Marshall McLuhan lives here
David Rokeby reanimates the great mind in the shabby building where
he once worked
May 07 2010
Multimedia artist David Rokeby has a favourite anecdote about
Marshall McLuhan he likes to share, told to him by Derrick de
Kerckhove, the long-time former director of the University of
Toronto's McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology.
At the height of his fame in the '60s and '70s, McLuhan, whose
rabble-rousing theories on the
burgeoning media soup we now find ourselves swimming in provided the
groundwork for an entire generation of cultural studies, could have
easily decamped from Toronto for an amply funded research institute
tailored to his whims almost anywhere in the world. When de Kerckhove
asked him why he chose to stay McLuhan, curmudgeonly as ever, simply
snarled: "For the irritation!"
It was a joke, of course, but it also wasn't, as anyone who has paid
a visit to the bricks-and-mortar legacy of perhaps the best-known
public intellectual this country has ever produced could appreciate.
McLuhan's professional home for the length of his three-plus decades
tenure here was a squat, shabby two-storey brick building, surrounded
by asphalt and tucked behind a grand old mansion that houses the
university's Medieval Studies department.
They called it the Coach House. These days, a sign with the program's
name in the University's institutional blue-and-white is the only
hint that perhaps the most seminal thinking on the nascent
information age was hatched here in a modest seminar room with cheap
wood-paneled walls and dangling cords connected, as McLuhan would
often complain, to a shoddy electrical system with a habit of kicking
out at the most inconvenient times.
Something about it, though, clearly said "home" to McLuhan, which
made Rokeby's task for this year's Contact Festival daunting indeed.
When Rokeby, a Governor General's Award-winning artist whose sound
and video installations have been shown all over the world, was
approached by Contact's creative director Bonnie Rubenstein to
re-animate the very space McLuhan had inhabited for so long, it took a minute.
"The first thing I said was 'I can't,'" Rokeby recalled outside the
McLuhan's old seminar room. "It was just such a heavy task. There's
so much freight with all the ex-McLuhan people, who all have such
specific ideas of how he should be represented. And then there's the
Coach House itself, which is complicated. It's modest, kind of dingy.
But I thought about it, and I realized: I can't not do this."
Indeed, McLuhan's remarkably long shadow falls not not only over much
of the recent past, but well into the future. The uncannily enduring
currency of his ideas are on display throughout the Contact Festival
this year. At the Museum of Contemporary Art, a show takes its name
from McLuhan's 1951 book The Mechanical Bride, an edgy, irreverent
set of observations of a post-war culture being driven consumer crazy
by a dislocated advertising industry just starting to understand the
persuasive power of sexual imagery.
Meanwhile, at the U of T Art Centre, "The Brothel Without Walls"
takes its title from McLuhan's description of photography in his
landmark book, Understanding Media, where he describes photos,
tellingly, as "dreams money could buy."
Rokeby's piece, coupled with a complementary sound work by Lewis
Kaye, is called "Through the Vanishing Point," taken from McLuhan's
book about the representation of space in poetry and painting.
Working inside the Coach House itself, his work is equal parts
homage, séance, and his very personal reading of McLuhan's own
priorities never an easy task for an iconic figure whose legacy,
for many, has been reduced to a misunderstood litany of catch phrases.
Rokeby chose not to read McLuhan literally, but visually, poring over
hours of archival photos from the Coach House, where McLuhan lectured
throughout his tenure. More importantly, he turned to film footage,
often with the sound off. "Watching him for hours, without the sound,
you become aware of how vulnerable he seemed when he wasn't talking,"
The result, seven distinct videos projected on transparent scrims
inside the Coach House, create a spectral presence of McLuhan in the
space he inhabited most. Projections land on the scrims but also pass
through, so the image doubles on the wall behind it.
Peer through the windows from outside and you'll see the images shift
from conventional footage to a variety of eerie after-effect: One
reduces to neon-bright outlines, like a colourfully active Petri
dish; another responds only to motion, bringing McLuhan into
electrified silhouette only when he moves or speaks.
Acutely aware of McLuhan's own discomfort with visual representation,
it was important for Rokeby that he make the work not simple homage,
but something humanizing, and entirely his own.
"I wanted to do something in the space that was really about the
space itself," Rokeby said. "It was an interesting challenge. I was
trying to represent him in a way he would approve of. But at the same
time, it's almost like a fantasy: Being in this space with him was to
know him as more than an icon, more than the font of these aphorisms,
but as a person, sitting and chatting with the sun streaming in,
being nervous, irritable, whatever he may have been."
Books: Marshall McLuhan biography
May 07, 2010
By Declan Kelly, Record staff
by Douglas Coupland
(Penguin Canada, 241 pages, $26 hardcover)
Who knew, in an era dominated by iPods, Facebook and Twitter Turns,
that the medium isn't the message after all? Or rather, as Douglas
Coupland suggests in this unique biography of Marshall McLuhan, the
medium isn't only the message.
Coupland is, of course, guarding against the temptation of reducing
one of the greatest contemporary thinkers to his most famous
aphorism, though he's quite content to sprinkle other McLuhan
aphorisms and those of folks who influenced McLuhan throughout
the proceedings of this book, published as part of the Penguin
Extraordinary Canadians series.
But by the end, having set out to write a print biography that aims
to be anything but yet another print biography, even Coupland himself
seems ready to concede that the medium inevitably becomes a fair
chunk of the message thus proving his subject's genius once again.
From the outset, Coupland seems intent on breaking with biography
convention, opening as he does with a series of anagrams of the name
Marshall McLuhan "cash mall man hurl" is a particular favourite
that run down the outside edges of the first seven pages, leaving the
centre of each spread blank. Throw in two more aphorisms at a page
each and another page with internet-generated role names for McLuhan
who knew his pirate name would be Jake the Well Tanned? and it's
page 11 before we're into the bio proper.
Each of the book's three sections start in a similarly quirky fashion
before reverting to more typical biography fare, but there are a few
bolts from the blue along the way.
Case in point: the first section contains a lengthy excerpt from
Coupland's latest novel, Generation A, presumably to assure us that
he is a most-suitable biographer for the subject at hand. It's
obvious that Coupland is incredibly sensitive to his role as
biographer as he asks on a number of occasions why do a biography at
all and why do yet another biography of McLuhan?
Yet as any biography should, Coupland provides plenty of insight into
the personal drama (McLuhan's love-hate relationship with his
mother), societal influences (living in the U.S. Midwest in the
postwar boom and the seemingly sterile Toronto of the 1960s) and
present-day constructs (McLuhan foresaw internet connectivity some
four decades before it materialized) that illustrate not only how
McLuhan came to be the genius he was, but why he's such an invaluable
resource for trying to make sense of the media-soaked world in which we live.
As biographies go, this is a most self-aware one, which seems somehow
fitting. Think of it as the meta-biography for the meta-media critic,
with the quirkiness of the subject overshadowed only by that of the