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To Help People Fall in Love, Don't Do This

This is not the Valentine's Day article I intended to write. As is so often the case in journalism, the idea that sparks a piece shifts radically with research, and you end up with something no one was expecting.

Columns The Tyee 14 Feb 2015
In Praise of Reporters Who Stir the Pot

I burst out laughing when I saw this predictable Globe and Mail headline: "Jesse Brown is quick to expose the failures of Canadian media. But what about his own?" 

Contrary to what you may have heard, nobody in the trade likes investigative reporters much, and most hacks are openly hostile to the ones who start covering other media.

Columns The Tyee 29 Jan 2015
Why are women deserting newspapers?

 

News of a U.K. government study that claims women are less informed than men about current affairs, particularly in liberal, egalitarian western countries, has been making the rounds, much to the irritation of my female friends and colleagues.

Essays Salon 21 Jul 2013
Be employable, study philosophy

It must be summer. In anticipation of fall course schedules, several people have asked what I think someone who wants to be a journalist should study.

A few years ago I realized my favourite answer — not journalism — was depressing for someone who had already reserved a seat for himself or his child at one of Canada’s more than 50 journalism programs.

Essays Salon 1 Jul 2013
How Harper's office is playing news editor

Kudos to the weekly Barrie Advance for exposing the way some journalists are taking their marching orders from Erica Meekes, a flack in the Prime Minister's Office.

Columns The Tyee 20 Jun 2013
Jane Austen’s Guide to Social Media
In honour of the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice this year, the Jane Austen industry has been working at full capacity delivering tomes of Austenian advice on every conceivable subject but the obvious one: Jane Austen’s Guide to Social Media.
Swerve magazine 19 Jun 2013
The Jane Austen Guide to Manliness

 

This year's 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice arrives not a moment too soon to deal with the current crisis in manliness.

Columns The Tyee 23 Feb 2013
In the Name of the Rose and the Olive

In the Name of the Rose and the Olive

 
 
