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Massive Post
Part 4
The proof is in the product.
massive change store

The first time I saw a makeshift store take up gallery space at the end of an exhibit, I thought it was utterly bizarre. I have now come to expect it. This one contains a variety of gadgets and souvenirs. Things like the wind-up radio, batteryless flashlight (you shake it for power), and bags made from used juice containers (handmade by women in the Phillipines, and graphically striking enough that I almost bought one) were nice, simple items easily linked to a potential theme of ecologically sound gadgetry and reuse of materials. There was also a bemusing array of Frank Gehry paraphernalia, an “Antiquarium” to observe ants living in gel (don’t ask), and a variety of cheap, plastic cameras presumably as a tie-in to the “image economies”.

I spent quite a bit of time examining the souvenirs. The posters are printed on an unknown coated paper and sported no recycling logos. The t-shirts are 100% cotton, American Apparel brand (but did you know you can get organic cotton t-shirts?, I certainly would have taken it that step further). There is also a Bruce Mau, sortof “signature” set of plates, bowls and cups with various statistical information graphically represented on them. They are all plastic, and I searched in vain for any information at all on what kind of plastic, or how they might have been manufactured. They sported no recycled or recycling logos, but they were made in China.

After coming to the very end of the exhibit it occurred to me that there was a major slice of life missing: art. It seems ironic that a man and a program from a field so closely related to the arts should so “forget” the influence that art has on our lives as humans. Surely technological design has influenced both the expression and the access we have to art? Surely art has informed the big picture design in the “spin on”/”spin off” relationship explored in the military economies? But as I tried to fit this into the model I realized at last that Massive Change is primarily about the design of technological devices, systems and processes, which, when you come right down to it, is a pretty narrow definition of design.

Setting aside my scepticism regarding the hubris of Man, and the unwise, wholesale acceptance of science, I have to ask one very basic question:
What is the purpose of this project and does the exhibit further that purpose?

as a showcase of new ideas

The Director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Kathleen Bartels, says, “Massive Change invites us to consider the dramatic impact of design on the world around us and the monumental way that it is changing the way we live.” The poster for the show says “It’s not about the world of design, it’s about the design of the world.” That’s a fairly indiscriminate statement. It doesn’t allude to the betterment of humanity, or the planet. If that’s the premise, then anything goes. But the Massive Change website says “We explore paradigm-shifting events, ideas and people …” OH! Why didn’t you say so before? Suddenly everything shifts into place: biotechnology, Aerogel, Walmart, flourescent paint, ants living in gel, Super Soaker weapons of mass destruction. They all fit.

The subtitle, or tagline, of Massive Change is “Now that we can do anything, what will we do?” That sentence provides the egocentric (from a human species perspective) view of the world that has caused me some grief with the project. But the exhibit adequately showcases a range of technologies both existing and in development. With show and tell as a goal, and “the design of the world” as a subject, Massive Change has succeeded. I learned many things, and most of them were interesting on one level or another.

There was an emphasis on sustainability in most of the displays, leading me to believe that this was part of their agenda, but if so, it was unarticulated as any form of goal either in the wall text or the press material I received from the gallery, so I’m uncertain whether persuasion was part of their intent.

In some ways, the whole thing reminded me of David Suzuki’s TV program “The Nature of Things” which has a long history of examining science and technology and its impact on humanity (with an increasingly political/ecological bent over the past 10 years.) Massive Change is more celebratory and more narrowly focussed on technology, but the goal to inform, inspire and provoke seems the same. I just think “The Nature of Things” does it better, and, over decades, through a highly accessible medium (TV), it has been widely influencial and at times controversial.

as optimistic manifesto

The word “manifesto” has been bandied about in relation to this project, and that is another way to look at it. The subtitles for each section say things like:
“We will bring energy to the world”
“We will build a global mind”
“We will eliminate the need for raw material and banish all waste”
“We will eradicate poverty”

(I remember some of those from the exhibit, but not others.)
These are sentiments that are hard to argue with as ideals. And if all students of design were raised with these goals in mind, who knows, the world might indeed change. But building utopian fantasies is easy, dealing with real world situations is hard and often requires harder questions than I believe were asked in this exhibit.

In some of the comments to Massive Post Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3, some people were suspicious of Bruce Mau’s motives. I am not. I really think he means well; I really think he hopes for a better world; I have no objection to him using his status to further that goal. But I still think he deserves a slap for some of the shortfalls and disconnects that turned up in Massive Change.

as a student project

The Institute without Boundaries “aims to produce a new breed of designer, one who is, in the words of Buckminster Fuller, ‘a synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist, and evolutionary strategist.’”

That Massive Change is a student project is perhaps the most under-stated aspect of the show, but I can’t help but wonder if it holds the key to some of the inconsistencies. Was the variation in perceived intent, as well as the display materials, due to different student interpretations and executions of a theme? I don’t know if each student commandeered a section, but in retrospect it sure seemed that way. In many ways it would be much easier to judge this as a graduate project.

as an exhibit

As for the exhibit display itself, from the press kit I received, Bruce Grenville, Senior Curator at the VAG says, “The exhibition reveals Bruce Mau’s visionary artistry; the physical experience will immerse visitors in a series of powerful, poetic encounters to reveal Massive Change at work in our world.” From this standpoint I have to assert that Massive Change achieves none of the above. The irony is that in our traditional understanding of “design,” with those goals in mind, the exhibit is largely a disappointment. I have used this term “exhibit” throughout, and despite aggressive editing in an attempt to reduce the repetitive use of the word, the fact remains that an exhibit is all this is, in a very predictable series of displays. The only physical experience was the one I described while sitting 15 feet from a 50-foot long video display. The interactivity was minimal and gratuitous. It was not immersive, and the poetic moments were rare.

I took some time to observe other visitors in the gallery. They wandered, hands-behind-backs, looking briefly, reading the 12-inch-high* type, but not the rest, listening to parts of one or two of the video displays, then leaving them rambling to no one. They looked interested, but overwhelmed. They seemed unmoved or, at best, puzzled. People who were together seemed to be talking about other things, not the exhibit. I saw no-one laugh or argue. I’m sorry that I was too shy to ask them what they thought.

Massive Change is certainly massive**, but is there change in the way Lester B. Pearson meant when he said,

“If the new and constructive forces … can be directed along the channels of cooperation and peaceful progress, it should strengthen mankind’s resistance to fear, to irrational impulse, to resentment, to war.”

When we view Massive Change we put on our rose coloured glasses and examine a narrow thread of optimism which is, in itself, tarnished in places. In order to achieve such lofty goals it may be that we each must individually focus on our own lives, our neighbourhoods, our spheres of influence, our specific skills. As designers you may laud Bruce Mau’s interest in expanding the definition of design. Expansive behaviour can be good, but so also is focus. If it makes you feel good to think that as a designer you are part of something bigger, so be it; provided you actually are.

As for Bruce Mau, I think he’s doing what he can, and you have to hand it to him for that. If I met him, I think I would like him, and then I think we might fight—we just view the world differently, is all.


*I did promise you a note on the type. I have to say that Impact, set at an approximately 12-inch cap height (I should have taken a pica ruler, but I didn’t know I’d need it, so all measurements are guesses, from memory), in black on white walls is absolutely stunning: it lives up to its name. It is somewhat less effective when used for single-paragraph text at approx 600pt. I have to say, however that it is a poor choice for large chunks of explanatory text, set at approx 400/420 on walls or 60/66 on display cards (my size guesses getting pretty wild, here). It’s difficult to read and headache-inducing. I don’t recommend it.

**There is also Massive Change, the book; Massive Change, the website; and, coming soon to a theatre near you, Massive Change, the feature movie—hopefully at iMax.

Read Part 1 of Massive Post or Part 2 or Part 3

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Oct.20.2004 BY marian bantjes
Rob ’s comment is:


If you ever get tired of doing design, you'd make an excellent journalist. Thanks so much for such an even-handed critique and overview of the Massive Change exhibit. I have enjoyed the exhibit vicariously through your words and will seek it out if it ever gets close to my neighborhood.

Despite my own cynicism about Bruce Mau, I do believe that he truly believes in what he's doing and that his motives, in the end are more pure than I would have suggested previously. But, just like you, I think my view of the world is far different then Mau's and I like it that way. But if I was in Mau's place, I think I would do the same as he has, in trying to impact the world around him in a positive way and highlighting design.

It is sad that many of the details that could have made this exhibit true unto itself, were overlooked or ignored. It seems a bit of a shame that despite all the work and research that went into this, what's trying to be communicated gets lost. And if people are leaving the museum puzzled or just plain bored, that is not the kind of design I would encourage. And clearly, Massive Change, lofty as it may be, does not paint a complete picture of the design'r role as a social force.

On Oct.20.2004 at 09:54 AM
Tan’s comment is:

Great conclusion. I'm definitely heading north in the next month to see the exhibit. Thanks for the comprehensive preview, marian.

On Oct.20.2004 at 01:48 PM
robSTANTON’s comment is:

Now that we can do anything what will we do?

this is massive change. whether you believe it or not, you/i/we have the technology/will/ambition to do anything. it is a scary thing.

Mau/IWB/VAG is bringing that question to all of us. i for one want people to stop and think what their idea will do to impact the world around them. as a designer i feel moved in reading and experiencing these ideas. i want to feel like i have the power, not to change the institution, but to impact and shift thinking off of me and onto we. paradigm-shifting


i still feel that the voice of the Massive Change exhibit is intended to be small and quite (even at a foot high). the power behind the idea is just that, the idea. Having the information about something and coming to a conclusion for yourself is far more impact-full than someone telling us what to think. i think that throughout the massive change onslaught (radio, web, exhibit, book, film) we are give the tools to decide for ourself; not if, but how WE will affect the world.

On Oct.20.2004 at 08:06 PM
Dave’s comment is:

A few more thoughts to add to this stone soup...

In my opinion, dispite this exhibit's shortcomings it was truly a unique display and I would encourage people to view it, discuss it, and critique it.

