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Well, according to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. During the exhibition project McLuhan and the Arts, a two-day symposium organized by West Den Haag in the Royal Academy of Arts, an international panel tried to dissect and reMEDIAte McLuhan, while examining the changing role of literature and the arts as guides in times of technological advancement. Especially now, as the organizers stressed, it is important to ‘understand media’. The project is a continuation of the experimental colloquia on the thinking of Vilém Flusser, organized last year by Canadian filmmaker and curator Baruch Gottlieb and West Den Haag.

On the first day of the symposium, the auditorium was packed with a majority of art students, who were offered the opportunity to attend the symposium. Since not everybody is familiar with McLuhan, Florian Cramer took up the task to introduce the idea of the medium as the message and to contextualize McLuhan and his thoughts. In a clear presentation Cramer told the audience that McLuhan was the first to introduce the term ‘media’. McLuhan sees media not as we understand it today, but as a physical, but also mental extension of ourselves, as tools and technology. Media and technology are interchangeable terms in this regard. The message of the medium are the effects caused by, for example, new technology. But, McLuhan says that the message is the medium itself; it doesn’t matter what the content is, it is the medium that counts. McLuhan is therefore a very pragmatic thinker: he sees the message in an ontological way, instead of metaphysical.

Cramer further contextualized McLuhan and linked him to contemporary developments in philosophy. He told about his roots in cybernetics and its follow-up Actor-Network theory and more recently New Materialism. McLuhan was a man of grand narratives, the media were for him the driver of cultural history. Media themselves are the transformative force, not the content; think of for example bitcoins or open source activism.

2-day International Symposium (28 + 29 Sept 2017) with Jasper Bernes, Josephine Bosma, Florian Cramer, Richard Cavell, Baruch Gottlieb (moderator), Garnet Hertz, Dmytri Kleiner, Ganaële Langlois, Geert Lovink, Willem van Weelden and others.

The conversations among the other speakers that followed positioned McLuhan outside of academia, as a kind of avant-garde thinker in a depoliticized manner. Soon after, the discussion drifted from the problem of representation to McLuhan as petty bourgeois to cat memes. However, it was Florian Cramer as one of the few panel members, who tried to tie the discussion more to the specific interest of the audience and explained how his thinking can be revenant for the arts, for the students who were present. Applying McLuhan to the arts, you could think of systems, the processual and relational context, instead of content. Another example would be dealing with the white cube, performance art or institutional critique. According to McLuhan, artists were seismographs of culture; the others will follow.

Professor Richard Cavell held an interesting, but complicated lecture on composed theatre, acoustic spaces as interactive spaces, and how to be critical. Cavell’s lecture caused some tensions in the synthetic discussion that followed, where it even got personal on some points and occasionally left me with sympathetic awkwardness. Cavell for example stated that we are embodied by Facebook, but ultimately he had to admit that he does not own a single social media account. Software developer and artist Dmytri Kleiner rightfully observed that the discussions were getting too abstract and drawing away from the more pressing issues. However he was ignored in the discussion. Only later on, lecturer Geert Lovink and professor-artist Garnet Hertz reconnected with the audience by talking about the critical making process in Hertz’s work, new media, and the way it should be taught at art schools. Hertz closed the discussion with some great advise for the art students: be bold, be courageous, apply for money and use your skills to make the world a better place.

2-day International Symposium (28 + 29 Sept 2017) with Jasper Bernes, Josephine Bosma, Florian Cramer, Richard Cavell, Baruch Gottlieb (moderator), Garnet Hertz, Dmytri Kleiner, Ganaële Langlois, Geert Lovink, Willem van Weelden and others

The disconnection with the audience and the arts showed in the amount of visitors the next day, which was only one-third of the previous day: a shame because the symposium could have reached a bigger audience if the connection with the arts would have been more prominent. The reduced attendance was the more sad as the topics of the second day did pointed more towards the arts and had the potential to provide fertile ground for the audience.