BY SHANNON RUPP, SWERVE JANUARY 31, 2013
 
What's in a baby's name? Lately, a lot of pretension.
The new year brings a baby boomette under the sign of Capricorn, and an onslaught of entrants for the Annual Unfortunate Names Contest, otherwise known as birth announcements.
According to Service Alberta’s most recent top-names list, Brooklyn is coming on strong, scoring ninth place in 2011. Unfortunately, the people recording vital statistics offer no insight into why any Albertan would name a child after New York’s hipster borough. It’s a girl’s name, which left me wondering if soon we’ll see some masculine variation based on Brooklyn neighbourhoods—Dumbo, say, or Red Hook. Bed-Stuy has a nice ring to it.
But as it tends to be girls who suffer most in the name game, I won’t hold my breath. Just consider Nevaeh, a popular girl’s name in the U.S. that is making inroads here. It sounds like a hand cream but it’s actually heaven spelled backwards. I thought it was a teasing nickname the first time I heard it, since the kid in question really was the opposite of heaven. But the mother assured me it was emblazoned on the poor little mite’s birth certificate. Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies.
Although the multicultural nature of our nation ensures that unusual names are no longer mock-worthy in schoolyards—thank nevaeh for small mercies—I’m not so sure their owners won’t be mocked as adults. As any fiction writer can tell you, the naming of a character signals a multitude of things, and you may well be attributing false attitudes, beliefs and history to your child that could prove a handicap.
The first time it struck me that names could have serious consequences was when I was 18 and bumped into a high-school friend who had mysteriously disappeared before graduation. There she was, eight months’ pregnant and still single, much to the annoyance of her parents. She was burbling about potential baby names and leaning towards the then-unusual Chelsea. I asked if she was celebrating the London neighbourhood or the football team. “If a little brother comes along you could call him Brixton!” I suggested, getting into the spirit of the thing as only a tactless teenager can. (And if there’s a Brixton in his 20s out there, I am so, so sorry.)
I couldn’t resist asking where she’d heard the name and it turned out that while the rest of us were cursing calculus, she’d become a soap-
opera addict and had found a rich mine of heretofore unheard-of monikers. “You want your kid’s name to commemorate The Young and the Restless?” I blurted. It was weirdly appropriate, but I couldn’t imagine how it would go over at family dinners. Of course, the joke was on me because she was on the cutting edge of what would later become known as the soaps trend in baby naming. If you are an Ashley, a Brittany or a Tiffany, there’s a good chance your parents had a thing for daytime dramas featuring bizarre plots and wooden acting.
So influential were soaps in their heyday that many a child was stuck with a handle likely to embarrass her as an adult. As the Destinys and Brandys started piling up, people began making jokes about adding tassles to the onesies at baby showers. So one of my more practical pals proposed a baby-naming test to ensure we wouldn’t accidentally humiliate future daughters. “See how that name sounds with ‘Madame Justice’ in front of it,” she advised. She eventually had two sons, but it strikes me that her guideline is still the gold standard for preventing naming disasters. Just consider “Madame Justice Blue Ivy.” Exactly. (What were Beyonce and Jay-Z thinking?)
Naming babies was once a matter of family as much as fashion, but somewhere along the line it became the equivalent of a style accessory. Sociologists theorize that it has to do with the modern era valuing individuals more than institutions, and so naming children became a matter of personal taste (or lack thereof).
Those who call for laws against bad taste will appreciate Iceland’s strict naming legislation, which includes lists of about 1,800 approved names for each sex. They fit grammar and pronunciation rules (and no doubt prevent the randomly sprinkled apostrophes that seem to be all the rage). The point is to protect children from embarrassment. Parents have to apply for permission to get something dodgy like Ra’Lae on a birth certificate. The system, while admirable, is not flawless. Currently, Blaer Bjarkardottir, 15, is suing to use her given name—which means “light breeze”—after her parents were inexplicably denied the right to call her that officially. In the meantime she is identified as “Stulka,” which means girl. Reading news stories about her plight, I was sure some trendsetting parent (probably in Brooklyn) would spot Stulka as an alternative to the now passé Elle.
I blame celebrities for opening the floodgates on bestowing names that will add to the kid’s future therapy bill. Nicolas Cage called his son Kal-El. Yes, just like Superman. Pop star Bob Geldof may be a philanthropist but he gave his kids mighty uncharitable names: Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches Honeyblossom, Pixie and Tiger Lily. And Alicia Silverstone has a son called Bear Blu. You could call it whimsical; I call it child abuse. As did Peaches Geldof who, at 16, publicly called for celebs to stop giving their kids silly names.
Ironically, this enthusiasm for unusual names isn’t about individuality, it’s about fitting in, according to American sociologist Philip Cohen. He wrote about the ever-waning enthusiasm for the name Mary in December’s Atlantic magazine, where he notes that although Mary was the American chart-topper for centuries it has seen a 94-per-cent drop in popularity since 1961. That year, more than 47,000 babes were given the name. “Conformity to tradition has been replaced by conformity to individuality,” Cohen writes.
This may explain why those who move in Upstairs circles have taken to giving their offspring Downstairs names. About 10 years ago, posh daycares began sounding like the training grounds for 19th-century servants, as Ruby, Violet, Abigail, Daisy and Rose started mixing it up in the sandbox. Celebrities have picked up on this trend, and last fall Drew Barrymore gave birth to an “Olive,” which just screams scullery maid, but at least she’s not a Blue Olive.
Still, there’s some charm to those simple names, and their resurgence raises hopes that the era of pretentious Addisons and Madisons may soon give way to the return of Mary. Think about it: Mary was a name for servants as well as royalty, and it celebrates the elegantly dressed Lady Mary on TV’s hit soap Downton Abbey. Give it the Irish spelling, Maire, and it hits the trendy-name trifecta without any reference to real estate.
As in the jar or the profession?
The top 10 names in Alberta in 2011: Boys: Liam, Ethan, Mason, Lucas, Jacob, Alexander, Benjamin, Noah, William, Logan.
Girls: Olivia, Sophia, Emma, Emily, Ava, Chloe, Abigail, Lily, Brooklyn, Sophie.

The new year brings a baby boomette under the sign of Capricorn, and an onslaught of entrants for the Annual Unfortunate Names Contest, otherwise known as birth announcements.

According to Service Alberta’s most recent top-names list, Brooklyn is coming on strong, scoring ninth place in 2011. Unfortunately, the people recording vital statistics offer no insight into why any Albertan would name a child after New York’s hipster borough. It’s a girl’s name, which left me wondering if soon we’ll see some masculine variation based on Brooklyn neighbourhoods—Dumbo, say, or Red Hook. Bed-Stuy has a nice ring to it.

Features Swerve magazine 31 Jan 2013
Movies Suck!

While I'm happy to join the hand wringing parties over the demise of one of my favourite movie houses, the Ridge, the death of Vancouver's iconic popcorn palace suggests it's time to address the elephant in the room: movies suck.

Columns The Tyee 30 Jan 2013
Peddling God to Schoolkids? Pay up, Christian Soldier

Not so hasty. That's the advice I'd give the Chilliwack school board, which appears to be on the verge of ordering an about face for the Christian soldiers distributing Gideon Bibles in public schools.

The school board will be reconsidering its Bible giveaway scheme at a meeting tonight due to a somewhat tardy review of the B.C. School Act, which states schools must be "strictly secular and nonsectarian."

Features The Tyee 13 Nov 2012
Why Old Media fear the Wente story

The Globe and Mail experienced the wrong end of a revolution over the weekend. The Twitterati stormed the Bastille because of the paper's refusal to acknowledge a blogger's claims that columnist Margaret Wente was plagiarizing some of her screeds.

The story is still unfolding, but it appears the rebels have won. As this piece went to bed, The Globe's editor-in-chief, John Stackhouse, took a shot at damage control by announcing that Wente would be disciplined.

Features The Tyee 25 Sep 2012
Let's Play Aristocrat!

