Marshall McLuhan: Philosopher-Poet or Prognosticator?

Peggy Curran of The Montreal Gazette talked to me, Charles Acland and Will Straw about the legacy of Marshall McLuhan. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Wershler contends that those who focus on McLuhan as a technological fortune-teller are missing the point. McLuhan, he says, was really a poet who was at his best conjuring up those “philosophical bumper stickers” for which he is best remembered.

“McLuhan was not a futurist. In fact, the later you get in his work, the crappier it is.” He argues that McLuhan, who had studied at Cambridge University before returning to work at U of T, was probably more familiar than anyone else in Canada at the time with what was happening among modernist writers and artists in Europe in the early part of the 20th century. It was with thoughts of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the poetry of Ezra Pound and the Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso, says Wershler, that McLuhan concocted his phrase ‘probes’ and envisioned the newspaper as a mosaic, where a reader could absorb the world’s events in any particular order or disorder.

Here’s the full article.

Featured Image by John Reeves and Robert Cross, from the story.

theanyspacewhatever: Field Notes

On the way to theanyspacewhatever, the Guggenheim Relational Aesthetics show, I meet mariachis on the subway between 77th and 86th.

Maurizio Cattelan’s “Daddy Daddy” — drowned yet floating (because wooden? Then how’d he drown?) Pinocchio — makes it all worthwhile immediately. Father of 4-year-old girl turns it into an object lesson about the importance of lifejackets.

The Guggenheim is a lot of things, but it is pretty clearly not anyspacewhatever. Whatever.

Rirkrit Tiravanjia, “Chew the Fat.” Sitting here watching TV on the museum’s temporarily carpeted floor, watching TV. My shoes are around the corner, under a bench. Would be even better if they weren’t there when I went back for them.

Shoes are still there. Oh well.

Giant press-on text on every surface and hanging signs mostly banal. Should have hired a poet.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, “Promenade.” Sound environment. Only part of the gallery where people walk slowly. Sound is of a downpour in a forest somewhere. It’s pretty, but the best part is the people wearing audioguides are completely oblivious to it.

Jorge Pardo, “Sculpture Ink.” Cardboard dividers with holes jigsawed out, amphibian-shaped lights. The works of a giant mechanical wristwatch. Slows down the passage. Of time.

Douglas Gordon and Rirkrit Tiravanjia, “Bar.” Barista with 3 espresso machines pulling coffees for people sitting on beanbag chairs, watching movies previously banned in the US. Audience mesmerised by Tod Browning’s Freaks. Gabba Gabba Hey.

Carsten Holler’s “Revolving Hotel Room” looks like Christian should be living in it. Gentle sway of clotheshangers the only visible indication of its slow rotations.

Angela Bulloch, “pixel boxes” and “Night Sky.” Kids, yelling, love the boxes: “That’s so cool. We’re in outer space.”

The guards, who are utterly oblivious of people, me included, talking on cell phones and snapping photos throughout the gallery, point out this sign to me right when I try to take a picture of the hygrometer at the end of the ramp. I always liked the hygrometers best.

(Flickr set here.)

War Rugs from Afghanistan

Last Sunday, following up on a tip from Ed Pien, Kenny Goldsmith and I stopped by The Textile Museum of Canada to see Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan. Both The Toronto Star and Now listed it as one of the best gallery shows of 2008, and it did not disappoint: curator Max Allen has assembled 118 rugs from the period of the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan (1979) up to the present.

Viewing these rugs is a deeply defamiliarizing experience: woven in with traditional geometric patterns and imagery are helicopters, AK-47s, jets and fighter planes, land mines, grenades, personnel carriers, computer monitors, skyscrapers and other signs of Soviet and western culture’s violent incursions into Afghanistan. The weapons are usually rendered accurately enough that it’s possible to identify their specific models; the curator’s comments indicate that there are no fictional weapons in any of these rugs … as though that would be necessary. Having grown up in a culture where I’ve seen more video games than Afghan rugs, to my anachronistic imagination, these blocky images often look like artifacts from the 8-bit video games of my childhood.

I’ve posted a Flickr set of images of these rugs, but they were taken under low lighting conditions with an iPhone camera, so I lost about half of the shots I took. The show is only up until January 27, so if you’re in Toronto, see it while you can.

