As we know them today, branding strategies have moved through several stages of transformation. From advertising new inventions in the mid-nineteenth century and supplying proper names for generic goods to helping corporations find their soul in what writer Naomi Klein refers to as the “brand essence.”1 According to Klein, in the late eighties and early nineties, students were fighting a battle over issues of “representation,” which she defines as “a loosely defined set of grievances mostly lodged against the media, the curriculum and the English language.” However, she elaborates that corporations did not see students as the enemy but as a brand-content source to produce a “new identity.” Corporations managed to assimilate the urgent call for representation and mass-produced diversity as a result. All the social struggles that students advocated for quickly became a continuous supply of content for the branding giants who turned themselves into instant allies to every cause under the sun. There is nothing branding cannot touch. It learns new gimmicks and develops a shallow conscience in the name of revenue.
The artists in the exhibition Breach! An Antonym for Token can identify this exploitation of progressiveness and present their discontent with an institution that hides behind diversity as a way to mediate its shortcomings. The curatorial statement for this exhibition begins by citing a recruitment message in NSCAD’s main website: “NSCAD offers an interdisciplinary university experience unlike any other art school in the country. If you want to join a supportive community of adventurous thinkers and makers, it’s time to begin the application process.” The exhibition at the Anna Leonowens Gallery in K'jipuktuk (Halifax), curated by Excel Garay, displays the work of Kayza DeGraff-Ford, Excel Garay, Morgan Mitchell, Jean Serutoke and Wren Tian-Morris. Within the exhibition, these artists argue that NSCAD’s insincere statements, which attempt at progressiveness come at the expense of BIPOC students, using their images to support this campaign and attract prospective customers (students).
Breach! attempts to expose that diversity is not enough to subvert the system and, in actuality, only feeds it through “...the non-action against complaints of racism, the resistance when asked to diverge from Eurocentric pedagogies, the silence of faculty, administration, and especially the Board of Governors” Garay says. As scholar Max Haiven identifies, the university has become the fundamental institution of global capitalism, a place to think critically within specific parameters
In the past, brands have been trying to sell familiarity, perceived as profound, in invasive ways. By delivering essentialist representations of minority groups in the deliberate effort to create a fake sense of intimacy with their audience, brands function under the belief that their audience can be bought and sold. Universities such as NSCAD are not exempt from this. Especially when they attached themselves to BIPOC artists and said artists become an extension of their brand, adding value to their “product.” Scholar Sara Ahmed refers to "diversity" as a term that attempts to substitute labels like "antiracism" and "equal opportunities." She further explains that diversity has acquired a commercial value, has turned universities into a marketplace, and serves as a marketing tool.2 As a symptom of the corporatization of educational institutions, diversity has appeared as a rebranding tool to influence the way universities attract customers in recent decades.3 The use of merchandise, inflated slogans, and viewbooks with empty promises ran rampant in the effort to bring in more students, ergo more profit.
Breach! attempts to expose that diversity is not enough to subvert the system and, in actuality, only feeds it through “...the non-action against complaints of racism, the resistance when asked to diverge from Eurocentric pedagogies, the silence of faculty, administration, and especially the Board of Governors” Garay says. As scholar Max Haiven identifies, the university has become the fundamental institution of global capitalism, a place to think critically within specific parameters.4 As a driving force, universities only fulfill their mediocre purpose of producing better discourses by claiming diversity while staying stagnant. Following the protests against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd, NSCAD’s president Dr. Aoife Mac Namara, released a message to the community to take action against racism. Shortly after, she was removed from her position by the Board of Governors. There has been extensive speculation on why this happened. For instance, according to Tim Bousquet, a reporter for the Halifax Examiner, “In the 1970s, the university moved from Coburg Road to downtown by purchasing the eastern half of the Granville Street portion of the Historic Properties developed by Ben McCrea, owner of the Armour Group. That sale included a provision that should the university ever sell the property, Armour Group would have first rights of refusal. [...] The problem, I’m told, is that as Mac Namara saw it, the potential sale of the Granville campus was tied up with conflicts of interest on the Board of Governors. In particular, vice-chair Sean Kelly is a lawyer with Stewart McKelvey, where he represents the Armour Group.” Another claim, voiced by students and faculty, is the board's lack of interest in instating and developing anti-racist initiatives. Whichever may have been, I know that the decision to fire Dr. Mac Namara further reinforced the general wariness of the NSCAD community towards the board.5
As a response to this, the show is exhibited on the gallery’s window spaces as though it is a retail storefront. Hinting, quite explicitly, at how NSCAD prioritizes capital.6 The show is divided into three displays. The first one resembles a sarcastic interpretation of recruitment material such as totes, posters and t-shirts. On the window display background, there are strips of checker wallpaper with posters placed on top. The posters are black and white blurry headshots of the five artists, close to the bottom is the NSCAD’s logo with the N reversed and the top a text box that reads: “A place for the rule breakers¹, the dreamers², the makers³, the innovators⁴, the exceptional⁵, the forever curious⁶.” With its footnote, each noun suggests how the artists can read between what these words mean. The totes, in addition, had screen-printed phrases in quotation marks that read: “Your Art Is Hostile To Me,” “So What Are You?,” “I Have To Watch What I Do Artistically Because I’m A White Ally.” The statements refer to the artists' experiences of microaggressions from their peers, which they share collectively and depict as slogans on the totes.
The second window is an office space that includes the same checkered background but has a painting placed on top instead. The painting depicts a black square with large size white teardrops in the middle. On the glass, there is a sign that reads “D.I.E Clown with Pride Smile.” The acronym stands for Diversity, Inclusivity and Equity. Garay performs as a clown wearing a black and white costume - made by fashion designer Ethan Hull - in the fictitious office. They sit in their cubicle, fulfilling their duties while showing a grin that reveals their rainbow-coloured teeth. There are three screens on the last window, different sizes, playing a looping animation in which a person is diving into a portable pool, where “WHITE TEARS” is written on the water. Breach! is packed with references of how the artists, using humour, refuse to be complacent. Even in a place they considered a second home, they will not be showpieces in this pretend meritocracy.
NSCAD, like all other corporations, rely on blanket statements and generalizations, which compel the artists in Breach! to flaunt NSCAD’s failures by producing radical, explicit and bold work. The artists call for representation that is preoccupied with the inclusion of non-Western knowledge models and acknowledges how the system benefits, what Haiven calls, the "ideal knowledge-producer" (white, straight, cisgender, male). Currently, NSCAD fulfills its role as an "edu-factory" by commodifying education, prioritizing western canons, and sustaining the corporate model. Hence there is no room for co-optable and palatable work when diversity is a brand identity mask as a concern for social justice. That serves not as an actual concern for human suffering but as a way to impersonate that suffering.