As I opened the fat, creamy envelope containing an excessively artful black-and-white photo of a mid-30s couple capering in a field, I felt that faint queasiness that tends to arrive in April and doesn’t quite recede until late September. Call it the wedding flu.

Features Swerve magazine 17 Jul 2012
Relating to Dr. Divi

I'm at Vancouver's 20th annual wellness trade show, where Dr. Divi Chandna, a licensed medical doctor and a "certified medical intuitive" is delivering her confusing hypothesis on how to treat depression with help from the "law of attraction." Dr. Divi (as she styles herself) is telling a few dozen mostly middle-aged women that insomnia is the result of spirit guides or angels waking us up to have a chat.

Columns The Tyee 30 Mar 2012
Of dust and lust

 

I used to dread the arrival of spring as the only season to which the word “cleaning” had been attached—until I learned about the erotic implications of not doing housework. Apparently, there’s lust in that dust.You doubt me? You need only look at the fifth-season opener of Mad Men, which featured Don being seduced by the new Mrs. Draper as she began to tidy a filthy post-party living room in naught but her black scanties (at right). Within seconds they’re rolling around on the muck-encrusted white broadloom, all thoughts of virtuous order forgotten.

Mad Men often taps into taboos and this was a perfect salute to spring, not least because it was a relief from the relentless parade of magazine articles, TV shows and merchants campaigning for the war on filth. They remind me of evangelists, and not just because they have the cheery zeal of the devout. Religion’s enthusiasts have long connected cleanliness with moral purity, and both the Puritans and the 18th-century Methodist preacher John Wesley have been credited with some variation on the slogan, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

“Around here, it’s next to impossible,” my mother used to snap, pointedly, at my adolescent self as she collected the heaps of clutter strewn in my wake. A promiscuous reader, I delighted in quoting Quentin Crisp’s view on housework to her: “The dust doesn’t get any deeper after the first four years.” But it wasn’t until I was older that I realized that Crisp, author of The Naked Civil Servant, wasn’t merely being witty; his indifference to polishing floors hints at what he was willing to polish to a gleam.

Features Swerve magazine 23 Mar 2012
Occupiers, big media wants your help!

In a sea of inept coverage on the Occupy Wall Street protests I have to give the Vancouver Sun credit for making me laugh out loud with this tweet: "Going to #occupyvancouver? Help us cover it. Send updates, photos, video to..."

So let me get this straight: a corporate media monopoly that is a cause of many of the problems under protest is trying to exploit people further by getting them to provide free content on which it profits?

Well, I guess you have to admire the chutzpah.

Features The Tyee 25 Oct 2011
The Facebook Follies: The New Crowd-Sourced

While you’ll see dire warnings about Facebook privacy, and enthusiastic-but-unproven marketing promises

Columns The Tyee 30 Aug 2010
Older Women Invading Facebook

Facebook is getting old, in every sense of the word.

Since early 2009, when Facebook trumpeted the fact that the female 55+ demographic grew by 550 per cent, (while underplaying the fact that the under-30 enthusiasm stagnated), I've been amused to see it evolving into the equivalent of the retirement home's social centre.

Women who used to scrapbook are now farming on Facebook and sending us all tiresome updates. (PopCap Games reports that 60 per cent of FarmVille's 82 million users are women over 40.)

Columns The Winnipeg Free Press 10 Mar 2010
That's Oprah-essive!

Barbara Ehrenreich's latest masterful book, Bright-Sided, opens with the most hopeful frontpiece I've seen in decades. "To complainers everywhere: Turn up the volume!"

Ehrenreich subtitles the book How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, and she investigates how the 19th century's faith-healing movement developed into today's pop culture tool for social control.

Columns The Tyee 21 Jan 2010
Little literacy program has big impact

While it might be bad for the business of the criminal defence lawyers he left behind, Andy Berna has been devoting some of his retirement to teaching Kamloops kids to read. 

Features 2010 Legacies Now 1 Dec 2009
Medical group slams college's energy-healing courses

The British Columbia Medical Association is criticizing Vancouver's Langara College for training the public in therapies that are "medically useless" and potentially harmful.

News The Globe And Mail 31 Aug 2009
Former Ballet BC director wins in court

A court has granted Ballet British Columbia's former artistic director the right to add his cancelled contract to the company's list of debts.

In a June 19 decision, Madam Justice Carol Ross of the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled thatthe bankruptcy trustee, E. Sands and Associates, was wrong to disallow John Alleyne's claim for$142,784.92. The claim was based on his employment contract, which required 12 months notice orpayment in lieu of notice. The trustee argued that when Ballet B.C. terminated and rehired Mr. Alleyne,his damages were mitigated.

News The Globe And Mail 17 Jul 2009
Against Social Media

Twittering is just frittering as we amuse ourselves to death.

Columns The Tyee 22 Jun 2009
No writer's block for this dancer

VANCOUVER, B.C. — When choreographer Crystal Pite, 36, talks about the work she is bringing to Seattle's On the Boards this week, she can't help but dance in her chair.

