Conference Abstracts

Conference Abstracts

Richard Cavell

Keynote Speaker: Richard Cavell
Topic: McLuhan, Tactility, and the Digital

Fingers are digits and so are numbers. My paper takes its point of departure from this metaphorical confluence to enquire into the relationship between tactility and the digital.

“Tactility” was McLuhan’s term for the senses in interplay which, he theorized, was definitive of the electronic era. McLuhan deployed tactility to identify the involving qualities of electronic culture, as opposed to the abstract qualities of print culture. Yet the involvement promised by electronic media was purchased at a considerable price, since it occurred paradoxically as the product of gaps: as Derrida noted, McLuhan was prescient in theorizing tactility as co-existing with the prohibition of touch.

If the visual world is the product of connected spaces, then the tactile world is one of disconnection―you cannot determine sequence with your fingers. My paper draws extensively on McLuhan’s chapter about “Number” in Understanding Media; as he writes there, “number is an extension … of … our sense of touch” (107). In theorizing the shift from the eye of print culture to the ear of audile-tactile space, McLuhan was theorizing the shift from the “matching” of analogue culture to the tactile “making” of digital culture. Digital culture is in this sense processual as well as paratactic, and this conjoins it, rhetorically, with the culture of orality. My paper unpacks this hybrid notion in order to interrogate the nature of digital media.

Martina Leeker

Speaker: Martina Leeker
McLuhan today, seen with the eyes of 1960′s Neo-Avantgarde and contemporary Media Art

Abstract: In order to discuss the relevance of McLuhan’s media theory in understanding computing, the encounter between McLuhan and the Neo-Avantgarde of the 1960′s is an interesting starting point. This is because in this encounter it becomes obvious that McLuhan mostly (mis-)understood the computer as an analog, electrically resonant medium and not as a processor of information. In his well-known Playboy interview from 1969 he even described his global village, in which the electric and analog view of the computer plays an important role, as an “echo chamber” of psychedelic resonances and telepathy. Some artists of the Neo-Avantgarde followed McLuhan’s electric understanding of the computer and intended to construct the echo-chamber. In doing so they fell into a form of media spiritism. The analog re-definition of the computer could be seen as an attempt to overcome the dissolution of the human within the cybernetic realm, thus integrating the human actors beyond the technology of information. In other words, the rescue of the human was partly managed on the basis of psychedelism and spiritism, which may lead to an irrational relationship with media as part of the discursive history of the computer.

So what relevance does McLuhan  have in describing and understanding computing today? Looking at contemporary art dealing with media, McLuhan’s electric approach to the computer seems to be obsolete. Media aren’t seen as extensions of the human anymore, as McLuhan said, but they are conceptualized and used as auto-organized and generative data-processing agencies. What, if McLuhan’s idea of an irrational binding of the human with technology is passed on through this history of the computer? Whereas McLuhan and the 1960th Neo-Avantgarde succeeded in an electro-psychedelic techno-human merger, does an animism of objects emerge today?

Claus Pias

Speaker: Claus Pias
Freiheit statt Freizeit

Auf die »sinnlose Aufregung über Arbeitslosigkeit«, so McLuhan einmal, gebe es eine einfache Antwort: »Bezahltes Lernen wird schon jetzt zur Hauptbeschäftigung und außerdem die Quelle neuen Reichtums in unserer Gesellschaft.« Was mittlerweile nur noch zynisch wirkt, konnte in den 1960er Jahren noch mit ungeniert prophetischem Gestus vorgetragen werden. Der Vortrag versucht zu zeigen, daß Aussagen wie diese nicht allein vor dem Hintergrund der damals neuen Medien gelesen werden können, sondern auch im Zusammenhang mit Fragen der Automatisierung behandelt werden müssen. Für einen kurzen historischen Moment, in dem Massenarbeitslosigkeit als Utopie der Umwandlung von Freizeit in Freiheit gedacht werden konnte, schwimmen McLuhans Aussagen wie Fische im Wasser der Episteme ihrer Zeit. Sie bleiben erhalten in der notorischen Rede von »postindustriellen« oder »Wissensgesellschaften«, die diesen Moment selber vergessen hat.
Please note this lecture will take place in English despite the German abstract.

Katja Kwastek

Speaker: Katja Kwastek
Mediated Massage: Embodiment, Connectedness and Alienation in New Media Art

McLuhan’s famous assumption that technology extends our central nervous system directly into the various social systems has a twofold relevance for media art research. New media art does not only present critical reflections of technologically altered and mediated bodies, it also paradigmatically embodies the new loss of distance between subject and world observed by McLuhan, because it turns recipients from distanced observers to involved participants.

Media as ‘extensions of man’ affect the potentials of expression and perception alike, directly influencing the interoceptive processing of information. In Australian artist Stelarc’s spectacular presentations of telematically controlled bodies however, the recipient is still largely restricted to distanced observation. In contrast, recent performances of Italian artist Sonia Cillari locate the recipients at the heart of the ‘mediated massage’, though in a very ambiguous role. On the one hand, they directly affect the bodily sensations of the artist, on the other hand, they are captured inside the black box of the interaction space – they are at the same time at the controls and at the mercy of the situation. Whereas Stelarc declared the body obsolete, Cillari emphasizes the ambivalent position of the body in the media society between face-to-face intimacy and remote-controlled response, wireless affectivity and hard-wired intrusion.

