s Niki Dun), as well as the high-tech prototype and manufactured product. There is the bubbalicious “Sparrow” by Myers Motors, a 3-wheeled electric vehicle in gleaming, shiny red, along with various, less successful designs ranging from a souped-up golfcart to some oversized tupperware on wheels. I was particularly taken with the Twike, a 2-person recumbant pedal+electric powered vehicle.

These are backed by a wall of black and white images of traffic from around the world, and faced by an entire subsection devoted to prototypes of the iBOT wheelchair designed to climb stairs and the vehicle that that technology spawned: the Segway. I’ve always considered the Segway to be compelling in design, but ultimately idiotic in purpose.

The segue from here to the room of Information Economies features a wall of car crash images and a history of the crash test dummy; followed by a wall-sized flight-path diagram with black lines on white and no map or countries shown, just the flight lines. Despite the lack of detail it is instantly recognizable for what it is, and very beautiful. Calming, and appropriately bird-like.

information economies

A variety of input devices (keyboards and button-punching information systems, mouse variants, joysticks, etc.) are mounted to the wall, behind plexi, at the entrance to this section. Up to this point, the displays are relatively simple, minimalist and almost crude. Then we enter the black room, which features a long underlit display of global systems imagery, or “global portraits”. Weather patterns, an active air traffic control map, the global internet map (Massive Change’s signature image), and, most beautifully, The Tree of Life, which charts the evolutionary relationships of 3,000 species, by David M. Hillis and Derrick Zwickl from the University of Texas, which is truly a stunning piece of graphic design.

Some of these were also projected in live motion of some kind onto the black walls. Compelling and meaningful.

There is an even darker (2-hits-of-black) ante-room with flashlights dangling from the ceiling for you to illuminate the text on the walls. Children were hogging the flashlights, so I left. It’s the only room I didn’t properly see, but I learned afterward that it was the “energy room”.

At this point I’m still pretty euphoric from my urban economy experience, I am wanting a pedal-electric vehicle (in blue, please), and I’m aware that there’s all sorts of activity going on in the world with all sorts of technology tracking and disseminating infomation on that activity. It’s all very David Suzuki, only happier.


Read Part 2 of Massive Post

*Lester B. Pearson is a former Canadian Prime Minister who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.

A CD of images was provided by The Vancouver Art Gallery in my press kit. I would have preferred to take my own, but it was not allowed. Unfortunately the exhibit shots are not of the actual exhibit, but from the models and prototypes, and some are unusable (which is why I made my own simulation of the urban economies screen). If I had been able to take my own photos, they would have been much more dynamic and informative, I assure you.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Oct.12.2004 BY marian bantjes
Bryony’s comment is:

Beyond optimism, I am sure this show was truly inspiring. Thanks for sharing this with us Marian. It is amazing to me to see all the things individuals are doing around the world to create a better world for us and future generations, the resources they use, the materials and the concepts themselves are mind-bogging. It also amazes me how larger corporations have managed to stall the development of many of these projects for years (such as in the case of electrical of alternative fuel based cars), which are finally being pushed aside by a stronger and more determined group.

On Oct.12.2004 at 07:54 AM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

wow. thanks.

On Oct.12.2004 at 08:33 AM
mc’s comment is:

Can't wait for part 2! Thanks for sharing the experience.

On Oct.12.2004 at 09:14 AM
Daniel’s comment is:

Cheers for sharing Marian; I have till the third of January to get my butt up there and see it myself.

On Oct.12.2004 at 10:01 AM
debbie millman’s comment is:

geez girl, you are amazing. thank you for this incredible post.

On Oct.12.2004 at 11:22 AM
marian’s comment is:

Thanks for your thanks. I do have to tell you that Massive Post will get increasingly contentious over the next 4 entries. This first one adequately represents my initial euphoria induced by the feel-good nature of the show.

But I'm curious to know how y'all feel about this stuff falling under the heading of design, how you think Arnold Toynbee's quote holds up as a definition of design, and even what you think of this as a project for post-graduate studies (1 year).

If you were in Vancouver, I assume you'd go to the show: what would you be expecting from both the message and the experience of the show itself?

On Oct.12.2004 at 12:12 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Great post. I can't wait to read more.

Unfortunately, Mau cancelled his talk here in Seattle— so you're my closest first-person tie to his exhibit and topic, marian. So thanks.

First of all, I think it's amazing that design is being presented in this fashion. Designers are no longer just by-standers, satisfied with marketing the by-products of human progress. We're part of the progress itself.

The topic that fascinated me the most when Mau spoke in Vancouver at AIGA was design in bio and genetic-engineering — the hairless chicken and the pesticide-laden corn, etc. To me, those are the type of massive changes we can't even imagine — maybe because we don't want to imagine such things, or maybe because we just aren't able to.

Global changes in information, transportation, and economic industries are exciting — but somehow, they've always been expected and reactive, as opposed to being proactive.

A decade before 1993, not a single futurist predicted the advent of the internet. Designers were largely focused on electric cars and the promise of space. Biotechnology was in its infancy, and the human genome was just an academic theory to be proven. Then the internet came, and all of a sudden, "information economies" became a global imperative. The internet's impact is now immeasureable, and has fundamentally changed the way we research, innovate, and design. It's what I mean by proactive change.

So what and when is humanity's next leap? What comes next that will have an impact just as significant? Rather than just expanding on the derivatives of current technology and vision, where is this massive change headed?

On Oct.12.2004 at 01:33 PM
laura’s comment is:

If you were in Vancouver, I assume you'd go to the show: what would you be expecting from both the message and the experience of the show itself?