A&E The Seattle Times 23 Mar 2009
Weathering tough markets

Screaming headlines proclaiming stock market meltdowns, bank failures, and job losses  leave even the most confident investors feeling shell-shocked. For small investors whose primary concern is financing retirement the current onslaught of bad news, delivered in hysterical tones, often induces unnecessary fear.

Features Central 1 Credit Union website 2 Feb 2009
Beware of Neuromarketing

Adults are taught to be sceptical. But the subconscious is like a toddler.

Forget focus groups, marketing studies or even psychographics, 2009 is the year the selling juggernaut will use neuroscience and our own biology against us.

Columns The Tyee 25 Dec 2008
Cyber self-defense skills

Surfing such popular social networking sites Facebook and MySpace requires using a few cyber self-defense skills.

Most adults are aware that they’re opening themselves to marketers looking to mine data, and viruses that are spread via site notifications. The sites also post warnings about new threats. What they rarely mention is that con artists and identity thieves can find a wealth of information in the average personal page.  For example, what better way to find the most common security password on a bank account -- the mother’s maiden name -- than by visiting someone’s Facebook page and finding all those cousins on the friends list?

But for parents an even greater fear is cyber-bullies or worse. Predators looking to meet children have only to find a group organized around a current band or a toy collecting fad to gain access to thousands of children and their friends via their friends list. 

Features Central 1 Credit Union website 1 Dec 2008
Going for broker

They say opposites attract, but in the financial world it might be better to say that opposites complement. While you couldn’t find two more disparate businesses than banking and insurance – one is about managing the margins, while the other is a fee-for-service -- the combination is a natural fit for credit unions looking to ensure the bottom line.

Features Enterprise magazine 1 Sep 2008
Till Death do you part?

America’s loose-lending habits have caused a credit crisis down south but for cautious Canadian lenders long-term mortgages aren’t about getting the fiscally risky into the housing market but giving preferred borrowers more flexibility.

Features Enterprise magazine 1 Sep 2008
B.C. Credit Unions insure entire deposit

Banking with B.C.’s credit unions became even safer with new legislation that guarantees member deposits are insured for the entire amount. As of November 27 2008, members at B.C.’s credit unions are insured for the maximum amount of their deposits, including any accrued interest. By contrast, customers at commercial banks are insured to a maximum of $100,000.

Features Central 1 Credit Union website 3 Mar 2008
Tenants in “Pandora’s boxes” face mountain of troubles

Parkview Apartments, the nondescript four-storey walk-up at 2255 Pandora in Vancouver looks fine from the outside, but it’s the sort of building where cockroaches aren’t nervous.

News The Globe And Mail 27 Nov 2007
Canadians retain the right to skinny-dip

The B.C. Supreme Court confirmed the right of Canadians to skinny dip at private parties -- even if they’re held in municipal pools governed by prudish politicians.

 In his decision yesterday, Mr. Justice Paul Williamson quashed Surrey City Council’s decision to stop renting the Newton Wave Pool to the Surrey Skinnydippers Club.

He called council’s reasons for preventing the private late night swims “patently unreasonable.”

News The Globe And Mail 9 Nov 2007
Lower Mainland braces for the worst

Homeowners in the Lower Mainland cities surrounding Vancouver are reminded of the real cost of their beautiful waterfront views as they prepare for the spring runoff on the Fraser River, which has the potential to cause the worst floods since the 1948 disaster that predated the dikes.

Then again, it could be a false alarm for the area, as it was in 1999 when cool weather allowed for a slow melt of the snow-packed Fraser Basin.

The worst-case scenario would be a week-long heat wave followed by heavy rains during the crucial mid-May to late-June period.

News The Globe And Mail 5 Apr 2007
Ontario author files suit against UBC over harassment policy

The University of British Columbia is being sued by an Ontario-based author who claims the school breached a contract by failing to provide her with a safe working environment while she was Green College’s journalist-in-residence in fall 2004.

Green College is unique at UBC: a traditional-style residence with a good dining hall that is designed to bring a mix of interdisciplinary grad students, post-doctoral fellows, visiting professors, and visiting scholars together to exchange ideas.

News The Globe And Mail 13 Oct 2006
Face it -- 'reading' people's features is a mug's game

VANCOUVER — Mark Ainley is giving the expression “taking it at face value” a whole new meaning.The Vancouver man teaches workshops on how to divine someone's character, intelligence and values by his or her visage: People with higher eyebrows are reserved. Low eyebrows signal someone outgoing. Upturned noses suggest gullibility; downward pointing noses imply a critical temperament.

Features The Globe And Mail 8 Jul 2006
Working through Wikipedia's vanity fair

VANCOUVER — For anyone steeped in old-media thinking, evidence that the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia is an unreliable source can be found in a Vancouver publisher's entry about himself.

Kevin Potvin writes and publishes a weekly print tabloid called The Republic of East Vancouver, full of inflammatory opinion pieces reminiscent of the ideological rants of 18th-century pamphleteers. It claims a circulation of 6,000. Yet, according to Wikipedia, Mr. Potvin is a colossus.

