The Language of Empire
A retrospective of 50 years as a human being on planet Earth.
As an artist, there seemed to be two options: starve or assimilate.
In my own estimation, I wasn’t talented enough to make it as an artist. I would most likely become the stereotypical starving artist.
So, I chose, at the age of 12, to become a commercial artist. My high school aptitude test recommended that I should be an upholsterer. I was not in the least inspired by the thought. I instead completed Algebra 11 in grade 10 so I could focus the rest of my high school career in art class. The art rooms were a playground of tools, machines and technologies that I could use in my experiments to learn the visual language of graphic design and mass communication.
I was a shy kid with few friends. I was not adept at the art of conversation. I didn’t have much practice speaking because my father was an evangelist. It felt like he was always talking, never listening. Just like in Narnia, where it was always winter, but never Christmas. Everyone he met, everyone he knew, including his own family, was an audience. Our role as children was to be obedient, compliant, models of perfection to demonstrate the effectiveness and supremacy of his two gospels: his diet and his Jesus.
In the early 1970s, my father was known as a doctor, a paediatrician with a private practice. He owned a building in our town that was divided into two parts. It was part doctor’s office and part daycare. He observed the eating habits of children and concluded that their cognitive and behavioural abilities were largely determined by their diets. For these children, hyperactivity and learning disabilities could be correlated to the consumption of the heavily processed and manufactured foods that had become typical of the diet in a modern consumer society. He had a chart on the wall to detail the chemical processes in the brain, describing to his patients, in marathon 3-hour sessions, how neurons, synapses and electrochemical receptors in the brain could experience something similar to a short circuit. Garbage in, garbage out. The delicate chemical balance of the brain is affected by what we eat, and certain substances can disrupt the delivery of messages in the brain to such an extent that the effects can severely affect behaviour and cognitive ability in children. In adults, these biochemical imbalances would manifest as migraine headaches.
My father’s research resulted in a list of foods that contained high doses of a substance that he referred to as amines, related to the levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Five foods were singled out as the dietary factors that posed the greatest risk of disrupting the normal functioning of the brain, and compromise the immune system.
Naturally, the medical establishment did not look kindly on his unorthodox ideas and practices, so he was blacklisted and censored, isolated from the BC Medical Association and barred from speaking about these heresies to his colleagues.
At the entrance to his doctor’s office, my father had composed, in vinyl adhesive letters, the words of a scripture.
Physician, heal thyself.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.
So, when families came to see my father for medical treatment, they were treated to a private seminar on the merits of adhering to the discipline of a strict diet and a strict moral code. The benefits would be a happy life, both in the present and for all eternity. The alternative would be hell on earth, with hyperactive, allergic, disobedient, learning disabled children and intense migraine headaches, as well as eternal conscious torment for all eternity.
My father had learned his methods of persuasion from people like Pastor Bob Birch, who addressed standing-room-only crowds at St. Margaret’s Church in Vancouver. A room with a closed-circuit television to accommodate the overflow in the basement of the church. Wheelchairs lined the front of the sanctuary and the sermon was signed for the hearing impaired.
There were also influences that included Bob Kitchen, Kenneth Copeland, Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn and Billy Graham. My father was a proud member of the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International and supporter of the PTL, 700 Club and 100 Huntley Street.
He was also an early adopter of technology. We had collections of cassette tape recordings of preachers from the Christian conferences and meetings we attended on weekends and during our summer breaks from school. We had a large screen mirror projection television attached to a massive Betamax video cassette recorder. He would record TV shows, films and mini-series. The TV Guide was his other Bible. Before VHS video became popular, we had Betamax bootleg copies of The Yellow Submarine; an animated version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; The Parent Trap; The Sound of Music; and the entire mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth, featuring an all-star cast.
He had his own media centre in the basement to make high-speed VHS copies of his favourite televangelists.
When my brothers had grown old enough to go to school, it no longer made sense for my mother to be running a daycare. She already had three young boys to wrangle.
So, my dad decided to start a Christian bookstore, The Good Shepherd Bookroom, so my mother could spend her child-rearing years behind a cash register. The Christian Charismatic and Evangelical movements were burgeoning, and the store could provide titles such as Nine O’Clock in the Morning and The Late Great Planet Earth, alongside the books of radio personalities such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Chuck Swindoll of Insight for Living. And why should the devil have all the good music when there was Contemporary Christian Music being piped into Canada via the airwaves from KLYN in Lynden? At first there were just 12” vinyl records and cassette tapes from Word Records. Then vinyl was replaced by CDs. There were Jesus Loves You pencils and plastic puzzles and Christian greeting cards, posters, plaques, keychains, mugs, and comic books.
