“How to Realize a Gallery Exhibition Based on Design-Oriented Content”

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I was recently contacted about the Massive Change project by Matt Garmon, a student of OCAD where I'm currently teaching design. Following are his intro letter and interview questions, along with my answers.

"Hi Greg. I am currently in Todd Falkowsky's 3rd year Thesis Prep class at Ontario College of Art & Design. I am working on a case study based on the Massive Change project and was wondering if I could interview you to gain some personal insight into the project.

Specifically, I'm using the Massive Change exhibit as a model for how to effectively organize and realize a gallery exhibition based on design-oriented content. Your expertise and personal experience with this project would definitely help me generate a content-rich study and would be greatly appreciated. Would you be available to answer the following questions?"

1) What was the biggest obstacle/hurdle that the team encountered while working on the project? How did you overcome it?

In writing, curating and designing Massive Change, the biggest challenge was the overall ambition of the project. By this I mean the implications and reach of the critical questions, the sheer number and variety of deliverables, and the magnitude of the stakes. Everyone attached to the project had much at stake, due to the highly public profile and the way it was organized. This was not an accident or miscalculation but a deliberate factor designed to irreversibly intensify and characterize the learning experience for the Institute without Boundaries students.

2) What was the teams greatest strength when resolving conflicts or while problem solving during the project?

This may seem surprising but the team was so interdisciplinary that no one had the "real" answer to any problem. This meant that a new and often surprising answer arose for most questions. In the absence of experts, everyone becomes an authority of one kind or another. Combining these differing notions of authority produced unexpected and resilient solutions.

3) If you could have changed anything about the way the project was structured, what would it be? Why?

The mix of "economies" was an intentional move away from the usual categories of industrial design, graphic design, architecture etc. and as such it was knowingly tentative, incomplete, but closer to the true intermingling of the worlds systems of exchange. IwB member Mark Beever and I improved the categories by adding "Market Economies" near the start of the project, which I think turned out to be one of the most interesting, unexpected and successful categories. However we were reminded (by KaosPilot's director Uffe Elbaek and others) that we should have also included "Human Economies" -- that is to say, a category focusing on the redesign of education, the art and science of human imagination, or as we might call it at the Beal Institute, Strategic Creativity.

4) Can you explain the organizational structure of the project and how it manifested itself on a daily basis?

We were largely driven by opportunistically embracing sub-projects and by the resulting mix of these smaller deadlines alternating with big official deadlines (e.g. for the Vancouver Art Gallery). By sub-projects I mean interstitial commissions like the Digifest virtual reality environment called "Suspension: A A typical day might see a group-based charrette led by myself, a series of presentations of individual design research to Bruce, and a visit from an outside critic collaborator, such as advertising veteran, Marlene Hore.

5) Were there any eureka moments during the process and what were they?

One eureka moment came when Bruce explained that the key characteristic we were searching for was "capacity." This was the meaning of "Massive Change" -- a paradigm-shifting transformation in the magnitude of human capacity to alter the world. These implications drive us to the brink of the quandary: "Now that we can anything, what will we do?"

6) If you could offer any advice to someone wishing to set up a gallery exhibition, regardless of its size what would it be?

An exhibition places real people physically in contact with work and thus offers an unmatched context for eliciting extreme experience. This opportunity should never be squandered by offering a mere encounter with images. What Walter Benjamin called the "aura" of the artwork is actually not the exclusive preserve of art but applies to all objects that are somehow testament to history and to change. Uniqueness is not the only mandatory criterion. Better thing to look for (or to manufacture) is a confrontational poetic quality. This is one thing we sought to do in creating Massive Change.

7) How did you find peoples reactions to a design-centred exhibit in an art gallery especially with the focus on anti-aesthetic?

I'm told the Vancouver Art Gallery the Art gallery of Onatario had some visitors call in and cancel their memberships in protest. It may have happened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago too but I'm not sure. I find this reaction both surprising and heartening. I believe art is in a greater stage of irrelevancy and general crisis than ever before and I'm not alone. See, for example, my comments for the MAK's annual report on the "The Crisis of Art" http://www.metabolo.org/node/183. I'm heartened because it tells me that an institution dedicated to sharing new ideas can still shake its patrons out of slumbering complacency and that it can do so by embracing certain aspects of contemporary culture that are in themselves exciting and troubling. We didn't set out to shock but rather to represent and propagate some exhilarating ideas. If we did exhilarate I'm greatly heartened.

8) How did you generate content for the exhibit?

In general the IwB members contacted scores of authoritative sources of different kinds of material, like data, images, case studies. We also worked from sculptural sketches and build scale models of each room to test the ideas in 3D form. We wrote thematic "frames" to describe the patterns inherent in each case or collection, and wove the different strands together. this whole process was iteratively cycled many times, always testing and refining against our loose but vivid vision of the kind of experience and reaction we sought to arouse.

9) Obviously, the people involved were great assets when generating a show such as this. What attributes would you say to be the most critical to successfully producing this exhibition?

In our recruiting we were very deliberate about seeking and selecting candidates with unbridled curiosity, intellectual and physical stamina to sustain the iterative process, and perhaps most importantly, good cheer, to enable the successful navigation of all these challenges without losing heart or focus. If these were their strengths coming in, I believe each IwB member became what we referred to as "a new breed of designer, one who is, in the words of Buckminster Fuller, a 'synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist, and evolutionary strategist."