I had the opportunity this weekend to go to the gallery and was pleasently surprised. I didn't know what to expect. Okay, I was expecting a really well designed space of relative information. But instead I found it...more scientific and textbook-like than aestetically pleasing. I too, spend a few hours in there trying to gather as much information as I could from it.

I found that it was incredibly optimistic and the exhibits were constantly questioning your opinion. They just presented the facts and left it up to us to decide what to do about it, I liked that. The students did an excellent job in my opinion.

The whole thing reminded me of going to Science World with my class in the 3rd grade. Very simple explanations for things, and hands-on to keep you entertained. You can also purchase the Massive Change book in the gift shop that reminded me of a science book from the 80's. And it's only 40 bucks! I overheard someone saying that a LOT of schools (elementary, high school, etc.) are passing through this exhibit, so good!

On Oct.12.2004 at 02:03 PM
marian’s comment is:

Designers are no longer just by-standers, satisfied with marketing the by-products of human progress. We're part of the progress itself.

I think that one of the issues I see here is that designers as we know it are not necessarily a part of the process; it's just that under Mau's definition a whole lot of other disciplines come under the definition of design. In this sense, nothing has actually changed, he has just shifted the understanding of what constitutes design.

I found it interesting that some of the more graphically beautiful and meaningful things in the exhibit, namely the maps (the flight paths, the tree of life, the world imaging maps) were not, to the best of my knowledge, created with the input of [graphic] designers. Information on this aspect of it was limited to nil, but I believe those things were generated by scientists (acting as the designer, with a message to impart) via computers and input data.

As for predictions, predictability and the designed future, is it really any different now than it ever was? I think humans have always striven to map their future, and sometimes they've consciously worked together in plan (which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't), but most often things just happen and take us by surprise. Those leaps in technology always look incredibly significant after they emerge from the chaos.

The whole thing reminded me of going to Science World with my class in the 3rd grade.

Indeed. Science World is an excellent analogy. It was exactly like Science World.

On Oct.12.2004 at 02:52 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> how y'all feel about this stuff falling under the heading of design

You know, it's fine, whatever. It sounds great and makes for great soundbites. What this does is it brings the word "design" to a higher plane and — sarcasm aside — I think that is a good thing, but how it relates to me, or you, or a guy designing joysticks for the next Playstation seems a bit inconsequential. I think it alienates common mortals by making design have such lofty goals. I'm afraid it is becoming a buzz word that none of us will ever live up to. (This is similar in concern to the points raised in Bradley's "Graphic" Design?)

> how you think Arnold Toynbee's quote holds up as a definition of design

Meh. See above. The problem is that "design" can now be anything any wacko (I'm in no way saying Mau is a wacko) wants it to be. I have the feeling that just like some people pee'd on the floor (or canvas) and called it art, a lot of people are going to poop and call it design.

This, of course, is the skeptic in me talking. Maybe by Part 3 or 4 of Marian's review I might have a more positive view.

On Oct.13.2004 at 09:52 AM
Bradley’s comment is:

I had a conversation with an MBA student late last week (I was writing "poetry" and he saved the world from being exposed to it by chatting with me) and we talked about "The Big Picture" and all that high-falutin' type of stuff we're encouraged to speak badly about and worship at the same time.

We concluded, quickly, that one must be optimistic and bold and fight for what one believes in; one must be dedicated to the common good and make an effort to improve the world we live in; one must be concerned with the whole, and not just individual parts.

Lots of people call themselves "big picture" thinkers. Usually, what they REALLY mean is "I am lazy." Typically, these big picture types either lack the ability or the patience to see the DETAILS, and they probably can't link one thing to the next. It's easy to be a "visionary."

For the most part, I think Mau avoids falling into that trap. The sheer size of this exhibit sounds impressive and I don't get the vibe that its more for his studio's promotion than it is for the good of people in general.

But, the world being what it is, pretty much all of us have to deal with a lot of weird stuff. What's on my table today? A couple of pieces for this company that makes the best seat cushions for wheelchair users--so good, in fact, that had Christopher Reeves used one, he probably wouldn't have died. Okay fine, but these ads have gotta get done and so does that direct mailer to the clinicians who prescribe the damn things in the first place.

Technically, not too exciting. But, this is a good product and the imagination and engineering that goes into it is unreal (far from sexy though), and really, my agency can best help this company by communicating their product's value and establishing their presence in the marketplace. That means doing some cool stuff for sure, but it also means a lot of little crapola. Those details count.

Like my brother always says, everybody's job is important. Massive Change is a good thing to have in this world, but I think it can also be a giant hottub that feels good to sit in for a long time...and great as that might feel, its gotta turn into something.

But, if ayone understands that premise, BMD certainly does.

On Oct.13.2004 at 03:31 PM
robSTANTON’s comment is:

Though Mau was unable to be present at his Seattle date, I and 160+ fellow Cornish design students, were allowed the chance to hear one of the graduate students (for the Institute without Boundaries) speak. She shared (with 15 minutes preparation) how sustainability is and can be possible. Her passion for the subject rubbed off on us all. After hearing her speak and viewing one of the movies from the exhibit, we were ready. We were ready to design, we were ready to imagine, we were ready to go out and make a difference; we were ready for the future.

If feel that there is an urgency to redirect the way in which we as people live. Step by step people are gaining the understanding that we cannot go on the way we have been. There is a new realization that our post-modern individualistic ideologies must in order for a world society to flourish. In a way, it fells like the modern movement is reinventing itself into a smarter more conscious paradigm. There is one common goal for all but that goal does not always look the same. Each person has the right to be(present) and be(future) . It’s interesting to think that as designers that we have the ability to make that very act of being happen.

On Oct.14.2004 at 01:42 AM