Features The Globe And Mail 5 Jun 2006
Dust and Lust

The point at which sex and housekeeping collide.

Columns The Tyee 12 Apr 2006
'Write Dirty for Me' Slap the monkey? Slap the editor!

 Pierre Trudeau said famously that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation and, to this, let me add: that sentiment should go double for news media.

Columns The Tyee 12 Dec 2005
The return of God

Some say religion has no place in science. Proponents of theories like intelligent design are trying to negotiate a reconciliation.

On paper, the curiously named Centre for Cultural Renewal exists "to explain the importance of religions to culture and the importance of culture to religions".

Features The Georgia Straight 19 May 2005
Legal experts say welfare moms have rights case

Debbie Krull knows exactly what poverty looks like: a pot of pasta infested with maggots writhing in the boiling water. "This is so gross; is it okay to say this?" asks the 31-year-old mother of two as she brushes a long strand of brown hair out of her eyes and back into her dishevelled ponytail. "When I looked at the dried pasta, I found the larvae were right in it-it was past due."

"It's not the food bank's fault," Krull adds quickly. "They do the best they can. But grocery stores donate food that is past due that they can't sell."

News The Georgia Straight 28 Apr 2005
Duelling Rights

This city's best-known women's shelter appears to be surprisingly devoid of drama, at least outside of the law courts. 

Vancouver Rape Relief Society's solid prewar house, nestled in a never-disclosed neighbourhood, is warm and welcoming. The floors have the glow of wood well-buffed by thousands of socks, the rooms are clean and bright, and the furniture, although simple hand-me-downs, has been carefully chosen for solidity and comfort. 

Features The Georgia Straight 3 Feb 2005
Mixed Nutcrackers

Buckle captured the dread with which many balletomanes greet the Christmas ritual. But dance lovers no longer need to feel ashamed of their Nutcracker aversion since, apparently, we're not the only ones who doubt it's dance. According to an American dance historian, the bonbon is less ballet than social event.

Reviews The Georgia Straight 9 Dec 2004
Making decorating virtue of tight funds

If the phrase decorating on a budget conjures horrifying images of glue guns, marabou lampshades, and fake wood grain, you've been watching too much Trading Spaces.

The techniques shown on those guerrilla decorating shows--the ones that use ordinary objects like cardboard and seashells to inflict maximum damage on victims' homes--have given budget decorating a bad name.

Features The Georgia Straight 18 Nov 2004
Let's Give Americans a B.C. Liberty Tour

Bush-mad Yanks need flu shots, medicinal tokes, and orca-viewing; and we need bucks.

To: Tourism B.C.  Re: Liberty Retreats

The time has come to put aside the post-election jokes about our American neighbours and recognize what the George Bush landslide really means for B.C: a tourism windfall.