Michael Darroch

Speaker: Michael Darroch
Explorations across Anonymous History and Acoustic Space

The landmark interdisciplinary Culture and Communications Seminar held at the University of Toronto (1953-55) and the eclectic journal Explorations (1953-59) provided the framework in which McLuhan first formulated many of his most important insights into the interplay between media and the senses, including the notion of acoustic space. In seeking a common vocabulary to bridge disciplinary boundaries across literature, anthropology, architecture, economics, and psychology, McLuhan and his colleagues developed a ‘field approach’ to discern the new grammars and environments created by electronic technology, particularly with the advent of television in Canada in 1952. While Harold Innis’ studies of media bias were a central concern, another vital inspiration for their “experiment in communication” was the art and architectural historian Sigfried Giedion’s studies of the interpenetration of cultural forms and the ‘anonymous history’ of humble everyday objects that reveal the essential spirit of their period. Inspired by Giedion, a particular methodology grew out of Explorations, using the environment and architecture as the framework for analyzing the effects of media in the televisual age.

Janine Marchessault

Speaker: Janine Marchessault
McLuhan’s Fair: Expo ‘67 as Counterblast

“Bless / Expo 67 / for its manifestation / of Gallic levity and / its reversal of the / second law of / thermodynamics / by hotting up the / southern neighbor / by the Canadian / COLD FRONT:”
- Marshall McLuhan, COUNTERBLAST, 1969: 57

Expo ’67 held in Montreal to celebrate Canada’s centenary, represents one of the most important artistic experiments of the twentieth century. The fair showcased numerous tele-communications and audio-visual technologies, and was distinguished by its audacious media experiments. McLuhan’s aphorisms were literally woven into the very fabric of the Exhibition. Many have commented that the Exposition did not change the way films were made but the way they were seen. New forms of spectatorship combined with newly imagined theatres and screens, served to align media culture with architecture. This talk will focus on how Expo 67 dubbed “McLuhan’s fair” can be read as a utopian media city―a total environment. It examines Expo ‘67 in terms of a new international approach to architecture and urban planning that was both influenced by and influencing new forms of media production. Of course Expo itself, like all World Expositions, was driven by the economic and political interests of globalization. Yet perhaps one of the reasons that the utopian energies of ‘mondialisation’ were so strong was that this event coincided with the emergence of a global ecology informed by the technological humanism expressed in the thinking of R. Buckminster Fuller and McLuhan.

Dieter Daniels

Speaker: Dieter Daniels
An ear for an eye: Traveling visual, acoustic and tactile space with McLuhan, John Cage, Nam June Paik and Walter Benjamin

According to Marshall McLuhan the dominant visual mode of our culture is an effect of the printing press: ‘The phonetic alphabet forced the magic world of the ear to yield to the neutral world of the eye. Man was given an eye for an ear.’ (Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, Gingko Press 2001 edition. pp. 44) Accordingly, hearing is related to the associative thought attributed to the right brain, while sight is connected to the left brain’s rational structuring.

McLuhan himself contributed in great deal to reasserting the legitimate stature of associative thinking, linking it to hearing and touching. This can be seen and felt by browsing Quentin Fiore’s graphic design for the collaborative book ‘The Medium is the Massage’, and even more in the ‘audio book’ version McLuhan released in 1968 as an LP. His contentious notion that the television image is an „expansion of the tactile sense“ seems more understandable with today’s touch screens than in McLuhan’s time. (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1995, pp. 504). His emphasis on the ‘tactile’ surprisingly connects McLuhan with Walter Benjamin’s own theory of media.

However McLuhan’s media theory is much less a theory of machines, of communication or of information – but rather a theory of the senses and their multi-modal relationships to media. This made it so influential for the inter-media arts of the 1960′s. In their musical and artistic works John Cage and Nam June Paik explored the relationships between acoustic and visual space. Both make reference to McLuhan’s propositions. And that television is a tactile medium, as McLuhan always argued, was first put to test by Paik. At this moment in time, the art and the theory of media are two sides of the same coin.

Lorenz Engell

Speaker: Lorenz Engell
McLuhan as Mouse: The Tactile and the Index

The paper re-examines McLuhan’s founding concept of tactility and develops it further: with the evolution of technology from the tv screen to the remote control to the computer mouse, the tactile has moved away from its all-wrapping, all-including, all-surfacing function, which is basically iconic, to one specific point: the finger tip. This condensing of tactility into one point has already been described by Michel Serres in his “The five senses”. It produces a shift from total participation to deixis, and hence selection, and indexicality. Moving from Serres back to McLuhan, what can we learn from him about tactile worldmaking not by iconic inclusion, as visioned in McLuhan’s “Global Village” and “Massage” metaphors, but by indexical selection?

McLuhan in Europe 2011 is an initiative of transmediale in collaboration with the Marshall McLuhan Salon / Embassy of Canada Berlin, Gingko Press, and RIM. Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha