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Massive Post
Part 3

Having completed the first floor of the exhibit on the one day, I returned the next morning, fresh and alert, to report on the 2nd half, upstairs in the gallery.

materials economies

I was faced, at the entrance to the upper floor, by flourescent yellow walls. Things are a little different up here and aesthetics are very much back in action. I explored a display of technology-enhanced materials, each one announcing itself in a unique typeface or letterform cut from or into the material. Due to a heightened sensitivity to technology and a freak of acoustics I did, at one point think that a strand of glow-tape might be talking to me. It wasn’t. I’m pretty sure.

The “superhero” substances range from actual fabrics for wetsuits, fire suits and khaki pants (including the infamous-in-my-household “Nanotextiles” which Dante bought and declared to be the hottest (as in sweaty and uncomfortable) pants he’s ever owned) to self-cleaning glass, bamboo laminates, various foams and insulations, vegetable-based polymers and of course the famous Aerogel, which is currently used to trap comet dust and has a whole other future as potential insulation or windows mapped out for it here on planet earth.

Most of these substances are extremely cool. Many of them are environmentally responsible, use recycled materials and either break down or don’t break down as required. They hold not only obvious design in their existence, but intriguing potential as design materials.

military economies
“Will we shift from the service of war to the service of life?”

Here’s where Bruce and I went our separate ways due to a complete failure to understand each other. Here, in the room of silver-lined walls and 20-foot banners. Here, where we marvel at the similarities in technology of the assault rifle and the toy, the Super Soaker. Right here, where we see the optimism in the products and technological advantages that we as consumers and 21st century humans experience as a direct spin off (or “spin on” as Massive Change likes to say) of military spending.

I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I’m really not sure if my objections are knee-jerk anti-militarism or not. It just seems to me that this rampant optimism has gone too far here. That the determination to focus on the good has taken a turn down a very dark corridor, and I for one am having some trouble finding my way by this flickering little glow of light. At what cost the lightweight dried food rations, the Gore-tex, the camelbacks, remote controls, GPS and internet? Without the military spending on exploring these materials, robotics and communication systems developed to aid in the efficient destruction of people (oh, excuse me, “protection” of people) we would have none of these things. Or would we? So we reap the chaff of the military wheat. It really makes you wonder what would be possible if we could have the whole harvest.

This section also explores the reverse transfer of ideas and technology from consumer product design to the military as well, for instance “the transformation of Tyco’s remote-controlled ‘Vertigo’ toy truck into a remote-controlled military spy weapon called ‘Dragon Runner’” [text from the press kit]. I’m just not sure if that makes it better, or worse.

As I leave this room a horde of school children are tugging at banners 6 times their height and walking into silver walls. Bump, “Ouch.” Ouch, indeed.

manufacturing economies

If you were at the 2003 AIGA conference in Vancouver, the term “cradle to cradle” design will already be familiar to you. Not to trivialize it, but also not to retread this much-covered ground: recycling, reusing, biodegradability, vegetable-based materials for e.g. food takeaway, compostable materials … you know the drill. Recyclable materials hang from the ceiling like popcorn strings, and various artefacts are displayed on a slab. (Of note, A Sound Wave Freezer: “surprisingly quiet thermo-acoustic uses sound waves at a deafening level of 173 decibels.” Nice.)

living economies

Humourously, one of the first artefacts in this section is an artificial nose, which makes me think immediately of Peter Sellers. After a display of the various technological devices that may be implanted in our bodies to keep us alive or functioning, are a series of voting booths. At each booth there is a stated issue, such as “Working with the basic elements of life” followed by a list of “hopes” and “fears” (each one balanced, by column). The question “Should we be doing this?” sits above 2 clear plexiglass boxes—“YES”, “NO”—and slips of yellow paper available for our “vote.”

Although most of the hopes and fears seemed to be fairly balanced from viewpoint as well as graphically, some of the stated questions were loaded. For example “Increasing Access to Good Health” is about bioengineering. “Changing the way we feed the world” is about genetically modified crops. In both instances the “fears” touch on some of the negative aspects, but the issue itself is presented as beneficial.

Here, as elsewhere, the thinking seems a little … well, not well thought out. Under “Engineering animals” one of the “hopes” is to increase disease resistance, and therefor possibly avoid e.g. mad cow disease. Well, that disease was caused by the unwise practice of feeding animal parts, among other things, to cows. To think that you can design animals to an extent that human intervention in their lives (i.e. how we treat them, feed them and process their meat) will no longer have an effect on their health (and ours) is both ludicrous and shocking.