Found Poetry from Ubuweb

On January 9, 2009, Mercer Union launched “Street Poets & Visionaries: Selections from the UbuWeb Collection” to a packed house. The text that I wrote for the catalogue of this collection of found poetry follows, as does a link to a Flickr set of images of the event.

The quality of mind in the radio telescope is its will to select.
— Christopher Dewdney, “Parasite Maintenance” {{1}}

What are the outer limits of appropriation?

Digital culture is obsessed with this question, from both an aesthetic and a legal perspective. On the one hand is an entire century of artistic practices that gleefully encourage the copying and recirculation of cultural materials, from Delta blues and Dada to Flarf and mashups. On the other hand is an increasingly restrictive legal climate, which, as Siva Vaidhyanathan has argued at length, is entirely incapable of dealing effectively with “emerging communication technologies, techniques and aesthetics” {{2}}.

One response to this deadlock between the aesthetics of appropriation in a digital milieu and the legal forces that would constrain them is an increase in bandwidth. In his ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound claims that “artists are the antennae of the race” {{3}}, but in a digital milieu, a set of rabbit ears will no longer suffice. For Christopher Dewdney, contemporary artistic sensibility is analogous to the functioning of a satellite dish. From such a perspective, artists are devices for the accumulation and concentration of data, cool and dispassionate. The quality of the objects and texts that they produce depends on “the will to select.” Thus, the individual’s ability to sort and process the ambient signals that constantly bombard all of us is what constitutes contemporary criteria for a successful artistic career.

As Craig Dworkin has noted elsewhere, self-declared “Word Processor” Kenneth Goldsmith‘s personal oeuvre falls squarely into this tradition of technologized, high-volume appropriation {{4}}. This is especially true of recent works such as Day and the American trilogy (The Weather, Traffic and Sports), all of which duplicate huge swaths of copyrighted texts and performances with studied Warholian indifference. In this context, even Goldsmith’s curatorial work on the decade-old UbuWeb, the world’s largest digital archive of avant-garde sound recordings, concrete poetry, video, outsider art and related critical materials, is arguably part of the practice of appropriation art — perhaps even Goldsmith’s greatest work.

Goldsmith normally proceeds by identifying a neglected (because mundane, or, in Goldsmith’s terms, “boring”) site of cultural discourse, such as an average edition of The New York Times (Day), or an entire weekend’s worth of radio traffic reports (Traffic). He then transcribes that discourse meticulously, reconfigures the resulting digital manuscript as a book, and attaches his name to it. Though such projects have been common in the art world since the heyday of Conceptualism, they are relatively new in the world of poetry. By porting an established practice for aesthetic production from one field of cultural endeavour (gallery art) to another (poetry), Goldsmith has simultaneously constructed himself a career and staged an intervention which has changed the stakes of contemporary writing.

And yet. The texts and objects in “Street Poets & Visionaries: Selections from the UbuWeb Collection” occupy a privileged position, one that at first glance seems utterly counterintuitive in the context of the rest of Goldsmith’s oeuvre. The digitized versions of this material used to appear on UbuWeb under the heading “Found + Insane”; Goldsmith’s text on the website notes that “we’ve redesigned and renamed it Outsiders, reflecting broader cultural trends toward the legitimization of Outsider work,” reflecting a remarkable degree of cultural sensitivity from someone whose public persona is often gleefully abrasive and provocative {{5}}. Moreover, when exhibiting this work, Goldsmith never directly attaches his name to it, preferring the relative anonymity of “UbuWeb” and the curatorial first-person plural.

The greatest difference between these materials and all of Goldsmith’s recent work is that he circulates them without “denuding” them — this is Goldsmith’s term for the process of stripping away “the normative external signifiers that tend to give as much meaning to an artwork as the contents of the artwork
itself,” such as font size, lineation, accompanying illustrations, and so on {{6}}. In gallery shows such as this one, the original objects themselves are displayed, even though for Goldsmith, the normal practice would be to discard originals after digitization like so many empt}}y husks.

Part of the value of these objects is their stubborn materiality. Yes, the content itself is important, and Goldsmith sometimes performs these works as part of his own undifferentiated output, but there is also something here that resolutely resists digitization: the crackle of ancient Letraset, photocopier noise, fragments of yellowing Scotch tape, the trace of a hand wielding a Sharpie. These works, I would argue, are the secret truth of Kenneth Goldsmith’s practice: something small and sacred that makes his great, sprawling, transformative profanities possible.

