#057 / 2004

Review by Mari Fujita and Oliver Neumann of the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition "Massive Change: The Future of Global Design"

Parasites, satellites and gigabytes

In his essay Junkspace, the Dutch architect, urban theorist and cultural critic Rem Koolhaas describes the contemporary condition as one in which "hierarchy is replaced with accumulation, composition with addition… [Junkspace] fuses high and low, public and private, straight and bent, bloated and starved to offer a seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed." To navigate the eleven rooms of the recent exhibition Massive Change: The Future of Global Design is akin to a stroll through the spaces Koolhaas describes. It is almost ironic that Bruce Mau, a long-term collaborator of Rem Koolhaas, is responsible for an exhibition that embodies what Koolhaas censures.


photo: Robert Keziere / Vancouver Art Gallery

Commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery and developed by Bruce Mau Design and the Institute Without Boundaries, the exhibition asserts that design has eclipsed nature, culture and business, and now has the potential to change the world to benefit humanity.

The Massive Change project oscillates between presentation of information and bare declarations. Sets of statistics, resources, images, design objects and contributions from designers are sorted and displayed according to eleven design economies. These economies - Urban, Movement, Information, Image, Energy, Markets, Materials, Military, Manufacturing, Living, Wealth and Politics - occupy independent spaces within the exhibition. They are held together with the narrative of an eleven-point manifesto printed onto the walls of the gallery to draw visitors through the linear sequence of galleries, from "We will create urban shelter for the entire world population" to "We will eradicate poverty."


photo: Mari Fujita

The exhibit offers little insight into how we can identify and synthetically address aspects of design in a global context. Instead, the format and method of the exhibition raise questions regarding the significance and objectives of design in contemporary culture. In an era in which image and information directly correspond to performance and agency and diagrams equal reality, the makers of Massive Change assume that to sort and to illustrate is to be proactive. Despite an attempt to describe the participation of design activities in a global system that is elational, interconnected and emergent, a conceptual link between the information and the agenda is absent. The eleven economies are experienced as discrete fields of interest and human advancement that read as market opportunities for the savvy design professional.

Mari Fujita is Chair of the Environmental Design program at UBC and maintains the design practice Fubalabo. Oliver Neumann is an architect and also teaches in the Environmental Design program at UBC.

It requires a very close look at the exhibit and related book to find a small number of inventions and projects that transcend the classification of their respective economies and illustrate the interconnectivity of global problems and their possible solutions.

The exhibit fails to polemicize and problematize the range of issues it sets forth in a manner that is engaging and productive. The viewer is not equipped with tools to make dynamic links between the information and the agenda, nor is the information treated in a manner that surpasses simple binary thinking. Because the exhibit does little to illustrate the motivations and consequences of the scientific advancements, choice is turned into a mere gesture of participation.

In Massive Change, the arena of participation has already been limited by the underlying assumption that the market is the only tool we have. This leaves us to operate only within the logic of the existing economy, and thus limits the critical potential of a design project to the terms of the market.

Bruce Mau has made significant contributions to contemporary visual culture through book design, branding, environmental graphics, exhibitions and product design. In the context of the Massive Change exhibit, however, the design efforts seem lost, seeking salvation in a neo-liberal market model whose contribution to overall advancement of the global environment and humanity has yet to be discovered.

Massive Change: The Future of Global Design is on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, BC, through January 3, 2005. From there it will travel to Toronto, Chicago, three locations in Europe, and close in New York City in 2007.

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© Mari Fujita and Oliver Neumann 2004