by James Wilson

My wife and I are standing at the entrance to the Massive Change: The Future of Global Design exhibit at the AGO. It’s the opening night soirée and gallery devotees are breezing into the gala. Scantily clad go-go dancers dressed in red eco-friendly hot pants riding atop two-wheeled people movers called Segways greet us all. Admittedly, we don’t get this bit, but whatever. We’re really here to see the exhibit – the latest offering from Bruce Mau Design, installed at the AGO from March 11 through to May 29. As a designer with 20 years in the industry, I’ve been asked to take a look at the exhibit from the perspective of a colleague.

For those unfamiliar with Bruce Mau Design (BMD), Mau heads up an internationally respected design firm. You would most likely recognize BMD’s work in the identity programs they’ve done for Indigo Books, Roots and the AGO.

What is the Massive Change Project? In a nutshell it’s the inaugural project of a post graduate programme at George Brown College, the Institute without Boundaries, in collaboration with BMD – the result of “a multi-year, discursive project on the future of design culture.” The Institute’s mandate is to launch annual multi-disciplinary public projects.

Interestingly, the Vancouver Art Gallery had approached BMD to do an exhibit on the future of design that need a lot research and development, just as George Brown College approached BMD to start a unique international graduate program. The two began coincidentally at the same time.

Massive Change involved fourteen people from the post-grad programme, plus a director and co-coordinator, with various people from BMD contributing over a two-year period to the book, exhibit and product.

On entering the first gallery you are confronted with a ‘massive’ floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall super graphic announcing the name of the exhibit. From there on in there is always an element of scale demonstrated in the various exhibits and rooms. The content is global in nature, and the overall tone of the presentation is undeniably optimistic.

People mill around the eleven exhibits, which flow in a mostly organic way from room to room. Each focuses on one aspect of change: Urbanization, Movement, Information, Images, Markets, Energy, Materials, Military, Life, Wealth & Politics.

Fact is, you need to do a lot of reading if you want to get the full content of the exhibit. I buy into this idea, as I believe there is a common public misconception that design is mostly about aesthetics – about things looking pretty. One of the ideas that this exhibit brings clearly into the foreground is that design is more about critical thought, the exploration of ideas and problem solving. Yes, there is beauty in the implementation, but that is simply the tip of the iceberg.

Vannesa Ahuactzin agrees there’s a lot of reading, but that the written material is necessary. “In the Vancouver version, people returned to the exhibit many times to take in different aspects of the show,” she said. Ahuactzin (pronounced Awatzeen) is the Design Manager for Massive Change and she has worked on the project for the last two and a half years as a member of BMD.

As gala–goers surged through the show at the AGO, something of a bottleneck developed in the Movement room. A devoted cyclist and environmentalist myself, this is a subject that is close to my heart. The gallery displays a number of new and vintage vehicles that offer a good overview of sustainable transportation technologies. Most people have never seen many of these before – and judging by their expressions, the experience was very much like viewing alien life forms.

One of my favourite rooms centres around the topic of Information, and consists of three distinct areas, Aviation, Global Portraits and Input devices. The space is dark, lit judiciously with projections, computer simulations and tabletop images – ozone depletion, population patterns, electricity usage and so on. The intimacy of the space seems to deliver the post-modern perspective that the world may seem big, but it is getting smaller rapidly.

The globe-like shapes resemble microscopic pictures of single cell organisms – or Petrie dishes – simple in form, but with massive metabolic activity occurring inside.

In the Image Gallery, the exhibit is set up like a three-dimensional electromagnetic spectrum. This room was very disconcerting when I first walked in; it has a striking Op-Art effect. It creates in one the desire to examine – to zoom in. Not a good room to go into when filled with other people. It becomes overwhelming very quickly, like a great visual stew and it soon loses its overarching graphic motif.

