On August 11 1992 I was in Bloomington, Minnesota, close to Minneapolis. I was on a book tour and it was the grand opening day of Mall of America, the biggest mall in the US. The local radio affiliate had a booth set up in front of the indoor roller coaster that strafed the booth like an air strike every 75 seconds. I was up on the stage with them doing a live interview for half an hour while thousands of people were walking by with “country fair face” — goggle-eyed and feeding on ice cream. I felt like I was inside a Technicolor movie from the 1950s. The show’s host assumed I was going to be an ironic, slacker wise-ass and said: “I guess you must think this whole mall is kind of hokey and trashy,” and I said: “No such thing.”
He was surprised. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that I feel like I’m in another era that we thought had vanished, but it really hasn’t, not yet. I think we might one day look back on photos of today and think to ourselves, ‘You know, those people were living in golden times and they didn’t even know it. Communism was dead, the economy was good and the future with all of its accompanying technologies hadn’t crushed society’s mojo like a bug.’”
And it’s true. Technology hadn’t hollowed out the middle class and turned us into laptop click junkies, and there were no new bogeymen hiding in the closet. We may well look back at the 1990s as the last good decade.
In August 1997 I was in London with friends and we went to a theatre to see a movie at an upscale mall in . . . Belgravia? Mayfair? We were an hour early, so we decided to check it out. Although most of the stores were closed (it was after 6pm and malls closed earlier back then), there were hundreds of people there, mostly Arabic, having a lovely air-conditioned passeggiata. Two levels up there was an internet hangout area and as we walked past we saw 20 teenage boys watching 20 different screens of (even to those who consider themselves unflinching) profoundly graphic pornography. The mothers and fathers and kids walked by as if the boys were reading spreadsheets, and it was there I thought to myself, “You know, I bet you anything that it’s porn that drives up the quality and speed of the internet.” And I was right.
I remember driving through Scottsdale, Arizona, in the January after the 2008 financial crash. I needed to find, of all things, a glue gun to do a mock-up for a project. A 900ft-tall road sign told me that in the mall ahead there was a craft superstore so, terrific! I took the turn-off, entered the mall parking lot and something very strange happened. Wait — was the mall closed? No. Were all the stores open? Yes. Then it dawned on me . . . I was the only car there. A part of my psyche began awaiting zombies to emerge from the American Apparel and the Bed Bath & Beyond. So I cautiously parked in front of the craft store, went inside and found the glue gun that, back home, would cost $12.99. There in Arizona it was $1.29, which is to say, it was basically free, and at that price they should just go out to the freeway and hurl glue guns at passing cars. So I bought one and returned to the car and, as I drove away, I thought of all of the mall’s merchants meeting at the end of the day to go over sales figures. “OK then, what have we got today?”
“Somebody bought a glue gun.”
“It was $1.29.”
“Anyone else in the mall sell anything else today?”
(Everyone shakes their heads dismally.)
“Capitalism. It works.”
Malls used to be cool. Malls were the internet shopping of 1968. Malls seemed to try harder back then. No more. You can take dead mall shopping tours on YouTube, or you can drive around most American cities and find a few dead malls yourself, or, if you find a living mall, it’s on steroids and scary from the other direction by being too congested and too mega-mega. Where is the gracious Muzak’ed trance of yore? Where is the civility? The calm? Covered with plywood sheeting and graffiti, and filled with dead tropical plants and shopping carts missing wheels, they’ve basically entered the realm of backdrops for science fiction novels and movies and I’m OK with that. Change happens.
I have this game I play with myself. Several times a year in London I end up in a taxi and I ask the driver to take me wherever by going through Pall Mall. This is usually met with four seconds of silence after which the driver says: “Oh right. Pell Mell.” I then say: “That’s right, “Pell Mell,” to which he replies with a whiff of huffiness, “Right . . . Pell Mell,” the implication being I’m butchering his language. I will go to my grave wondering how to pronounce those two words. And I’ve also noticed that continental European friends ask me specifically how to pronounce “mall”, and I tell them that it rhymes with “call”, “ball” and “fall”, and then they go ahead and pronounce it “mole”, so I think we need a new word for “mall”. It should be something easy to pronounce and fun like, say, Jennifer. Or Trish. Or Evan. “Mall” seems as old-fashioned as the idea itself. Change happens? Time for a change.
Douglas Coupland is artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. He also has works in the exhibition ‘Electronic Superhighway’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, London
Photograph: Ken Mayer Studios ©Douglas Coupland