Richard Kerr: McLuhan’s message is in the multimedia


Richard Kerr

Richard Kerr took a most circuitous path to Marshall McLuhan. But 36 years after first connecting with the Canadian philosopher, visionary and, to many, prophet of the information age, Kerr is paying an appropriately unorthodox yet inspired tribute to the man, in the year when McLuhan would have been celebrating his 100th birthday.

In conjunction with Pop Montreal’s Art Pop program, Kerr, an experimental filmmaker and professor at Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, has created Marshall McLuhan: (My) Teacher . Classroom to Studio, which runs until Sunday at the festival’s headquarters on St. Urbain St. The homage has three distinct elements: a 60-minute McLuhan video monologue, which Kerr recorded in 1975; a four-screen digital projection; and a selection of Kerr’s renowned motion picture weavings – recycled film frames mounted and meshed into dazzling abstract installations.

“This is not a theoretical tribute – I’m not big on theory – but rather a humanistic response to the man,” says the animated Kerr, holding court in his Concordia office/workshop in a Guy St. high-rise.

Kerr is an unlikely prof, but one most students would dream of having. He doesn’t stand on convention, but he does encourage students to always follow through on their creative impulses.

A career in academia wasn’t initially in the cards. He dropped out of high school in Kitchener-Waterloo – “actually, I was asked to leave” – to focus on a burgeoning junior hockey career. But when his dad died a year later, he gave up on the hockey and began working odd jobs to help support his family.

Six years later – at 22 – he resurfaced to attend Sheridan College’s School of Art and Design in Oakville. “I thought I was going to a trade school to learn to make car commercials for a dealership in Kitchener-Waterloo,” Kerr recalls.

“But my life changed forever that first week of school. The dean came into our class and asked for a volunteer to videotape Marshall Mc-Luhan, who was doing a lecture at the school. I had heard McLuhan’s name before, but, honestly, it didn’t mean much to me. I took the assignment mostly because it gave me something to do.”

No matter that Kerr hadn’t operated a video camera before. “The only thing I knew was to keep focus and not to move the camera around.”

It didn’t take Kerr long to realize he had something in that video. He chose not to erase it, and stored it for future use while learning as much as he could about McLuhan, who died five years later.

“He was such a great performer who took on people (in his lectures),” Kerr says. “And he was really funny.”

True enough. On the video Kerr shot, McLuhan began his lecture by announcing that he likes to start by “heckling” his audiences before they can heckle him. “We say what’s new. This is, of course, the remark of the guy who walks into the antique shop,” McLuhan cracked. “When you ask what’s new, you don’t really expect to be told anything, do you?”

McLuhan proceeded to regale the students with his theories on humour, noting that it is invariably based on grievances and that catharsis is relief.

Then the man considered by many to possess one of the sharpest minds of them all dropped a nugget about a couple who had been desperately trying to have a baby. Finally, they got their wish, except the baby was born without legs or arms. “But the parents prayed really hard,” McLuhan relayed. “And eventually the child grew arms and legs.”

Sadly, this child later ran into the street and was run over by a car. “And the moral of the story?” the deadpan McLuhan asked, before answering it himself: “Stop when you’re a head!”

“McLuhan had an offbeat sense of humour,” says Kerr, who has a fairly offbeat sense of humour himself. “It took me five or six years to realize the impact that video shoot had on me. I absorbed as much as I could from him. I asked people questions. That’s the way I educate myself.”

Kerr conceived of his project not just as a tribute to McLuhan, but as a means to convey to his own students something about their professor’s background.

“I was always curious, so I assume they are somewhat curious as well. McLuhan was an iconoclast, constantly questioning structures. And the first thing I do when I have a new class of students is flash a sign that reads: ‘Question authority.’

“Marshall McLuhan, for me, opened the classroom door, which led directly to the studio. As a naive and unformed student, I volunteered to document a talk he gave at Sheridan College. Coincidence led to opportunity, which turned to epiphany. My encounter with McLuhan formed my understanding of the arts and shaped the ensuing 30 years of studio practice.”

Operating from the famed McLuhan aphorism that “the medium is the message,” Kerr uses footage from that 60-minute address along with two scrolling texts in the borders – “in one showing an asynchronous transcript that weaves around McLuhan’s dialogue, and in another, reinforcing McLuhan’s talking points like a ticker on cable news.” What emerges is an intriguing and unique insight into McLuhan.

“What I most admired about the man is how he stood tall when he was being persecuted by colleagues. Creativity frightens a lot of people.”

Though Kerr has accumulated an impressive body of work in the experimental and documentary fields – one that has been showcased internationally – he balks at being called an artist.

“I’m just a teacher/practitioner – that’s it,” the grinning prof explains. “Now this show represents 30 years of residual thinking on meditation. Think of it all as McLuhan residue.”

Prior to moving to Montreal and teaching at Concordia in 2000, Kerr taught at the University of Regina for 10 years. “The whole family moved en masse here, but we didn’t realize how complicated it would be. I really wasn’t on balance here.”

He was even less on balance when his N.D.G. home burned down six years ago. “The firemen blamed our dog, but my jury is still out on that one.”

Thanks to his two children, who found the home on the Internet, Kerr has since uprooted to Bromont, while his wife stays in Kingston (where she teaches at Queen’s) during the week.

“I was wiped out financially after the fire,” Kerr says. “But now I’ve found bliss in the mountain. I never would have imagined I’d end up there. Then again, I never would have imagined how any of my life would have turned out.”

Richard Kerr’s exhibition Marshall McLuhan: (My) Teacher . Classroom to Studio runs until Sunday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. at Pop Quarters, 3450 St. Urbain St. Free.

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