As I have stated elsewhere, the effect of conflict is to put enemies into an adversarial relationship. In a relationship, people reflect back to each other thoughts, ideas, actions, habits and patterns of behaviour that eventually evolve into mirror images of the other.
The Jesus movement of the 70s, born out of new-found economic and political freedoms beyond that which had been experienced before World War II, was reacting to the authoritarianism of an industrial society that was treating people as cogs in a capitalist machine and cannon fodder in a global war on communism.
The generation that was growing up in the 60s rebelled by experimenting with free sex, hallucinogenic drugs, and rock and roll. Others reacted by exploring a new age of spirituality. The Jesus people found love, joy and peace in a Christ unconstrained by traditional Christian orthodoxies and regimented liturgies.
Canadians had a hard time adjusting to the firehose of media and information that had no respect for borders. The Canadian identity is built on a foundation of separation. We are a thin archipelago of communities that tend to line the 49th parallel and the various border towns at the edge of the economic and military superpower of the world. America’s fears were our fears: nuclear annihilation and Armageddon. But we are even more afraid of being American, so we established the CBC as a way to preserve our distinct national identity by creating and producing our own Canadian content.
Isolation and Alienation
Art was my refuge from the isolation and alienation of growing up evangelical in a secular Canadian society. The last thing I wanted to do in high school was to stand out. So, I became invisible. My art became my world. As a Christian, I was taught to be in the world, but not of it. The Christian strategy was to create parallel institutions so that it would not be necessary to mix with non-Christians or be tainted by their sexual promiscuity and perversion, secular relativism, liberal heresies and New Age mysticism. The subculture attempted to become an island to itself.
My high school years were a fearful, torturous, angst-filled silence, filled with sleepless nights considering the end of the world and eternal conscious torment. I was not a rock. I was not an island. I was a drop in the ocean, a consciousness without a voice, a cog in the machine of standardized testing.
I became more aware of my privileged upbringing when I was accepted to a 2–year graphic design program at a local college when most of the other students had started with a 1-year foundation in art courses. Because I had access to a darkroom, process camera, silkscreen equipment, phototypesetting equipment, a letterpress printer, and an offset printer in an affluent suburban high school, I was able to show a portfolio of work that allowed me to skip the foundation year.
In college, we learned a mostly manual and mechanical process for creating visual design. It was there that I discovered the Bauhaus, the most influential school of art, design and architecture of the 20th century. In 1919, after the Germans had been defeated in the Great War, artists and architects had gathered in Weimar, Germany to design a socialist utopia, a creative collaborative community to rebuild society.
Discovering the Bauhaus was the beginning of a life-long obsession.
Building an Identity
My father was born to Chinese parents in Hong Kong, educated in Australia and emigrated to Canada in the mid-60s. My mother was born to English-Canadian parents in Vancouver, Canada. In some ways, because of my mixed heritage, I grew up without a well-formed identity of my own. I don’t speak Chinese. I grew up in a suburban, Canadian home, the eldest of three brothers, assuming the identity of the son of an evangelical doctor.
To differentiate myself, I adopted graphic design and the Bauhaus as my personal identity. I worked as a Junior Graphic Designer at a Vancouver design studio, applying my skills as a mechanical paste-up artist and process camera operator. Within about six months, the studio introduced the first Macintosh. That was the beginning of a digital revolution that would transform the graphic design industry and my own career trajectory.
Building the Church
After two years, I was working as a typesetter and production artist on the ground floor of the Vancouver design studio and I was restless, because I wanted to be a designer.
At the beginning of 1991, I bought my own Apple Macintosh IIfx and started a graphic design business called Bauhouse Visual Communications. My clients would be a church, a Christian camp, a Christian parachurch organization and an administrative organization for a Christian denomination. The name Bau means “to build” in German. I discovered meaning, purpose and belonging by building the house of God, rather than contributing to the adversarial culture of “consumerism” and “modern, secular relativism.” I was following in my father’s footsteps by merging evangelism with my chosen profession.