It is, in fact, in the living economies section that an assumption of the world and the mini-universes within that world as subservient to man becomes most evident. Later, from the press kit, the words “one complex network of dominance over nature” and “[nature’s] absolute control continues to elude us,” jump out at me.

Most of the issues here are extremely complex, and for them to be parceled out to us in these easily digestible wafers of information seems to be bordering on irresponsible.

The voting makes us feel good (and the pieces of bright yellow paper look good in their plexiglass boxes), but there’s nothing to prevent us from dropping multiple slips into whichever box, and I find it very hard to believe that they will ever be counted or put to any specific use. When is a vote not a vote? Well, when it’s an untabulated slip of yellow paper in a box. That, my dears, is poor and misleading design.

Design-wise, this would have been a good use for the bar-code card, with each voting box equipped with a counter that reads the barcode only once (but maybe only if there were a 3rd box that said “I am not qualified to make an informed decision on this issue.”). When I think about the concept of using a barcode card to turn something on, and then using handfuls of yellow paper to “vote” … there’s just something so incredibly upside down and backwards to that that really, what can you do but laugh?

wealth and politics

Is it deliberate that in the section that deals with our traditional understanding of “economy” they drop the use of the word “economies”? Anyway, this is a fairly large room with the walls painted flourescent red, printed with statistics, and with large silver, inflatable balls hanging from the ceiling. The balls seem to represent some of the statistics but if they bear any relationship to each other or in some way represent their own collection of data, that is extremely unclear. There are seats. I sat down. I was tired. I contemplated the walls and wondered if flourescent paint is particularly bad for the environment.

This is the last exhibit room, and I was nearly done.

: :

Read Part 4 of Massive Post or Part 1 or Part 2

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PUBLISHED ON Oct.18.2004 BY marian bantjes
ian’s comment is:

it's funny, the first time i heard about bruce mau and his redesigning guatemala and other such overwhelming projects, i thought good for him. he's really doing something interesting. but now, he's starting to feel a little... well...dr. evil to me. why is his vision of the world the right one?

it seems like his understanding of design is being used to design your choices that what he's up to is good and right. i am almost certain not once in the military technologies section does it have any statistics regarding the lives lost due to military action. what is the cost of these innovations?

this seems like a wierd path to explore. he wants us to be a global community, yet he's saying look at all the great things we came up with to kill each other. and if military action is responsible for these innovations, then accordingly war is great for humanity, cause we'll get even more great stuff? dr. evil indeed!

On Oct.18.2004 at 10:41 AM
graham’s comment is:

john ralston saul (another canadian i think-it would be interesting to hear him on this project) in 'voltaire's bastards' examines in great depth the underlying militarism that has driven society, particularly in europe and america, over the last two hundred years or so, with a focus on the years since the second world war. japan is his example of a society where development in technology (since 1945) is almost wholly in the public sphere. the book is definitely worth a read-seems almost a companion, albeit a contrary one, to the 'massive change' project.

On Oct.18.2004 at 11:49 AM
Ben Hagon’s comment is:

Why did Bruce decide to hold the exhibition in Vancouver, when he is from Toronto, and the Institute Without Boundaries takes place in Toronto.

Does anybody know?

On Oct.18.2004 at 12:00 PM
Dave’s comment is:

I had the opportunity to visit this exhibit two weekends ago and have been enjoying the write up and discussion Marian. Thanks.

I had a similar reaction in the "military economies" section. But then the silver of the walls hit me as the subtle critique. On one hand they were like fun house mirrors, reflecting the images in hazy, wavy ways that made me question the substance of the banners. In another sense, they were mirrors inviting the viewer to put themselves "into the war." It was sort of interesting to stand next to the life-size soldier in futuristic armor and imagine that I was she/he. Dehumanizing to say the least.

Of course, I agree that the exhibit was so text heavy that I am most likely pulling this out of my ass. It would have been so much clearer and more honest to have information both in the military economies section and all the other economies sections about what we trade away for these advances. I personally feel like your critique of the military section could just as easily apply to the exhibits treatment of global corporations.

But I do feel like your critique of the biotechnology voting booths was a little off, perhaps because you were alone. I thought this was a great addition to the exhibit because it brought the dialogue into the public civic discourse. I watched countless people stroll through the exhibit silently. But then, at this section, I saw couples and groups engage one another in direct fashion in order to decide where they would cast their vote. Obviously, it's way too simplistic to think this vote will affect public policy in the short term, but these issues in particular are being settled in courts of law and in laborotories right now and not getting the kind of debate that is necessary. The clear voting booths ensured that everyone had a sense of majority and minority opinions, or if they were nearly equal, that a clear divide existed in opinion.

