Media and its Messages

Say what?

Text by Maria Morberg, Introduction by Shumon Basar

Illustrations by Douglas Coupland

The paperback version of Douglas Coupland's biography of fellow Canadian, Marshall McLuhan is titled, You Know Nothing of My Work! Why? Because, like many great, unwieldy, magpie thinkers, McLuhan is known to us, exactly 100 years after he was born, by convenient sound-bytes: "The Media is the Message" and "The Global Village". The first - introduced in 1964 - now feels self-evident: it isn't what is being said that counts as content but the media that carries it. The second phrase, dating from 1962, declared that electronic communication shrunk the enormity of the world into instantly traversable proximities. Ping!

Much like Warhol's "Famous for 15 minutes" quote was said to presage Big Brother on TV, McLuhan's shrewdly sharp quips foretold the way in which our lives would become impossible without media and mediation. Yet, as compelling as both these concepts are, they are a tiny fragment of McLuhan's madcap writings, lectures, chat-show appearances and brief celebrity tornado in the '60s and early '70s.

Though beatified in the '90s, by Wired magazine as their patron saint of the electronic age, McLuhan's futurism was founded on an in-depth study of Renaissance poetry prosody (rhythm, stress, intonation) and pamphleteering. He used an old fashioned academic approach to the new contours of media content. His analyses still seem as vital today as they were controversially gnomic when they first came out.

All this was good enough reason to convene a list of brainiac luminaries, such as Coupland, Beatriz Colomina, Thierry de Duve and Brandon W Joseph at Stockholm's Moderna Museet to poke at McLuhan's legacy for the 21st century. During their "Media and its Messages" symposium, examples from the past (Picasso, Duchamp, Mies van der Rohe) eclipsed the present, which, some of you may have noticed, has gone all "Post Media". Artists today are more likely to cherish their laptops over crayons and paint. The media is often their media. The Global Village is also the international art-world, and vice versa. Don't understand me? Then go look it up on Google!

A symposium on "the post-medium condition" at Moderna Museet in honour of Marshall McLuhan's 100th anniversary.

Media and its Messages was co-arranged by Moderna Museet with Södertörn University; initiated and moderated by John Peter Nilsson, newly appointed director of Moderna Museet's branch in Malmö; Staffan Ericsson and Sven-Olov Wallenstein, both affiliated with Södertörn.

Presented without title and in first name order to commemorate Swedish "Du (You) reform", initiated by neuroscientist and professor Bror Rexed when assuming the post as general director of The National Swedish Board of Health and Welfare in 1967, to simplify and liberalise communication between individuals.

Beatriz Colomina
Speedy Spanish-accented English, suave two-coloured brogue platform shoes; a brimful of old-world classiness and wit of the new.

"Manifesto Architecture: From Zang Tumb Tumb to Twitter"

Colomina relates the tale of architectural manifestos and their interplay with media, starting with the futurists. Not only did futuristic art not exist before the manifesto was published by Le Figaro in 1909, the futurist group was not even there. Members were recruited from "this stroke of advertising genius".

Mies van der Rohe's early career and reputation was mainly built on five projects produced for competitions and publications, "none of them actually built, or even buildable", she continues. An image of the 1921 Friedrichstrasse skyscraper, a glass obelisk in the midst of traffic inserted by van der Rohe, appears on the screen with touching meticulousness.

Then, a strange photo of van der Rohes's Tugendhat House in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Considered one of Modernism's masterpieces, it was built in the late '20s and transformed into a gymnasium for physically handicapped children by '60s communist bureaucrats. The ooze of involuntary gesamtkunstwerk created by the helpless kids, the staid, heavy-built nurses and the pragmatic use of a "home" is hard to shake off.

Compare with yet another iconic van der Rohe building, the German pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. Almost 80 years later, Japanese architect studio, SANAA installed a plastic transparent curtain in the reconstructed pavilion. They "out-Miesed Mies" by doing and saying almost nothing, just matter of factly explaining what little they had done in a pamphlet. Colomina wonders whether this kind of shoptalk is where the manifesto is going. "Refusing to define the future yet organising it into a set of points."

Gabriele Guercio
Lavender scarf and glasses, a tinge of Marxism in that good old pre-Berlusconian manner.

"Picasso as a Post-Media Artist?"
Guercio is the only speaker without a script. He offers to provide an outline, warning there may be "a series of catch phrases which make little sense." He then delivers the following statements.

"Even though it originally reflected an emancipatory drive and ideals of democracy, the claim that there are no disciplinary boundaries and that anything may pass as a work of art, has by now revealed its ambivalence. In fact, appeals to generic creativity seem to be attuned with the new network of demands and offers of post-Fordist economy where priority lies not so much in specialisation and concrete production as in immaterial performance and mental, emotional, and physical flexibility.