[[1]] Dewdney, Christopher. “Parasite Maintenance.” Alter Sublime. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1980. 73-92.[[1]]

[[2]] Vaidhyanathan, Siva. Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity. New York: New York University Press, 2001. 133.[[2]]

[[3]] Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1960. 73.[[3]]

[[4]] Dworkin, Craig. “The Imaginary Solution.” Contemporary Literature XLVIII.1: 29-60. 34.[[4]]

[[5]]Goldsmith, Kenneth. “Outsiders.” Accessed 9 December 2008.[[5]]

[[6]]Goldsmith, Kenneth. “The Bride Stripped Bare: Nude Media and The Dematerialization of Tony Curtis.” Accessed 9 December 2008. 4.[[6]]

Street Poets & Visionaries launch photoset

Adventures in the Uncanny Valley

On November 19, 2008, Microsoft relaunched the XBox Live Network with a brand-new (bearing in mind that with Microsoft, new is always a relative state of mind) avatar-based interface, and the XBox-based portion of my online identity received an extreme makeover.

“Your avatar,” writes Microsoft, “is your game face throughout the New Xbox Experience and represents your personality, whether you are serving as an Xbox LIVE Party host, playing a game of Scene It?® Box Office Smash, or chatting with a friend.” Never mind that I liked the Blades interface better; it’s gone like a Spice Girls lunchbox is gone. So let’s come to grips with the notion that an ostensibly adorable, vaguely asexual and notably creepy digital puppet now “represents my personality.”

As the pictures above (snapped off my TV) demonstrate, the best that the XBox avatar construction kit can do is to make me look like a virtual Pinocchio. Like the original, pre-Disney wooden boy, who was, by all accounts, kind of an asshole, this Mini-Me is not particularly pleasant. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this little avatar is a full-fledged citizen of the uncanny valley.

First postulated by Masahiro Mori in 1970, the Uncanny Valley is an hypothesis about what happens to human emotional response as robots become increasingly lifelike in appearance. For Mori, our positive emotional response to anthropormorphism peaks just before resemblance to the human becomes accurate — with stuffed animals and Wall-E, for example. After that point, though, as resemblance becomes stronger, there’s a noticeable change in perception. Revulsion sets in as machines become too lifelike. If you graph this relationship, the fall-off in positive emotional response to increasingly lifelike machines forms a trough, i.e. the aforementioned Uncanny Valley. As Slavoj Žižek has noted, too much life is a bad thing — the Uncanny Valley is populated with zombies, vampires, Terminators and other nightmares that have no business being alive. The little monster capering around my XBox interface is no exception.

Evidently, though, Microsoft is successfully backfilling the more worrisome trenches of the Uncanny Valley and tamping it all down nice and smooth. Gamasutra reported in early December that since the launch of the New XBox Live Experience, sales have tripled. In paricular, the game A Kingdom for Keflings, one of the first games that gives you the choice of playing as your avatar, registered the second-best debut performance ever on the service.

Other than the blatant attempt to pooch Nintendo’s look and feel in the interest of interpellating you directly into the XBox brand instead of relying on external (possibly unlicensed!) products to establish your sense of subjectivity, I can see little rationale for the new XBox avatars. Mimetic realism in video games has no relationship to fun; in most cases, it usually inhibits playability. The recent reemergence of classic arcade games like Tempest, Missile Command and Galaga, usually in both “classic” and “rebooted” form, plus the astonishing success of the Geometry Wars (“Retro Evolved”) franchise, feels like a lesson that’s been entirely lost.

Mimesis in video games seems to culminate with two highly rendered figures hammering away at each other in a close-quarters, button-mashing frenzy (viz. Soul Calibur IV or any other descendants of Street Fighter). In other words, when the emphasis falls on rendering rather than gameplay, the experience of a virtual world narrows down to a bloody ring drawn on the floor of an arena. Or, alternatively, it might be an alien hooch-club stage populated entirely by dancing penis monsters, which is amusing in the short term, but ultimately just as tedious.

I’m not advocating a return to Pong, mind you. You’ll have to pry my copy of The Orange Box out of my cold, dead fingers. But I would like to leave a little something about the way I present myself to the imagination. Why can’t I be a robot, a bug, a fish, a superintelligent shade of the colour blue? The easiest way to do that is with a humble, two-dimensional portrait in the corner of the screen.