Columns The Georgia Straight 18 Nov 2004
Massive Change Is About Designing the World
Massive Change, the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition opening Saturday (October 2), is more likely to appeal to science-fiction writers, social activists, and environmentalists than those interested in making the world pretty.
The show is subtitled The Future of Global Design, so don't expect cunningly fashioned can openers or stylish tiles. This exhibition examines the philosophical underpinnings of design and includes installations devoted to such broad categories as transportation, information, and economy. Although the topics sound about as exciting as the headings in a high-school social-studies text, Massive Change is bound to be controversial and thought-provoking. The health-and-living display, for example, investigates humanity's ability to redesign life itself.
"In the last century--when Crick, Watson, and Franklin unlocked the structure of DNA--we opened the door on a system of information that can be rendered as a design project," explains Bruce Mau, the Toronto designer who led the collaborative show.
This section and the show's Web site (www.massivechange.com/) profile some eyebrow-raising forays into "designed" foods. A film introduces audiences to an Israeli researcher, Avigdor Cahaner, who has bred preplucked chickens from a genetic flaw that causes some birds to have bald spots. Closer to home, the show highlights the fatter, faster-maturing B.C. salmon genetically designed by Robert Devlin, a scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
As Mau writes in the catalogue essay: "Massive Change is not about the world of design; it's about the design of the world."
With his untucked black shirt, and his curly hair brushed back from his round face in an indifferent 'do, the 44-year-old Mau looks much like any of the black-clad sophisticates found in galleries and theatres--except for his enthusiasm. His hands gesture and his eyes twinkle as he discusses the project he knows will spark debate among designers and anyone else interested in answering the show's stated central question: "Now that we can do anything, what will we do?"
"This is not a utopian show," Mau says at least three times during an hourlong interview at the gallery. "It's not about something in the future: we can do all these things now."
That said, Mau's view of our ability to redesign the world is surprisingly optimistic. Listening to him talk about some of the featured projects--such as Dean Kamen's wheelchair, designed so the user sits at adult height and can climb stairs, or "golden rice", a crop with spliced genes for vitamin A that will prevent blindness in undernourished children--recalls that famous fin-de-sií¨cle hopefulness about the future. Of course, not since the fin of the last sií¨cle has anyone talked this way. Somewhere between the time when the bombs went nuclear and the ozone began thinning, universal enthusiasm for technology began to wane. By the end of the 20th century, the popular view of the future was that we were doomed to evolve into the bleak world of global corporations and dehumanizing technology found in Vancouver writer William Gibson's Neuromancer.
Mau hopes this show will address some of the relentless worldwide pessimism that he feels is unfounded. That's part of what persuaded him to do Massive Change, although initially he turned the VAG's invitation down. "It was just too big--too much to do--and I have a little business to run."
Mau's "little business" is Bruce Mau Design, which began in the mid-'80s as a "communications design" firm that specialized in "branding", developing a distinctive image and identity for clients in the marketplace. He worked with such celebrity architects as Rem Koolhaas (on the new Seattle Public Library) and Frank Gehry, and he has a diverse client roster that has included the Andy Warhol Museum and Roots.
And big doesn't quite cover Massive Change, which could well have been called Massive Undertaking. Three years in the making, it required the VAG to renovate two floors to accommodate the 10 installations, which could have used easily a floor each. Two weeks before the opening, two floors of the VAG are little more than a construction site where workers are still putting up walls, painting, hanging lights, and working day and night, literally, in two shifts, to make the deadline.
But it's easy to see why the word visionary is so often applied to Mau. Where he sees the Energy Gallery, complete with NASA's photographs and audio of the sun, all I can see is the reno that won't end. Mau points to some naked drywall on which he envisions a model of the cityscapes of the future, how high-density cities like Tokyo will look by 2015. Prefabricated housing and innovative use of both vertical and horizontal space will alter them beyond our recognition. In the centre of this space, where piles of construction materials now sit, will be an elaborate map that shows how some of the poorest parts of the developing world overlap with places that have the greatest potential for exploiting solar energy on a massive scale--if only someone can design an efficient system for harnessing that power. Around the corner, in bubble wrap, sit some tiny single-person cars with rounded shapes and enormous windows that wouldn't look out of place in The Jetsons.
"It's the largest show we've ever done," says senior curator Bruce Grenville, who is the VAG's coordinating curator on this project. After it closes in Vancouver on January 3, the exhibition will travel to Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario and Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, and they are still negotiating with galleries in Asia, Europe, and on the West Coast.
Although covering design and architecture has always been part of the VAG's mandate, director Kathleen Bartels's influence is the reason for the increasing number of design-focused shows. "We're trying to appeal to a broader-based audience, so we thought it was important to look at an issue that affects so many people in the world," Bartels says, adding that she expects Massive Change to be the kind of blockbuster show that will appeal to teenagers and the under-30 set.
"No one in North America has done this kind of a design show on this level. Other shows have focused on aesthetics--the beauty of hundreds of Nike running shoes--but from an artistic position, this show is groundbreaking."
Because of the scope and scale of the project, Grenville says the VAG particularly wanted to collaborate with Mau. "He is one designer who could deliver what he said he would and we knew he could do a show that was tough and engaging. But we also wanted to encourage the debate about what design really does, and I think Bruce has something to say about that."
"The idea for Massive Change got under my skin," Mau says, explaining why he eventually took the job. "I was troubled at the time by the mood of the day. What I saw was incredibly positive change, but the more I read [in the media], the more I saw people being convinced that the world is going to hell in a handcart."
That's when he came across a quote by English historian Arnold J. Toynbee that had found its way into Lester B. Pearson's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1957. (Pearson won for introducing the concept of peacekeeping through the United Nations.)
"The twentieth century will be chiefly remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or technical inventions, but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective."
"I realized that that was exactly what I had been seeing--design projects that made human welfare a practical objective. That's when I thought I had to find a way of doing this project."
Along with Toronto's George Brown College, Mau established the Institute Without Boundaries, a one-year postgraduate course that involves students in a public project and prepares them to work in the increasingly interdisciplinary world of design.
"No one [outside of the art world] cares about our disciplines," Mau explains. "Often what the client wants is to have an effect on the world. So we try to find the best possible way to achieve it."
Given the complexity of the world, Mau says complex design projects are increasingly being handled by teams of people who have backgrounds in a wide range of fields, including science. Mau quotes one of his frequent collaborators, Bill Buxton, on this: "Bill says there is no such thing as a Renaissance person anymore, so we have to have a Renaissance team."
The first stage of Massive Change involved testing Mau's thesis about how design played a role in improving human welfare.
"We concentrated on the idea of what design makes possible, its capacity. We think of design as visible, but so much of it is invisible--we often don't notice design until it fails--so this show is about taking aesthetics off the table and focusing on the capacity of design."
His students interviewed experts in a variety of fields about their cutting-edge projects and aired the conversations on University of Toronto's radio station, CIUT. The interviews have also been compiled into the Massive Change catalogue and edited to serve as the exhibition's audio guide.
"Most of them didn't think of themselves as designers," Mau recalls. "It's interesting that in the colloquial we understand design better than in the profession where we use the word all the time."
As VAG staff frequently mention, Mau is "pushing boundaries", so, naturally, he has his critics. In Design and Crime, an essay collection, Princeton art and archaeology professor Hal Foster even implies there's something sinister about the Canadian designer's work. Over three pages, he takes Mau to task over his book Life Style, a record of Mau's projects and design philosophy. "We are asked to think of 'life style' as conceived by Nietzsche," writes Foster, who criticizes Mau for using design techniques to render everything, including culture, intelligence, and history, into commodities that can be sold. "[Mau] seems confused about his role," Foster writes. "Is he a cultural critic, a futurist guru, or a corporate consultant?"
But Grenville suggests that Foster's brand of Marxist criticism has more to do with the art world's discomfort about the evolution of design. "Bruce blurs a lot of boundaries and pushes outside of the traditional constraints of design--for example, he goes into installation art, a territory artists claim for themselves--and that causes a tremendous amount of anxiety."
Although Grenville expects the average person to associate "design" with "beauty", he has been surprised that there has also been some criticism of the fine-art gallery coming from people he would expect to welcome a show like Massive Change: artists, curators, and designers.
"The anti-aesthetic has been around for more than 30 years--aesthetics is just not central to the argument in visual art--so it's kind of funny that we're having that discussion again," Grenville says.
But Mau sees that resistance to change--he repeatedly points out that this exhibition shows us not what might happen but what has happened--as part of a deeply entrenched romanticism.
"I was at the Venice Biennale recently where I noticed almost all the architectural displays were committed to smaller objects, when the problems are plural. We don't need smaller buildings standing alone--that's a very 19th-century notion. There are one million people a week being born: do we intend to build homes for them?"
Then he adds wryly: "If cars were being designed at the rate of architecture we'd still be driving wooden cars."
That small swipe is the only hint of how hotly this subject is being debated in the design business. But it's also clear Mau sees the 19th-century-style pessimists less as Luddites swinging hammers at knitting machines than as Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein to remind us that the power of technology has to be used responsibly.
"We used to think of cities as objects in a field of nature--another 19th-century idea--but there is no difference between the city and nature, and we have to manage it in the same way. We have to be responsible stewards of nature. That's a capacity we didn't have 100 years ago, but now that we can do it, what are we going to do?"
Grenville says the exhibition isn't an endorsement of every project in the show: "It's about the implications of design, so we're not just showing the nice things. But I hope the debate isn't just knee-jerk--activists who say any genetically modified food is wrong. We want people to think about the complexity of the relationships and the interconnectedness.
"I think [the exhibition] shows objects as tools," Grenville adds. "It's repressive to talk about objects as bad. Take cars: it's out of whack with the notions of transportation to change the way urban environments are set up; it makes more sense to redesign the car."
It's that thinking that makes this exhibition peculiarly Canadian. As Grenville notes, both he and Mau thought this was an important show for Canadians to produce because it echoes the hopefulness of Pearson's 1957 speech, which seems to encapsulate the national view of global concerns. After all, this is the country that thinks of its military as a tool for peacekeeping rather than invasion.
Although no one actually says it, it's hard not to hear the echo of the gun-lobby slogan in the discussions of Massive Change: design doesn't harm people, people harm people.