"Just as globalisation breaks down the boundaries among cultures, economies, societies and peoples that are historically and geographically heterogeneous, so the belief in the genericity of the creative loosens the limits not only between art and non-art but also between creativity and territory, artistic work and work in general.

"The multiplicity of Picasso's oeuvre perhaps reflects a desire to overcome limitations of the market-driven ideology of neo-liberalist laissez-faire, and admittedly suggests he may have perceived that the rise of the paradigm of generic creativity signalled that human life itself had now become the stake of a struggle involving the world of art as well as the world of labour."

Richard Cavell
Highly energetic approach, in-the-moment fellow Canadian and lucid expositor of McLuhan.

"Re-Mediating the Medium"
The opening PowerPoint presentation is, "She: A Cathedral" by Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely. The 28-metre-long "Nana" figure involves a walk through her private parts and contains, among other attractions, a small movie theatre and a milk bar in one of the breasts. It exhibited at Moderna Museet in 1966 and features in McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage.

Cavell's paper addresses "McLuhan's notion that electronic mediation would result in an increasing inter-mediation of artistic forms both generically and hierarchically", tracing Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's 1766 treatise on the laws of fine art and poetry in Laocoön, Joseph Beuys, Clement Greenberg and Rosalind Krauss, ultimately annealing in the present McLuhan-style prophecy, where art has become environmental.

Drawing on McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), Cavell claims that "the supersaturation of contemporary media culture means not only that the traditional artistic media have converged through digitisation, but that our being is taking on an aesthetic dimension insofar as these media are extensions of the bios."

Cavell notes laconically that the critics panned Maurizio Cattelan's installation of his entire oeuvre hanging from the Guggenheim Museum in 2011 because, "Cattelan denies his critics a fixed standpoint from which to abstractly view his art. He demands, rather, that the critic be immersed in the work of art."

The icing on Cavell's cake is the presentation of the film Picnic in Space, featuring Marshall McLuhan and directed by Bruce Bacon. Only a fragment can be found on YouTube, so a screening of the entire piece is a rare treat. The most memorable quote, from a discussion on forms of communication in various cultural systems, is between McLuhan and "the interviewer" on a meadow, accompanied by two Flower Power girls wondering about the smartly dressed gentlemen. "A Japanese housewife would not dream of verbally criticising her husband for anything. She simply rearranges the flowers."

Thierry de Duve
French, comfortable, with elegant English

"Duchamp the Messenger of Art Unlimited"
As Duchamp's rising star eclipsed Picasso's, awareness grew that anything could be art. De Duve claims that Marcel Duchamp is not the author of art unlimited, merely the messenger.

The surest sign that Duchamp's message had been received was Joseph Beuys's televised performance in 1964. During which he painted a sign declaring, "Das Schweigen von Marcel Duchamp wird überbewertet" - Marcel Duchamp's silence is overrated.

De Duve concludes of the various expressions for "art". "They are not styles or genres or art forms or practices or media, whether new or old. They are various appellations for the post-Duchamp condition we live in."

End of symposium.
Colomina traces "a soft manifesto" for architecture that is almost transparent. Guercio is ambivalent about the dissolution of disciplinary boundaries as yet a new modus operandi for exploitation of the working masses. Cavell observes that "art as environment" seems a problem for critics only, not artists, whatever we mean by "artists". Where does this take us? For de Duve, "Beuys shared the notion that everyone is an artist with virtually everybody in the '60s". And it seems we are at it again, but anew.

It is the distinct sensation of living in the future as it was imagined during earlier eras. A TV report that several countries are discussing warning signs on software enhanced beauty images seems like a news item out of Clockwork Orange. When a 16-year old with identity issues and teen angst cries out, "I don't need a psychiatrist, I need a plastic surgeon!" - do we fix the image, not the disorganisation? Going at the cause would present such enumerable complications. John Peter's association to the post-medium condition appears. When the head of Euro Disney was asked about the company's philosophy he replied, "We do whatever Mickey Mouse is thinking."

Perhaps we live, not so much in a post-medium universe as on a post-specific globe. Borders are out-of-place, as is the division of artistic genres - or the earth is categorised into nation-states? The dichotomies of onlooker/participant and receiver/sender have been invalid for some time. As Colomina noted with reference to a young Iraqi woman and an American soldier, both reporting from inside occupied territory, "The audience is now itself the journalist, the critic, the artist." The unbound condition mediates freedom, but also creates dispersion bordering on anguish. §

  • Douglas Couplant