Marshall McLuhan and “Picnic in Space”

  pervasive media studio

Thursday, October 27, 2011 – by Grace

The Studio’s weekly Lunchtime Talks are open to anyone to attend and feature members of the Studio community and invited guests presenting their projects and inviting discussion. Attendance at the talks has been growing steadily over the last few months, so we thought it was time to start documenting them for people who can’t attend.

On Friday 21st October, Simon Poulter, curator of the McLuhan’s Message strand at Watershed, presented Picnic in Space, and his reading of the film.

Simon first asked for a show of hands form the audience – who was new to the Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan, and who was a veteran: the room was roughly divided in half by this question. He then admitted he had not planned the talk, much like the famous lectures in McLuhan’s barn, he wanted it to go off in its own directions.

Simon Poulter presents Picnic in Space

Beginning with an introduction to McLuhan’s style and standing within the academic world, Simon gave a good grounding from which to approach the film. He talked about McLuhan’s book Understanding Media, that, unlike other works written about pioneering technologies, it hadn’t dated, still reading like a fresh, insightful text. Simon introduced the fact that McLuhan was deliberately anti-academic and tangential, even now disliked amongst academics. Despite this fact, McLuhan managed to create a trajectory for his work way beyond academia.

McLuhan’s style was to voice an opinion, and perhaps ten minutes later change that opinion. To illustrate this, Simon read a letter, sent to Robert Fulford in 1964. Paraphrased here: “It’s amazing that you got anything out of my writing at all, since you misconceive my entire procedure. […] I do not have a point of view on anything. No wonder you think me arrogant! I do not say whether a thing is good or bad, to do so would be meaningless and egotistical.” He threw ideas out into the world, whether he had believed them for ten minutes or ten years, he prided himself on having no heirarchy of values. He was interested in everything.

Once this context had been laid down for the audience, we were perfectly prepared to view Picnic in Space, a rare film featuring McLuhan and his long time cohort, Harley Parker, a Canadian artist and scholar. The film features McLuhan and Parker’s ruminations on a wide variety of topics; including ‘space’ and its properties, jazz, language, and art. Shot in 1967, the film captures the experimental spirit of the time; with scenes of contemplative pastoral idyll intercut with bold, minimalist animation, pop art, pastiche, and a wonderfully strange electronic soundtrack courtesy of visionary American composer, Morton Subotnick.

Once the film had been screened, Simon told us he’d watched the film around 10 times, and enjoyed it even more each time. Part of SImon’s idea for the talk was to offer some illumination on the film, its topics and strands of thought that can be derived from it:

Arist as Social Navigator
McLuhan asserts that the artist is always twenty or thirty years ahead of anybody else.

The film has a distinctly modernist aesthetic and concept with visual references to Eadweard Muybridge and Marcel Duchamp

Object means context
McLuhan introduces the idea that an object comes to signify its own context

The idea of the space in between, liminality

Touch does not unite, but separate
McLuhan gives a cringe-inducing example of races having migrated to live side-by-side, and says he believes this has not reinforced similarities, but divided. As with most of McLuhan’s assertions this is highly contestable!

You merge with everyone else and there’s no private
The idea that the private is a disappearing concept, this seems to sync with social media and the emerging trend of personal broadcasting

Expose the rules of own processes
McLuhan exposed the workings of the film to illustrate the effect of this point: “By the way, Bruce, have you run out of film yet?”

Doing your homework, even in Modernism
McLuhan was a big fan of James Joyce’s work, and believed that even in Modernism, readers should be active, and so work should be highly referential

The Lightbulb
The invention that provided access to 24 hour light, and so the power to conduct your life at the times you choose

Many members of the audience felt strongly against the use of the women in the film, seemingly as beautiful props. Simon admitted there was a feminist reading of the film which could undermine it completely – however, viewed in light of its time and original intentions, you can see the women, seated at the picnic with the men, silent and listening, as a planned device, rather than a pointless addition: we see these women wandering around in dream sequences, boarding planes and pouting at the camera, then they wander into the picnic, completely disrupting the fantasy.

Despite its often cringeworthy choices of phrasing, Picnic in Space is, in my opinion, still as exciting to watch as it must’ve been then. The edgy, almost-uncomfortable images and noises jar against the field-recorded discussions in quite a beautiful way. I think it is a bold and brave expression of its time.

The discussions that followed the talk revealed quite differing views on McLuhan’s theories. He might be pleased to know his work is as divisive as ever.

Here is the trailer for ‘Picnic in Space’:-


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