Building a Foundation
I had not yet baptized my education, so I enrolled in Trinity Western University to learn more about communications and fine arts. I discovered how much I enjoyed pouring over books and writing, inspired by Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Josef Albers, Johannes Itten, Leiss, Kline and Jhally, Studs Terkel, Paul Johnson, Bill Moyers, Noam Chomsky, Neil Postman, Walter Ong, Jacques Ellul and Marshall McLuhan.
These thinkers and practitioners helped me achieve a more objective distance from the culture in which I had been raised in order to recognize how we shape our tools and how our tools shape us. I thought about the role of media in shaping perception. I began to think more about the designers who have influenced our past and how design influences our future.
The Transformation of the Oral Landscape by Literate Architecture
Looking back over a quarter century to what I was thinking about the Bible and the Bauhaus
Building a Family
At the age of 23, I married my best friend, a girl I had met at a Christian summer camp when I was about 12 years old.
We had a baby girl and we moved to Abbotsford, the Bible Belt of Canada, where a community of primarily Mennonite descent had built a collection of agricultural and industrial villages that had amalgamated into a city.
Building a Career
Graphic design tends to be a metropolitan profession, where the community centres around the downtown core, close to the highest concentration of business activity.
Abbotsford was where we could afford to live, so we settled into suburban life as I commuted to Langley to work at a small design studio. I worked there for seven years, creating branding, advertising and corporate communications for municipalities, financial institutions, airlines, and tourism.
Building a Community
Our family became active members of the Abbotsford Vineyard Church, where I played keyboards in the worship band and organized random acts of kindness with the lead pastor and the worship pastor. Over time, our activities grew into a social movement within the city that we branded Love Abbotsford. The movement spread to several cities throughout Canada, U.S., England, Australia and India as Love Your City.
The church grew and attracted celebrity worship artists, such as Brian Doerksen. We planned concerts and events and published an album of live music, featuring Brian Doerksen and several other musicians.
Building Tools and Networks
Domain7, a web development business in Abbotsford asked me to help out with branding and print design for one of their clients. Over time, I was invited to become part of the growing web agency as they built web applications for local businesses and tech startups. I worked on projects to develop business processes within the agency to manage proposals, projects, human resources, and knowledge sharing.
I also connected with open source communities, leading community initiatives to organize gatherings in London, England and Cologne, Germany to share ideas and approaches to building websites and applications with open source tools.
While in Cologne, Germany, I embarked on a pilgrimage of the holy sites of modernism: the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin, the Bauhaus in Dessau, and the Bauhaus University in Weimar.
After I helped lead a workshop on Design for Mobile, Domain7 became a leader in the responsive web design revolution by focusing on building digital infrastructure for higher education institutions.
Building a Design School
Since I left Domain7 at the end of 2012, I have been challenging myself to follow through on a dream that I have had since the beginning of my career. I have been inspired by the socialist, utopian ideals of the Bauhaus to rebuild society by creating a school of art, design and architecture.
I was invited to join a startup and lead an open source community. I was invited to be a member of the national executive as VP of web for the Graphic Designers of Canada. I was invited to become part of the faculty of the Graphic + Digital Design program at the University of the Fraser Valley. This was the opportunity that I had been looking for to help build a design community in the Fraser Valley.
I started taking courses on leadership and applied for a faculty position. I won the position and began teaching in September 2013, but that meant scaling back on other commitments as I took a course on teaching, wrote curriculum and while teaching two classes.
Building a Community of Artists
At the same time, I sought to reconnect with people from the faith community. I was invited to participate in a project to profile 100 local artists, creatives and innovators as part of a crowdfunded book called WeMakeStuff, Volume 02.
At the end of 2013, I realized too late that I had taken on too much.
My wife’s health had been slowly deteriorating to the point that she could no longer climb stairs in our home without assistance. We were afraid she was dying.
Our house was physically falling apart and springing leaks as I tried to make home improvements and repairs that ended up making things worse.
I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t cope.
Some opportunities had already fizzled out. Others became unmanageable. I burned out. I panicked and I quit everything or just disappeared.
- The startup position
- The faculty position
- The national executive position
- The open source community
- The artist community
- The design career
Suddenly, the façade that I had been trying to build collapsed.
I was unemployed and I had, in my own mind, completely trashed my reputation and my career. I had no idea what I was going to do for work.