To me, it's optimism was inspiring and hopeful and I came away with a little bigger perspective on how small groups and individuals are attempting to address the myriad of social and economic ills that resulted from our unabashed industrial revolution of "progress." Some of the biggest problems of our time are problems of distribution and affordable, accessible technologies. This exhibit connected some dots for me. With that understanding, I can start to envision those goals as possible social movement goals.

At it's core this exhibit isn't about inspiring or informing a social movement, however. This exhibit celebrates the practical and seemingly simple steps that we can and should take to make the world just that much better. It's simple for most of us to buy different kinds of light bulbs so that we don't use as much electricity. It's simple for us to consume less fossil fuels as we shop for our groceries. It's trivial for us to use alternative materials when fixing up or building a house. In these areas, this exhibit shines, informing while it celebrates.

On Oct.21.2004 at 12:27 PM
Matilda’s comment is:

Thanks for the great posts on the Massive Change exhibit, Marian. If it swings by my part of the country, I'll be sure to check it out. I too agree with you about the curious dismissal of aesthetics in this particular project of Bruce Mau's. Art serves humanity in so many ways: to inspire, to add joy, to transcend one's material/mortal/emotional state.

Even Bucky would agree with me: "When I'm working on a problem, I never think of beauty. I think only to solve the problem. But when it's finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it's wrong."

On Oct.21.2004 at 12:37 PM
DC’s comment is:

Coincidentally, I was in Vancouver (for the first time) the day Massive Change opened. I had read about the show on my way to Vancouver, and was considering whether or not I'd have time to see it. But the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to go see it, even if I did have the time (which I did). Call me a cynic, but the very thought of wading through such an exhibition filled me with dread.

On Oct.22.2004 at 01:28 PM
Oscar Bartos’s comment is:

I guess I'm still stuck on the Wal-Mart issue, but I have a hard time being as charitable towards Bruce Mau. I don't doubt that he's intelligent or that he "means well", but I'm mystified by how he can be so seemingly clued-in and clueless at the same time.

And I'm definitely put off by the self-aggrandizing hype. Bruce Mau as brand? No thanks.

On Oct.24.2004 at 09:23 PM
laura’s comment is:

Call me a cynic, but the very thought of wading through such an exhibition filled me with dread.


On Oct.25.2004 at 11:11 AM
nick shinn’s comment is:

It's Art.

Or, to be more precise, it's High Art Lite, as Julian Stallabras termed it in his book on the recent British art scene, to describe the work of Hirst, Emin, the Chapmans, etc.

It's realm is Visual Culture. It is Sensational! It is an Installation. It is curated, (we would call it art directed), rather than executed by the artist. The celebrity-label MO allows easy mass-production, while conveniently removing the requirement of aesthetic skill as something that the work can be judged for.

It is dumbed down.

(Good point about Suzuki: Stallabras analyses the moral agenda of High Art Lite, and concludes that The Simpsons does it better).

Is dumbing down the price one pays to enter the mass market?

No, there is much in consumer culture, which dates back to Wedgwood in the 18th Century, that has had the time to become highly sophisticated. And the critique is long-standing: William Morris raised the essential issues: industrialisation, politics, aesthetics, etc., in the mid-19th century.

But the gallery/museum is a dumb medium: it is dumb not because it is stupid, but because it cannot speak. Look to the written works and discussions of the content to provide deeper meaning.

Cinema, TV, radio, the Internet, these do a better job of communicating via post-print media. If you want to be scared by technology, go on an amusement park ride. If you want to be awed by technology, go to a Seybold. if you want to physically confront political reality, march in a demonstration.

Yes it's true, in the Post-modern, quantum world, that the viewer is part of the picture, but it's just too confusing when part of the exhibit is its own critique -- straight into recursive hell.

And for agitprop-inclined designers, this consciousness-raising BS is just a big wank -- get your hands dirty designing for a real grassroots cause.


Impact: this is, ironically and ignorantly, the wrong typeface for this show. Distributed free to the masses by Microsoft, in order to standardize the appearance of web sites on IE, it is an enforcer of globalized aesthetic uniformity, an indigenous-culture killer. Ideally, the show should have used a locally-made font. I believe there are one or two type designers in Vancouver.

On Nov.01.2004 at 03:55 AM
M Kingsley’s comment is:


The current schedule for the Charlie Rose Show on Public Broadcasting has Bruce Mau appearing on Monday's show (Nov. 29, 2004).

On Nov.26.2004 at 11:24 PM
Scott’s comment is:

it's good to see this posted again. i think the timing is perfect since the book 'world changing: a user's guide to the 21st century' edited by alex steffen and designed by noneother than s.sagmeister, inc, is fresh off the press.

say what you like about the exhibition, but the book (massive change) is not only expansive in its reach, but designed in a way that allows for informative browsing. the written content is interspersed with interviews of some of the major players in this move toward a new way of thinking/living, and these interviews are perhaps the most informative part of the book. You get to MEET these people, not just hear about what they’re doing. ‘world changing’ is a more comprehensive read, no doubt, but we must at least acknowledge ‘massive change’ as its ambitious and inspiring forefather.

On Mar.06.2007 at 10:41 PM