Reviewing Bruce Mau’s “Massive Change” Exhibit – AGO

A few days ago (Wednesday May 4), I found myself at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) looking at the Massive Change exhibit. Since I already have the book, I had a bit of an idea of what to expect.

The first thing I noticed was that the AGO building face had been repainted for the Massive Change exhibit. Formerly a relatively plain structure of stone and steel, it was now painted white with “MASSIVE CHANGE” painted in huge letters over the rather chaotic surface, so that it was actually difficult to read once you approached the building. I pointed out to my friend that “This is one change they could have done without.”

Once inside, I ambled on up the stairs leading to the exhibit space. The museum is apparently free this month to the public, in honor of “May is Museum Month,” but that only applies to the permanent collection. In something of an irony, the viewing public have no access to the “massively connected, socially aware” sort of world that the exhibit is supposedly promoting.

I think the exhibit really highlighted my ADHD tendencies, even though I’ve never been diagnosed as such. I stepped into the Segway room, where the ‘revolutionary’ human transporter was displayed in all of its design stages – full prototypes all. There was also the IBOT, which its inventor insists is not a wheelchair – trust me, it’s a fancy wheelchair.:-P

From there, I made my way into a darkened room with numerous projectors on the ceiling, each projecting a globe onto the wall. The globes showed different things – earthquakes and their severity, the hole in the ozone layer over time, light pollution of the night sky over a year. The light pollution globe was the most fascinating, particularly because it highlighted fires in red. Granted, it recorded all fires over the period of a year, but the result was intriguing: two massive parallel bands from West Africa across the center all the way to the east coast, and great burned-out areas in the Amazon areas in South America. You could also clearly see gas burnoff concentrated off the coast of South Korea and throughout Indonesia, little green dots on a black globe.

The next room was covered in photographs, floors and walls all; the photographs were arranged in columns by size and subject matter, with the largest photos on the outside edges and the smallest in the center. Most amusing to me was the pixellated porn column – at the distances you were viewing the images, the images across the room resolved clearly enough to make out a number of hardcore scenes that probably made visiting parents wince.

The next installation was a little set of human interface devices: mice, Nintendo’s Power Glove, the Newton, tablet PCs, etc. They were all traced out from oldest to most recent, with little lines showing what directly or indirectly influenced the design of what.

The military-commercial connection was highlighted as well, with long streamers hanging from the ceiling and breaking the space up into a maze. Each streamer featured a different aspect of the connection; MREs, ATVs, DSRVs, Predator drones, it was military- and acronym-itis. Basically the point was that the military both bleeds over into civilian design, and it occasionally takes from civilian design (specifically things like GoreTex).

Skip a little boring empty space with a nook for cuddling/reading books, and I found myself in a technicolor room with fabrics and ceramics spelling out little catchy graphic-design blurbs: “INNOVATE” or “INCREDIBLE” or whatever. The scale trick was used here again, with nanoscale materials on one side of the room wrapping around to insulators and fabrics made of larger materials. The most interesting thing, from my perspective, was the little brick of Aerogel, which I’d read about but never actually seen. It is every bit as amazing as it looks; it’s practically transparent in thinner layers, and only mildly cloudy even when it’s six inches thick. Crazy stuff.

Enter the ethics question: the next display was a number of things regarding genetic engineering. Each question had a clear plastic case divided into “yes” and “no” boxes, and a stack of yellow slips of paper. “Should we genetically engineer food?” “Should we create human-animal genetic hybrids?” In most cases, surprisingly, the “yes” votes outnumbered the nays, except for that last human-animal question, which I guesstimate was probably 85% nos. I dropped a few slips of paper into all the “yes” boxes. I imagine that the intent was for each person to drop a single slip, but there was no such rule posted anywhere. Based on the thickness of the stack I picked up each time, I must have voted 10-15 “yes” votes for each question. Score one for being unpredictable. 🙂

There was another section in the same room which basically illustrated how much garbage the average person tosses in a year, along with the expected “this is what recycling can do” section with everything from plastic cups to Ikea furniture (not recycled, but made with “sustainable” wood).

The final room was a series of audiovisual stations and some hanging “audio” stations, each featuring a presentation or, in the case of the hanging boxes, a “famous” speaker, talking about some aspect of the global society. There were some interesting presentations; perhaps the message driven home the hardest was that China is really a major contender for this century, something that cannot be underestimated. There was also a presentation on the ruthless efficiency that companies like Wal-Mart are able to bring to bear on the marketplace.

Overall, an interesting exhibit, although not as thought-provoking to me as it might be to other people. I blame my lack of excitement on having spent so much time studying both design and sociology, and on having read the book before seeing the exhibit. I made my way to the exit, feeling slightly persecuted as I was herded through the makeshift gift shop at the end of the exhibit. Down the stairs, and out into the night-lit streets, I took a deep breath of reality. It’s an interesting vision that Mau presents, one where technology has the potential to address every one of the world’s ills, but I’m not convinced that the will is there. May the coming decades prove me wrong.

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