Viewpoint (April 01, 2005)

“We will bury you!” shouted Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, expressing his belief in the Soviet system over the frivolities of capitalism and the West. In 2005, the Soviet Empire no longer exists. Capitalism reigns supreme and the design of our objects and cities represents the power of money, the control of expressive freedom through advertising, and weak governments who pander to large corporations. In 2005, enter Bruce Mau: a self-proclaimed Captain of Design. Mau’s name is attached to Massive Change, an interdisciplinary design project commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery as a venture in cultural capitalism that has recently migrated to Toronto. The show is generously sponsored by American Express.

“We will create a global mind,” reads one poster. “We will seamlessly integrate all supply and demand around the world,” reads another. Who would have thought that Soviet-style maxims would do an about-face and be used to sell $18 admission tickets, $40 catalogues, plates, pens, clocks, and stress-reliever balls for the common man? As most Vancouverites already know, the show is boring and underwhelming. Massive Change is formatted into eleven “economies,” urbanism being one of them. The exhibition’s focus on architecture and urbanism is cursory and no more informative than a lifestyle magazine. We are being sold on IKEA houses and approaches to land tenure reform for poor South Americans. Land ownership allows these urban poor to provide collateral for private banks who can then co-opt the new landowners into purchasing high-priced loans. Don’t worry if you don’t understand the whole picture, the gallery is selling hardcover copies of The Mystery of Capital, written by Hernando de Soto.

To add gravitas to his modus operandi, Mau quotes Arnold Toynbee: “The twentieth century will be chiefly remembered as … an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.” What is the practical objective that Massive Change explores? Perhaps Mau should look at a contemporary of Toynbee, Herbert Marcuse.

Marcuse, an influential philosopher of the “New Left” and author of One-Dimensional Man (1964), professed the decline of capitalist societies to develop revolutionary ideas alongside the rise of new forms of social control. Massive Change is the product of Marcuse’s fears. By repackaging a series of ideas, which are translated into graphically charged statements of platitudes, they seamlessly integrate an unsuspecting viewer into an existing system of production and consumption. Marcuse theorized that mass media and culture, advertising and contemporary modes of thought–all mastered by Mau–serve to eliminate negativity, critique and opposition, thereby reducing the potential for revolutionary change. The result was a “one-dimensional” world where the ability for critical thinking and opposition disappears, hence the One-Dimensional Man. Hence, Bruce Mau.

To say the least, the show is a credit to the Institute without Boundaries (IwB), part of The School of Design at George Brown-Toronto City College. Massive Change is effectively a student project that was handsomely developed and produced through the work of several tireless individuals who sacrificed considerable amounts of time and tuition to partake in the project and learn about the value and extent of design. The IwB program, launched in 2003 with the initiation of the Massive Change project, will undoubtedly blossom as the result of this sensational experience.

Mau knows that he has been accused of biting off more that he can chew. His response is simply, “It has been extremely delicious.” I bet it has. Ian Chodikoff