A friend called and asked if I still wanted to participate in the book project as one of the designers. I was grateful. Why not? I admitted that I didn’t have anything else to do.
I found a counsellor. I connected with old friends and met some new acquaintances. I found some freelance work and I slowly started to do some renovations to rebuild the façade.
We successfully crowdfunded a book. I joined a friend in a sharing a coworking space. I incorporated a business, Builders Collective Inc, to collaborate with other creatives. I connected with former students and colleagues and I started working on building a brand identity.
The Crumbling Foundations
My business ideas didn’t pan out. The collective wasn’t viable and I admitted that the business concept was a failure.
When our daughter moved away, I hadn’t been prepared for the void that the change left in my life and my identity as a parent. When she almost died while living on the property of my estranged family, I was scared. When my family evicted her, I was angry.
Pastors were let go from their positions. Marriages fell apart. Friends contracted fatal diseases and died.
The news was full of reports of lies, genocide, humanitarian disasters, tragedies, fires, global warming, sexual assaults.
In Canada, George Orwell’s Animal Farm was part of our junior high English curriculum. What do Americans read?
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As we witnessed the deterioration of American political discourse, we discovered that the façade of the empire had fallen to reveal the historical origins of the language of faith as a thin veneer over an oppressive authoritarianism. Since the age of Constantine, when he blessed Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the nonviolent political resistance movement of Jesus has been assimilated into the culture of empire, modified enough to be palatable for the chosen few, yet malleable enough to easily justify the evils of theft, rape, genocide, slavery, and war in the name of God and country.
Still, somehow, people were thanking God for their parking spot, or how quickly they were able to move through a border crossing, sharing how #blessed they were.
We were done.
Repentance, Forgiveness and Reconciliation
I am a racist, you are a racist, we are all racists.
We discovered that there were people whose hearts were breaking over the brokenness of the world, and we began opening up to each other about doubts and questions.
The internet provides an opportunity for people to have a voice, to speak of things that might not be tolerated in certain social circles. The illusion of anonymity allows us to test ideas and questions in public. We have permission to ask questions. We can dare to be our authentic selves.
Psychological priming: a person with the last name Bau (Cantonese, “abalone”; German, “to build”) will become a designer obsessed with the Bauhaus and wonder how a socialist modernist movement to transform society might have a connection to the American capitalist democratic experiment dominated by white supremacist fundamentalists who try to assume power through a Republican evangelical voting block. A podcast by deconstructing evangelicals will contribute to the idea of a builders collective involved in the reconstruction of society as a living system in harmony with its natural environment.
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We found a name for this process: a deconstruction. We were questioning the institutions and the systems of behaviours and beliefs that we had inherited.
- The government: institutionalizing injustice
- The corporation: purchasing power
- The church: perpetuating abuse
Meanwhile, the design world has also been experiencing an epiphany of sorts.
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Some designers are realizing that we have been complicit in building the infrastructure and architecture for an undemocratic capitalist empire that has turned humans into indentured servants of an oppressive hierarchical economic system designed for self-preservation, even if it is at the expense of humans and the planet.
A corporation is a company or a group of people or an organization authorized to act as a single entity (legally a person) and recognized as such in law.
In other words, corporations avoid culpability and responsibility in the eyes of the law for crimes against humanity by impersonating humans. They purchase political power, and they have made the church merely a political voting block and a willing accomplice.
We must own our part. We who have supported the empire — the government, the corporation and the church — in elevating political, economic and religious values above the value of human beings, either unwittingly or willingly, have been complicit in perpetuating a system of oppression. Taking responsibility is only the first step. We must make reparations. We do this by redesigning and rebuilding.
In order to rediscover our own humanity, we are leaving the empire behind.
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The mask of righteous indignation is slipping, revealing the dark heart of manifest destiny
Now, almost 100 years since the founding of the Bauhaus, we are reconsidering the modernist project.
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
— R. Buckminster Fuller
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An Initiative of the City of Abbotsford and the University of the Fraser Valley
We are building a new model.
Social architecture is the art and science of living systems. We are recognizing that we are no longer designing tools and physical artifacts. We are designing human experience. We are all engaged in the human project.
At the heart of our endeavours is a desire to discover our common humanity.
We are reconnecting to build relationships through face-to-face interaction.
- Breaking bread together
- Creating and working together
- Sharing our lives together