Jasper Bernes, Professor at Stanford University, held an interesting and enthusiastic talk on value and planning in the age of algorithms. He talked about the problem of social and economic planning as occured for example in the USSR, where transparency is opposed to control. Bernes claims that the aspect of control has fallen out of debates and is something we need look at again, especially in the age of Google and Facebook. At the end of his lecture he showed a fragment of a film that offered a glimpse into a grim future where we have an inserted patch in our brain to feel each other’s emotions directly, as an enhanced sense of empathy. The fragment stirs up some discussion on the future of labor to ultimately the artist as tagging along in protests, but not really participating. Bernes even goes as far as to say that art cannot make clear political statements, only if they are in social movements.

Moderator Josephine Bosma fiercely goes against this statement by arguing that artists work on different levels and we should not make generalizations about art. Consequently, the already present friction between the panel increases further and further. Willem van Weelden, mentor at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, steered the conversations more towards the present time and asked how we can continue a political fight if we lost the war against intelligence services, big corporations or governments anyway: an interesting question that was unfortunately left unanswered.

Ganaele Langois fascinated the audience with a clear and intriguing story on textile as an early form of databases and search engine

Connected to this discussion was the lecture of Ganaele Langois from York University, Canada, who was trying to find a new weapon in textile as anti-media. She fascinated the audience with a clear and intriguing story on textile as an early form of databases and search engines, as a tool for recording information.

Textile is another kind of literacy, a material that resists and can communicate, but can also engender social change. Langois’ lecture was by far the most refreshing and inspiring one of the symposium that left the audience and panel in awe. At the end of the symposium, a synthetic discussion and exercise were organized in a cybernetic kind of fashion, where the audience had to provide feedback into the system of the symposium. The remaining audience was placed in a circle and Dmytri Kleiner asked the question: ‘WTF is the message?!’ Yeah, good question… Since no one really had an answer, the audience had to provide feedback on what they took or learned from the symposium and share it with 2 and later 4 people. In total there were around 6 groups that had to present one topic they found most interesting in 4 minutes and 33 seconds, the same amount of time as John Cage’s famous performance. The synthetic exercise was the most fun, engaging and productive part of the symposium, and should have been introduced way earlier in the program to connect with the audience and engage them in the discussions.

Nicolas Maigret (FR), Maria Roszkowska (PL/FR) Clément Renaud (FR) & Hongyuan Qu (PRC), ‘Shanzhai Archaeology’, 2017, Mobile phone sales kiosk with Shanzhai phones, HD video loop


But to really find the answer to ‘WTF is the message’ I can highly recommend visiting the exhibition at West, which has been beautifully curated by Baruch Gottlieb and West’s director Marie-José Sondeijker with contemporary examples of the medium as the message. The exhibition shows the diversity of McLuhan’s theory and how it is relevant for us and artists today. The center of the exhibition space is dedicated to lectures by McLuhan on televisions, where the baseline is set to understand the surrounding works, such as his publications and newsletters (that are almost fluxus-like artworks) or a cybernetic video work by Harun Farocki. Another video work by ¡Mediengruppe Bitnik showed an investigation into technology, freedom and the disassociation of information by allowing a robot to shop on the darknet. The robot bought items such as xtc pills and a fake Louis Vuitton handbag. These items were showed as rubber castings since the police confiscated the goods after hearing about the project. Another work that dealt with cybernetics is Thomas Bégin’s Larsen Surf, where a complex system of stings attached to speakers, amplifiers, the walls and the string of the guitars, created a circuit that feeds back into itself, generating a beautiful rhythm on its own.

Thomas Bégin (CA), Larsen Surf, 2013, Electric guitars, amplifiers, speakers, cotton string, alligator clip cables

Thomas Bégin (CA), performance

West Den Haag is one of the few institutions in The Netherlands that takes on an investigating role and addresses thinkers that are not obvious choices. The symposium complemented the exhibition in a way that aimed to provide a deeper and broader understanding of McLuhan. Even though the connection with the arts was often lost in the symposium, it was reconnected in the exhibition. Contrary to what McLuhan says, that the medium is the message, I would argue that the message is that there is a message, as can be seen in the exhibition.

FEEDBACK #1. Marshall McLuhan and the arts. A Touring Project, with Programs in The Hague, Berlin, Paris & Toronto, West, Groenewegje 136 + West in Huis Huguetan, Lange Voorhout 34, Den Haag, 22.09.2017 — 19.11.2017

Corine van Emmerik

is art historian

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