On Oct.18.2004 at 12:19 PM
marian’s comment is:

Graham, I'm definitely going to look into that book; it sounds like quite the rant.

Ben, apparently the show was "commissioned and organized" by the VAG. That would almost lead me to believe that the whole thing started there ...

I don't know. I have wondered that.

Oddly, I've read several mentions of this being a touring exhibit, but I have yet to find out where it might be going or when.

On Oct.18.2004 at 12:19 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> by the VAG


On Oct.18.2004 at 12:28 PM
Oscar Bartos’s comment is:

I'm hardly pro-military, but I understand that to a certain degree it's necessary in this world. But to justify the beyond-insane amounts of money thrown at it (by the US particularly) by way of its technological hand-me-downs is rather disingenuous. A super soaker? Yeah, that's $400 billion well spent.

And depleted uranium really fits nicely into that whole "cradle to cradle" philosophy, don't they?

On Oct.18.2004 at 12:30 PM
marian’s comment is:

Dave, thanks. If anyone else has seen the exhibit, I'd love it if you posted your impressions here, especially if they oppose my own.

these issues in particular are being settled in courts of law and in laborotories right now and not getting the kind of debate that is necessary

I agree with this, and certainly the "voting" boxes can spur a conversation between 2 people. However, the purpose of a vote is to be counted, and ballot boxes that can be stuffed are indicative of nothing. It really is just bad design. There are other, less misleading ways of provoking conversation.

Also I think these issues are already out there. There is a lot of discussion in the media and on the street about many of these things, so I don't think the exhibit is bringing something to our attention that we had no idea was going on.

Oscar, the super soaker may be one of the ones that traded technology back to the military (e.g. "Hey! I can think of a way to get this thing to actually kill people!"), I forget.

And depleted uranium really fits nicely into that whole "cradle to cradle" philosophy, don't they?

Yeah, this is a really good example of the disconnect between the sections of the exhibit, and also the recognition of reality.

On Oct.18.2004 at 01:21 PM
john b’s comment is:

i agree with ian, its odd

i understand the irony of the how advancements made in war (computers, robotics etc) and how they serve to help people outside of war time...but its kind of a stretch to try and view this as a glass half full kind of thing. wars set people much farther back than the "advancements" that come out of it. i believe, that even though these advancements help people, that the advancements themselves lead to better, more destructive weapons in the next wars, or excursions or whatever. they seem to eventually self perpetuate themselves into worse, advanced versions of themselves. so computers help us now, but they lead to better functioning smart missiles and such weapons in the future.

another scary thought is how stuff we create outside of war can be reverse enginered (the remote control car)

as a weapon themselves...does this mean we should more closely examine the trinkets we create and how they can be adversely manipulated? impossible to say.

overall i dont like the direction mr. mau is taking in justifying or romantising the destruction of war, at least in this instance, it seems a stretch.

On Oct.18.2004 at 10:23 PM
Rob ’s comment is:

i for one, have always had my cynical view of Mr. Mau's ultimate goals, even with Massive Change. While I agree that there are ways for us to use design—outside of the marketing realm—to improve the world around us, from reading what Marian has so elequently reported, a celebration of the Super Soaker from the 'design' of a machine gun is not what I would call responsible design.

I haven't seen the exhibit, yet, but I have seen the web site. And it strikes me while some of these ideas certainly have value, there also seems to be, as Marian pointed out, a lack of deep thinking beyond the initial idea, how it might be perceived by others and if the design could be interpreted as bad (as in evil).

It is, in other words, Mau's Vision for design and his 'future' but I don't think it speaks, or should speak, for the design field or the future overall.

On Oct.19.2004 at 10:42 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> as Marian pointed out, a lack of deep thinking beyond the initial idea, how it might be perceived by others and if the design could be interpreted as bad (as in evil).

While I agree with most of the concerns that Marian has raised, I disagree that Massive Change has a lack of deep thinking. I am sure that it had a lot of deep thinking, deeper than they are being given credit for. That their thinking does not match y(our) thinking doesn't mean it's undeep or inconsiderate. I doubt they aimed Massive Change to be a crowd-pleaser and feel-good exhibition. Yes, some stuff might have not been thought through all the way, considering all the various paths it can take in people's way of thinking and associaton of ideas and experiences… but nothing in this world is.

On Oct.19.2004 at 11:51 AM