Bruce Mau’s exhibit Massive Change, which takes over the AGO until May 29, scares me.
It’s not Avigdor Cahaner’s featherless chicken or the sexing up of military design that’s got me a little freaked out by Bruce Mau’s exhibit/manifesto.
What scares me is the blind faith that Mau puts in design and technology. It starts from the moment you walk and a sign poses the question “Now that we can do anything, what will we do?” Questions like this are peppered throughout Massive Change, “Will we shift from the service of war to the service of life?” another sign asks. Even scarier are the manifesto like pronouncements. “We will design evolution,” “We will eradicate poverty.”
In its most benign forms, these statements show off the ‘gee whiz’ enthusiasm that infects most of the show. There are some genuinely eye-opening moments: one diagram of internet traffic reveals the complexity of one of the most amazing human created systems. In another room there’s the humbling composite image of our universe courtesy of the Hubble space telescope. There are elegant solutions to critical problems: cleaning contaminated water, biodegrable and compostable take-out containers.
These are all laudable and often very neccesary inventions but they ultimately become hijacked by Mau’s ‘design will save us all’ rhetoric. The ‘gee whiz’ mentality of the show looks an awful lot like naivete or even worse a kind of totalitarian striving for utopia. The very same strivings that led to five year plans and great leap forwards.
The public, too, doesn’t seem to be buying into Mau’s blind-faith in design. In a yes-no poll about the engineering of animals for higher productivity there was a clear rejection of Bruce’s optimism, with many more No’s in the box.
At times too Mau seems to be blindsided by his utopian ideas. Sam Walton and Wal Mart are seen as paragons of efficiency, an accurate but frightening representation considering the predatory and ruthless nature of Wal Mart’s expansion around the world. Deng Xiaoping, another figure held up by Mau, may have opened China to capitalism but he also ordered the tanks into Tiananmen and stands by while dozens of indigenous cultures in China wither away and die.
Design, it seems isn’t just limited to gadgets and prototypes. But to whole societies and those who live in it as well. If that isn’t scary, I’m not sure what is.