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PAUL WELLS November 15 2004
The Back Page


PAUL WELLS November 15 2004


The Back Page

Who would have thought a show about technology could be so giddy?


HALF THE FUN of Bruce Mau’s Massive Change exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery is the way Mau jumps to conclusions. Jump? He leaps with athletic grace. Somehow this isn’t a problem so much as it’s the show’s most attractive feature. Who would have thought a show about technology could be so giddy?

Mau is a Toronto designer whose pop evangelism has bought him the kind of international notoriety you don’t normally get if all you do is sketch chairs and toasters. Which helps explain why Massive Change, Mau’s big manifesto moment, has drawn

raves from foreign publications that aren’t in the habit of covering Vancouver Art Gallery exhibits. (.Massive Change will travel to Toronto in the spring before heading on to Chicago and Europe.)

As banners all over Vancouver scream in language that must already have Vancouverites’ teeth on edge, Massive Change “isn’t about the world of design, it’s about the design of the world.”

He’s big on slogans, this Bruce Mau. They’re splashed on wall after wall at the exhibit, in big stark type.

“We will build a global mind.”

“We will make visible the as yet invisible.”

“We will design evolution.”

And my personal favourite, projected onto an immense video screen near the beginning of Mau’s exhibit: “Everything=city= design=hope.”

The multiple leaps built into that Mauist slogan will, like the rest of Massive Change, either turn visitors off or seduce them with their goofy optimism. I went back and forth before deciding to give in.

Massive Change opens with a provocative question (“Now that we can do anything, what will we do?”) and a quotation from the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who called the 20th century “an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.”

Armed with the godlike attributes of omnipotence and omni-benevolence, visitors stroll into a room filled with... Segway

prototypes. The Segway, you’ll recall, is Dean Kamen’s fabulously clever computerized two-wheel scooter. They aren’t exacdy sweeping the world. You get the impression that Massive Change might once have opened with a tribute to the Ford Edsel or the Sony Betamax video recorder. Now that we can do anything, we’ll build tilty scooters?

It gets better. A room dedicated to “efforts to visualize and share knowledge about our planet” features video of a crazily zitinfested planet Earth, with bumps popping up and vanishing all over its surface. Ah: earthquakes, their scale amplified to show how tremors rock our planet. A satellite photo of ozone depletion over Antarctica, we are told, became the spur to reducing ozone-depleting chemicals in aerosol sprays. How you look at something can determine what you do about it.

Sometimes Mau lets his visitors into the ethical dilemmas technology poses. A display

on biotechnology allows visitors to vote on whether we should experiment with cloning, or bioengineer our livestock, by slipping yellow sheets of paper into big transparent bins marked “Yes”or “No.” Genetically engineered livestock was getting a big “No” the day I was there.

A display of spinoffs from military technology is silly: it may be true that caffeine gum made its first appearance in soldiers’ rations, but it’s also spectacularly missing the point of warfare. Mau is best when he goes past detail to the big, big picture. A room celebrating the power of markets is Mau’s most remarkable, because you get the impression that here, at least, his optimism offers him insight. Separate booths offer riddles that each answers with a videotape display. “Why does capitalism triumph in the West but fail everywhere else?” The answer is property: in the Phillipines, too few people own their residences, so they can’t trade their home for another good and have no incentive to improve it. This is a neat introduction to the ideas of the maverick Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto. And there’s his photo on the back of the booth.

Another booth asks, “What is seamlessly connecting the global market?” Answer: the standardized shipping container, which Malcolm McLean invented more than half a century ago, allowing anything to be shipped anywhere. “Our most successful markets... produce a nearly seamless marriage of demand and supply that is staggeringly effective at creating and delivering anything, anytime, to anywhere, if the price is right,” the wall copy reads. “The power of markets, brought to bear on the world’s real problems, is the power to change the world.”

It’s a surprising shout to global capitalism. Yo! Logo, if you will. Mau is sneakily rehabilitating a discredited idea: human progress. ^

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