My least favourite of the galleries was perhaps the Markets room. While I found the information in this area to be of interest, I had difficultly engaging – perhaps this can be chalked up to my own skepticism about consumerism. I enjoyed the simplicity of the small kiosk presentations, however, and the detail of the barcode scanner and credit card as a means to activate and deliver information. Art imitating life…

This is Vannesa Ahuactzin’s favourite room, in part because it’s controversial – pushing forward the idea that Wal-Mart, for instance, is actually a positive force for change, versus the public notion of it being a corporate bully. She feels the exhibit compels people to examine their preconceptions.

Ahuactzin uses the example of an entrepreneur in India who followed the McDonald’s model to establish an eye clinic in India. He noticed that many people were unnecessarily suffering from eye disease. He co-opted the model of mass delivery, tailoring it to a completely different cultural context. Now he runs the biggest eye care facility in the world, offering both surgical procedures and correction therapy.

In the Energy room, we eavesdrop on a couple of patrons ruminating on the content. “I had to come,” said an elegant slim blonde woman in extremely expensive attire to a nattily dressed acquaintance. “I know Bruce – and his wife.” She surveys the room. “This is a bit like a high school science fair, isn’t it?” she remarks. They exchange e-mail addresses and move on. This gallery itself features a range of energy-elated solutions using solar power. Plus the following polemic:

“Two billion people live without the benefits of electricity.

Access to energy = access to information.

Distributed energy production = economic and political autonomy.

Peace is possible where sovereignty exists.”

There’s something Orwellian here, and somehow I too couldn’t escape that high school project feeling. My wife sniffs at me: “Well I liked it.”

The Materials room delivers a very tactile exhibit, and from a designer’s point of view, it is interesting typographically. Bright, colourful. I would describe the treatment as visual onomatopoeia with just enough background explanation to make some sense.

The Military gallery is like a giant picture book. The room is detailed, and despite its strong verticality, it retains an intimacy by means of a maze layout.

I laugh my entire way through the Manufacturing Gallery for couple of reasons. There are many examples of how materials are actually used – and as a designer I’ve always been fascinated by weird and wonderful stuff that is made to do things that you wouldn’t think it could do in a million years. Watch out, though – the exhibits shouldn’t be touched. An alarm goes off every time they are and, needless to say, the alarm is ringing constantly.

Living Gallery: “This gallery features innovations in the areas of food production, health care, clean water – while drawing attention to the ethical issues that these subjects raise”. Ahuactzin says that one of the things they tried to do here was deal with the ethical issues surrounding design. This deals with design in its broadest sense, including genetic modification.

I’m not sure why the Wealth and Politics Gallery was red, probably a little editorializing. The room serves as one large information diagram, showing figures on such things as the breakdown of various species on the planet. Interesting information that reinforces the sometimes-overwhelming scale of effecting change.

By the time I’ve read a fraction of the text-dense exhibit, almost every other gala guest is enjoying a well-earned designer martini. “I was about to send out a search & rescue party”, says my wife.

Massive Change is a thought-provoking interdisciplinary exhibit, and it may indeed bring in new gallery goers to the AGO – part of its mandate, of course. But it has lots of folks wondering if it really belongs in a Museum of Art.

Ahuactzin feels that Toronto needs a show like Massive Change. The show has created a lot of controversy with the general public, and Ahuactzin is amazed by how much negative press it has received. Inventors and scientists often refer to what they are doing as ‘designing’, yet they still don’t see themselves as designers. This exhibit treats their work in those terms.

I came away with a sense of a future populated by slightly-naive renaissance men and women, called upon to draw on their vision in solving the ills of the world, a bit like Don Quixote.

Ahuactzin counters with the point, however, that so much of the news in the world is negative, it is sometimes productive to focus on the positive impact of design, for its own sake. “There are a lot of people doing great things,” she said. And rightly so.

Good news deserves a venue. Dialogue is a good thing. I’m bringing my whole studio back next week to take a look and stir the pot. Maybe pick up one of those toy genetically modified naked chickens for the kids. It’s all good.
James Wilson is the principal and owner of Overdrive Design Limited: