Mau is less
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 7 May 2005)

This season two Canadian museums, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, have filled much of their space with an ambitious exhibition called Massive Change: The Future of Global Design. In about a dozen large and small rooms, it throws at the public a poorly sorted collection of thoughts and facts, most of them overly familiar, all of them delivered as if they had just been uncovered by the finest minds of our time.

The world is polluted, apparently, and something must be done about it. Science has made amazing discoveries, clean water is a grave problem that we can solve, genetic engineering offers possibilities though also dangers. The world is increasingly urban. We need new kinds of transportation.

Massive Change feels, in other words, like a rewrite of several hundred magazine articles, with the subtlety removed. It's the creation of Bruce Mau, the renowned graphic designer, working with students and colleagues. The show comes across as over-emphatic and humourless, lacking both originality and clarity. Content and style don't connect: While the words and pictures suggest a possibly glowing future, the exhibition techniques are oppressive and robotic. They bully the visitor. If audience-abuse were a crime, Massive Change would be closed by the cops.

Even so, it's taken seriously by the two exhibiting institutions (the AGO has it till May 29), by corporations supporting it, and by at least some of the people who walk through it, goggle-eyed before its elephantine typography.

In his continuing struggle to say something momentous, Mau has somehow acquired the belief that if you accumulate enough words, images and objects, a meaning will emerge. Does this vast effort add up to anything at all? Perhaps. In the exhibition and its accompanying book, also called Massive Change (Phaidon), sinister possibilities swim just below the surface.

Mau appears to have in mind some kind of politics, however incoherently conceived. He seems to point us toward global organization as the only way to fulfill the future's promise. He insists that "we" must realize this, or organize that, or make progress toward something else. He never defines the word "we" but eventually it's clear that he means everyone on Earth, working together.

Today we are nowhere near the Utopia that the exhibition promises. As social beings we are all sinners, certainly wasteful, often thoughtless. Yet science now offers the solution to absolutely everything. Massive Change asks, "Now that we can do anything, what will we do?" Previously unimaginable resources are at our command. Why won't we use them? At one point Massive Change tells us, as casually as if announcing an improved hair conditioner, that a Houston physicist has developed a form of carbon that can be formed into a fibre 100 times stronger than steel at one-sixth the weight. That's the kind of unexamined, unexplored and undemonstrated "fact" that litters the exhibition.

But if these scientific riches exist, how can we take advantage of them?

A paragraph at the end of the book version begins, "If we are to survive as a life form on this planet ...." That's a phrase readers have learned to dread. Usually it introduces a fatuous argument about imminent disaster. But Massive Change says a way to survive is available: "There can only be true prosperity if it is global prosperity, and we can only count our wealth in peace when we count it together." (That means, of course, that no "true prosperity" has ever existed -- or likely ever will.)

This is as close to advocating planetary government as Massive Change dares to go. Mau must have noticed that the dream of world-wide power carries a dodgy reputation. At worst it produces the Soviet empire. At best it creates the UN's monstrous bureaucracy and deep corruption. So Massive Change goes no farther than implying that world government is necessary. The show's totalitarian style of propaganda, which assumes that visitors to the exhibition need to be told what to think about everything, suggests what shape such a politics might take.

Through all the intellectual confusion, one striking message does break through. "We will build a global mind," a wall text shouts, referring to computers and the Web. Many of us see information technology as the agent of diversity and originality because it provides cheap information and allows the independent dissemination of ideas. But Mau seems to believe that it will help make us all think the same way. He considers that a promise. It sounds more like a threat.

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