The show is subtitled The Future of Global Design, so don't expect cunningly fashioned can openers or stylish tiles. This exhibition examines the philosophical underpinnings of design and includes installations devoted to such broad categories as transportation, information, and economy. Although the topics sound about as exciting as the headings in a high-school social-studies text, Massive Change is bound to be controversial and thought-provoking. The health-and-living display, for example, investigates humanity's ability to redesign life itself.

 "In the last century--when Crick, Watson, and Franklin unlocked the structure of DNA--we opened the door on a system of information that can be rendered as a design project," explains Bruce Mau, the Toronto designer who led the collaborative show.

Features The Georgia Straight 30 Sep 2004
What Do Women Want in a Newspaper?

Essays The Tyee 8 Mar 2004
Real dicks dream up faux chick flicks

 

Ever since I saw the film Kate and Leopold, any invitation to dinner-and-a-movie has taken on a sinister tone.

K&L, which is currently topping the hot videos lists, is the latest in a growing roster of "dick flicks". You know what I mean: those romantic comedies that are marketed to women as chick flicks but often seem designed to insult us. Or worse: they reflect the way some man wants women to behave. In short, they could only have been dreamed up by some dick. Or, if it’s really bad, a committee of dicks.

Columns The Georgia Straight 12 Sep 2002
A ballerina's swan song?

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s current tour of Giselle, which opens in Vancouver tonight, looks suspiciously like Evelyn Hart’s unofficial farewell tour. But it’s best not to mention the “R” word to her -- that’s retirement. Although she will be 46 in April, Hart says that the idea of beginning any performance knowing that it will be “The Last One,” is more stress than she can bear.

A&E The Globe And Mail 25 Feb 2002
Performance Anxieties

“Could you love a cock that kills?” is the kind of line that has been getting a laugh since Chaucer made the pun and, as always, it drew whoops when battery opera worked it into their latest performance art piece, Spektator.

