A sausage as tall as you are. A skin cell the size of a dinner plate. The universe, in a glittery fan. These are a few of the props used by Andrés Jaque, founding architect of the Office for Political Innovation, in his "Superpowers of Ten" performance – a play staged on the ground floor of the Chicago Athletic Association during the opening weekend of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Inspired by the Eames’ 1977 “Powers of Ten” film (the same year the Biennial’s namesake conference was held), the under-an-hour performance investigates the power of design to scale up, or down, into historic social and cultural sea changes.
Initially developed for the Lisbon Architecture Triennial in 2013, “Superpowers” is staged like a super-polemical elementary school play: a narrator guides actors, dressed in cartoonish cardboard or papier-mâché costumes, through stories of 20th century design history. The opening act plays direct homage to the Eames’ film, recreating the zooming in and out on the original’s picnicking 70s couple (filmed on Chicago’s lakefront) with charming puppetry and lo-fi perspectival tricks.
What follows is a bit more inflammatory – but in a “college freshmen who just discovered Foucault” way. Stories of various design technologies are told through their ability to perpetuate cultures of exclusion or violence. There are digs at Kodak’s use of a white, female model for its color film’s exposure standard, and Polaroid’s implicit perpetuation of apartheid South Africa. Actors in astroturf onesies mime how Miracle-Gro’s genetic engineering for mono-cultured green lawns perpetuates suburbanite values. The industrialized meatpacking innovations of early 20th century Chicago become the standard of practice for automobile production, followed by a bouquet-toting Morrissey lip syncing The Smith’s “Meat is Murder”.
But the slightly overwrought politicization doesn’t go so far as to be actually controversial. The slant of Jaque’s play will ruffle very few viewers’ feathers, and the arts-and-crafts aesthetic makes it easy and entertaining to watch. While foremost providing a highly differentiated model for architectural practice, one that Jaque is no stranger to, “Superpowers of Ten” simply serves as a valuable reminder of how deep design’s biases permeate into greater society – so deep that at some point, they are forgotten to have been designed in the first place.