Bruce Mau's every move floats in an unfortunate geodesic-dome-shaped publicity circus - part P. T. Barnum, part Buckminster Fuller. It's not surprising, then, that the hypester-designer is sucking up lots of ink for the opening this week of his show, Massive Change, at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
The exhibit documents human innovation and heralds design as the fundamental framework for improving our world. But as one blogger on the subject points out, "Mau has this weird tendency that you see in a lot of designers and architects: he confuses fashion with politics."
There's a blurry undertone of self-promo in everything Mau does, and here it's a bit sick to see him harnessing public concern over very real social problems to inflate the status of his design brand. Design is in fact limited, and too easily impressed by its ability to reproduce nature and represent the world as information.
Catching the show during its last crowded week in Vancouver recently brought on a cold sweat. Shuddering past the important-looking signage, I was overcome by a kind of mental claustrophobia in response to the flattening of social problems into design language in Mau's brave new world. There's no question it looks fantastic, but that's what makes it frightening.
At the start, Massive Change asks, "Now that we can do anything, what will we do?' Good question.
The show takes a collection of social and scientific innovators like Segway inventor Dean Kamen and writer/biotech advocate Matt Ridley and dresses them in the gloss of inventive signage and displays. These doers and dreamers are organized into 11 categories or "economies," each with the capacity to improve lives en masse around the world. But the damage some innovations have already caused, and their potential future consequences, are relegated to the fine print if they're mentioned at all. As Ridley states, "Slamming on the brakes of a technology is not a morally free route to take.' Believe it or not.
Each economy exclaims a grandiose statement beginning with the words, "We Will' reminiscent of the horrific rhetoric in "We Will Prevail," the title of George W. Bush's collection of first term speeches.
"Capacity" becomes the catchword for the show. But beyond what we can do is the all-important question of what we ought to do and how it should be done. Navigating that political sphere remains an activity that transcends design, and that lies tellingly beyond the grasp of the Massive Change lexicon.
I shared a sunny table at the Bruce Mau Design studio with Mau and some students of the Institute Without Boundaries (IWB, a George Brown-sponsored program) who produced the show under his direction. Mau says in his calm way, "One of the misconceptions is that somehow we're suggesting that you could get it right. And never do we say that. We're saying there is a possibility of making things more intelligently, and that collectively, by distributing that possibility, we're increasing that capacity for excellence and intelligence."
But that's a far cry from the steadfast affirmations "We will eradicate poverty," "We will design evolution" or the fascist undertones of "We will build a global mind.'
So while Massive Change crassly uses Wal-Mart's incredible computerized distribution system as an example of design solutions at work, there's nary a mention of the chain's infamously negative effects on local communities.
According to IWB director Greg Van Alstyne, "Wal-Mart is a hyper-relentless, hyper-efficient engine. So you can imagine what an engine like that could do if it weren't doing what it's already doing." He imagines Wal-Mart's distribution system as a potential way of delivering efficient health care. Text in the show backs up the sentiment: "The power of markets, brought to bear on the world's real problems, is the power to change the world." Maybe, or maybe not.
But the show largely glosses over the reason that systems like Wal-Mart's don't deliver health care: for the most part, doing social good does not a profit make. There's an interesting section on the alternative economic ideas of Hazel Henderson, who advocates incorporating social and environmental costs into corporate balance sheets, but overall, capacity is celebrated without a clear concept of how it could be realized.
Ultimately, the show reinforces the conformity and fanaticism of our consumer culture, the recognition of which many believe is necessary for positive change. Most annoying is the promissory air wafting through it, combined with its expression of a utopian vision in the language of mass marketing.
The elaborate display would be more at home at a convention centre or world's fair pavilion. Why is it touring art galleries? Van Alstyne calls the gallery "the church of the day," a haven for ideas, but the slickly packaged utopian predictions come off with as much grace within the white walls as biblical money lenders in the temple.
Mau puts too much faith into human progress to date. According to his reading of history, we should "take the issue of quality off the table; let's just look at quantity. What happened in one century is that we went from roughly 1.5 billion to 6 billion. Now, with all that new potential and all those new people, are there negative impacts and unintended consequences? Yes, absolutely. But at the same time you can say that without a doubt we are living collectively worldwide much better than at any other time in history."
Who is this "we'? Does Mau's designer collective really include the countless lives ruined by the rapid movement of global capital and the immeasurable carnage of war?
Still, there's something thoughtful and even touching in this attempt at the visionary. Former Mau student Jennifer Leonard, co-author of the book Massive Change, describes our collective aspirations honestly. "We're going to progress more wisely. We're hoping that's the case. We don't know; none of us know." And she rightly stresses the importance of the world's well-intentioned entrepreneurs.
Insofar as it's able to generate public debate, Massive Change does have tremendous "capacity," but it's terminally flawed by the reduction of the critical evaluation of science and culture to bright colours and large letters. There's a distinction to be made between the content of the show and its mode of communication, between what it says and what it does.
Massive Change happily quotes McLuhan but tragically misunderstands him. If the medium is the message, the message of Massive Change is essentially marketing, the potential solutions for social problems rendered for mass consumption. The message is Bruce Mau Design.