This is Marshall McLuhan


ALEX KITNICK | Tue Oct 4th, 2011

This is Marshall McLuhan is the transcript of Alex Kitnick’s opening remarks preceding the screening of  This Is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium Is the Massage, that took place at the New Museum as part of Rhizome’s New Silent Series.

Anthony McCall, Long Film for Ambient Light, 1975

Tonight we’re going to look at a 16mm print of This is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Massage, which begins with a brief shot of a light bulb. A few weeks ago as part of its programming at Dia, Light Industry presented Anthony McCall’sLong Film for Ambient Light (1975), which consists of a lone, if rather large light bulb, hanging in an otherwise empty room, with a wall of windows covered over in scrim on one side to modulate the light coming in and out. Over a 24 hour span, reaching from noon one day to noon the next, the natural light of the sun and the artificial luminescence of the bulb were put in constant tête-à-tête, projecting forwards and back, contrasting and comparing and facing off with one another. In this play of light and shadows, various social interactions took place, different at different times of the day and night. Occasionally, the bulb was the center of attention—literally highlighted—with people clustering around it, while at other moments its light seemed to match the daylight and not draw much interest at all. Alone and isolated in a cool white space, the bulb’s plain power, usually used as an aid to display, was itself illuminated.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964

The light bulb was always McLuhan’s first example when explaining what he meant by his famous mantra “the medium is the message” since it communicates no information itself but rather facilitates a range of behavioral possibilities: “The electric light is pure information,” McLuhan wrote in 1964’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. “It is a medium without a message…unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.” A medium, in other words, is always filled with (or, we might say, ‘contented with’) another medium, but it is also something distinctive itself. The footage of film provides the content for television just as the stuff of TV functions as the raw material that gets cranked through Hulu and YouTube, and, in a way, this fact helps demonstrate the difference between the content of film or TV and their apparatus. “Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference,” McLuhan continued. “It could be argued that these activities are in some way the ‘content’ of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that ‘the medium is the message’ because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.”[1] McLuhan’s interest, in other words, was not so much with what was on the screen, but with the powers of the screen itself—what it does to its audience.

Shot on film, This is Marshall McLuhan was first screened commercial-free in 1967 as part of NBC’s Experiments in Television, a short-lived attempt to stimulate people after Sunday football, and it was later distributed in classrooms, as a film, in order to educate students on the effects of the media; with its fast-paced montages and one big idea coming after the other [information overload] it may have served as a small antidote to the disciplinary structure of the classroom, even if it still asked for everyone to sit in a row and look forward at the screen [good things on education]. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects was also published that same year, a book composed of text by McLuhan and layout by Quentin Fiore that included cinematic spreads of photographs deliberately intended to expand the traditional structure of the book, and in the same year the fourth issue of the art magazine Aspen, which McLuhan and Fiore edited as well, also came out—a box of curios, full of brochures, records, and uncut page proofs. The same year Columbia Records put out an LP album to coincide with these releases, a kind of failed dorm room experiment with McLuhan reading his prose over various discordant clangs and bangs, a rather unfortunate art of noises. At some point that year, young girls paid by admen walked the streets in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco holding signboards above their heads, spreading McLuhan’s word in a weird mockery of protest politics but also suggesting perhaps that there might be a kind of politics to be found in what McLuhan had to say. Read the rest here:

 The New Museum, The Bowery, NYC 

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