 The audience also howled when Jennifer Murray, kneeling, stuck her naked butt in the air in a pose so revealing it prompted a colleague to murmur: “Nice Brazilian!”

And spectators guffawed when, as the dead cock, Murray’s naked body was dragged off-stage.

Reviews The Globe And Mail 26 Oct 2001
Plum Tired

 

When John Alleyne took the helm at Ballet British Columbia (BBC) in 1992, he envisaged an innovative company that went beyond tutus and frou-frou. He promised a “contemporary classical” repertoire that showcased the world’s finest new choreographers and twentieth century masters -- and absolutely no Nutcracker. It’s absence was to be the symbol distinguishing BBC from more conventional troupes.

A&E Saturday Night 23 Dec 2000
A celebration of dance

Next week the dance cognoscenti will be descending on Ottawa, as they do every two years for the Canada Dance Festival.

With 400 dancers and a cadre of international producers swarming the National Arts Centre, chatter downtown will turn to discussions of who has great lines, who is likely to hit the boards internationally, and who is the next hot thing.

Features Ottawa Citizen 3 Jun 2000
Learning to take the audition in stride

 

Like dance schools the world over, Ottawa’s Dance Educators on Rideau Street,  begins classes with a traditional, if unofficial, warm-up -- a run up a couple of flights of stairs. This is one of the most comforting things about studying ballet: it is a ritual as much as an exercise.  Here, as everywhere, dozens of devotees in black leotards and pink tights are beginning their Saturday with plies done on a hardwood floor that has been buffed to a soft blonde by thousands of slippered feet.

Features Ottawa Citizen 25 Oct 1999
Obit: The Male Ponytail, 1972 – 1998

 

Where have all the men in ponytails gone? The hair-in-bondage look – once a fashion must among Ottawa’s male civil servants and some of its ore visible TV personalities – seems to have al but disappeared. Did someone send out a memo?

The last vestiges of the dubious style can still be found among the would-be hip, but increasingly, it has become a sign of the uncool. Or at least the unemployed.

Features Ottawa City magazine 1 Feb 1999
Flatley’s obvious, odious lord is numbingly dull

Blacks protested Show Boat, Asians objected to Miss Saigon, so why-oh-why haven’t the Irish started a donnybrook over Lord of the Dance? It’s certainly tacky enough to constitute a national insult.

Despite a fellow critics’ claim that PBS is running a tape-loop of Irish tapstravaganzas, I had never seen Lord of the Dance. So I was in for a rude shock on opening night at General Motors Place.

Reviews The Georgia Straight 19 Jun 1997
Beefcake dance bonanza taps into rock’s energy

Depending on whom you talk to, the recent Tap Dogs show (featuring half a dozen buff and beautiful Australian men) is either injecting life into a moribund art or is just a lame excuse to watch sweaty beefcake. But it might be more accurate to describe the show as rock’n’roll tap, since it has all the charms – and limitations – of the music that inspired it.

Reviews The Georgia Straight 3 Oct 1996
Hollyhock Blends Salt air and Spirituality Lite

Holistic retreat’s soothing massages and welcoming woods make for a blissful rest – just don’t ask too many questions

Cortes Island – A dozen of us are stretched out on the floor like spokes in a wheel, inside a round cedar-log building at Hollyhock, a holistic centre on Cortes Island on the Strait of Georgia about 150 kilometres north of Vancouver. Rain drums on the skylight that crowns the seven-metre-high ceiling while Torkin Wakefield, a 40ish therapist from Colorado, leads us through a relaxation exercise.

Features The Georgia Straight 28 Mar 1996
WRITERS DANCE INTO OUTER SPACE

Zero-gravity fans Spider and Jeanne Robinson craft weightless prose

Disillusioned romantics, bitter, divorced people, and all those generally soured on life would do well to spend time with writers Spider and Jeanne Robinson. Or, in lieu of that, read their recently released STARMIND, the last book in the Stardance trilogy.

The Robinsons' novels are a wonderful antidote to cynicism and despair, which will come as little surprise to anyone familiar with Spider's clever science-fiction works or Jeanne's inspirational choreography.

A&E The Georgia Straight 4 Aug 1995
Women are fed up: Call it a trend, or call it a revolution

Since greeting cards have to express popular sentiments in order to make a profit, I’ve long thought they were a good indication of the zeitgeist. 

In that case, what are we to make of a Valentine’s Day card I found last year? The card is by the creator of the Cathy comic strip and reads, “It’s Valentine’s Day and once again women all over the country will be shouting those here special little words… On the next page, Cathy yells: MEN ARE PIGS!”

Columns The Globe And Mail 14 Feb 1995
Why did Pat Neary Leave?

The saga of Ballet British Columbia’s internal woes has taken on the look of a soap opera in recent months. Gossip, rumour, charges, counter-charges and regular revelations by reporters have company members referring to BBC by the sobriquet, “As the Ballet Turns.” 

Features The Georgia Straight 30 Mar 1990