Marshall mcluhan

      The medium is the massage: an inventory of effects 

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June 2009


      This video project took shape like most others in Cultural Farming.  I was simply browsing the search term “McLuhan” when I came across links to the audio album The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects.  The vinyl album was released by Columbia Records in 1968 as an additional mediation to the book of the same name published by Marshall McLuhan just a year before.  With the book, Quenton Fiore, a graphic designer remixed McLuhan’s words with images.  Similarly, the audio album (including Jerome Agel) mixed McLuhan’s words with sounds. 

      Finding this album came as a complete personal surprise.  I immediately wanted to visualize it.   And why not?  The audio album was already a mash-up -- an aural montage of the first order.  McLuhan was in clear command of the “densities” of media immersion.  All I wanted to do was to “perfume” his audio with complimentary imagery.  But how would I do it?   Gesamtkunstwerks?   I decided to simply mix McLuhan’s soundtrack with other media contemporary to McLuhan’s day.

      “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” 

For me, McLuhan is always black and white -- not color -- in both message and medium.  While color TV technologies had been available well before this period, it was only during the late 60’s and early 70’s that color TV gained household currency.  And, as mentioned above, video was also making equally strong impressions in art worlds.  Thus when considering how to ethnographically visualize this old vinyl audio album, I made several decisions based upon McLuhan’s perspective:

  1. - I would employ McLuhan’s album audio in its entirety -- start to finish --       

       as he made it.

-  I would incorporate extra McLuhan video clips inside the album audio.

  1. - I would make the video completely black and white as McLuhan did

      with his publications.

  1. - I would use art/industry clips as the expressive potential of media of

      McLuhan’s day.  (Flux Films, Internet Archive, WGBH, CBC, etc.)

  1. - I would try to visually mimic McLuhan’s demonstration of how modern

      media are extensions of human senses.

  1. - I would use very little special visual effect other than typical cut,

      dissolve and fade. 

-  I would try to re-situate McLuhan within his (historical) media-worlds.

-  I would have McLuhan speak... through my pictures.

                                “Nostalgia is the show-business of today.”



      I was born in 1953 on a farm deep inside the vast mid-western landscape.  The Korean War was winding down.  Sergei Eisenstein had been dead for five years.  Dziga Vertov would die in 8 months.  Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, already performing ethnographic film for almost 20 years, were returning to their exotic locales like Papua New Guinea to study the dramatic changes from exposures to a wider world.  Richard Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was 30 years old.  However, ethnographic filmmaker, Jean Rouch, was just beginning to incorporate portable cameras with synchronous sound and departing from purely descriptive cinema for a more constructed synthetic approach to recording African rituals.


      But of course, I knew none of this.  I was a farm kid.  I had cornfields, woods and my dog.  Yet throughout the 1960’s my mother and I habitually consumed TV news together.  Every night we would sit and watch and then discuss at commercial breaks what it was we had just seen.  These were the times of Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Roger Mudd, John Chancellor, Harry Reasoner, Howard K. Smith, Frank Reynolds, Edward Newman.  Together my mother and I sat entranced by the possibilities of having the entire world seemingly delivered to our farm by men so earnest, intelligent, clear spoken and insightful.


      In 1967, at 14 years of age, I joined a church-sponsored school bus pilgrimage to a big city, Detroit, with thousands of other kids to see the new musical sensation The Monkees perform to a capacity crowd in old Cobo Hall.  I recall very little of the concert, but to this day I vividly remember our yellow school bus driving through block after block after endless block of utter destruction.  Major portions of Detroit had been burned to the ground just weeks earlier by an uprising of Black Americans.  The devastation was profound.  Why hadn’t I seen this, this way, on TV news?  Detroit was but hours from my home – but it was a media world away... as with most all the complexities of 1968


      In the spring of 1969 my mother did the unthinkable, she splurged our meager family savings on a very modern color TV-HiFi stereo combination.  It came in a coffin-sized colonial-styled cabinet.  There were sliding louvered doors to conceal the TV screen.  I had never seen such a combination of media-technology-style.  She said she did it so we could watch the upcoming moon landing in color.  As a junior in high school I spent hours on the floor in front of this fancy new media machine --headphones on-- listening to the new Woodstock triple album, while watching TV with the sound turned off.  I came of age right there – learning about drugs, sex, Vietnam, and myself.


      And, of course, like so many other youth of the time, I joined a rock band lead-singing tunes like Purple Haze, Sky Pilot, and Jumpin’ Jack Flash.  And after winning $150 in a neighborhood battle-of-the-bands contest, our winnings went to purchasing a new thing called a “strobe-light”, fully understanding that unique presentation is the key to every engaging performance.  My senior year of high school (1970-71) was filled with many other personal firsts.  I saw my very first theatrical performance, a college production of Death of a Salesman.  I remember being so shaken, I cried in the audience as Willy Loman struggled to comprehend his world.  I went on my first field trip to an art museum.  I saw an opera for the first time.  I was an incredibly clueless farm boy, but deeply curious.  The world seemed to be a thousand dots – and I wondered if they could be connected. 


      But being poor folk, my options after high school were limited.  In order to advance my education, my mother took a secretarial position at a small nearby college so I would be charged only half-tuition.  It was 1971 and my first time living on my own.  I discovered beer.  A lot of beer.  And a lot of pot.  My grades plummeted and I fell to academic probation after my first year.  Over that summer to pay rent I worked the night shift at a local bakery, which allowed time to watch the Nixon-Watergate hearings play out every day on TV. 

      But to continue forward in university I needed a quick GPA fix.  Someone mentioned the theatre department as an easy pathway to grade inflation.  I enrolled in the introductory course as a lark, Theatre 101, but the joke was on me.  I exploded.  I had finally found something, stagecraft, that whispered to every part of my body.  Backstage became my home.  I took every available theatre production course offered, and then, I transferred to the Arts and Media department.  It was there, amongst life-drawing, cartography, and animation classes, in 1973, that I first handled a 1/2” reel-to-reel portable video camera.   I loved it, but it didn’t speak to me as intimately as the performance of theatre.  It would be another 30 years until I touched a video camera again.


  *** There is little preciousness in the account above for my story is far from uncommon.  Indeed, an entire youthful generation enacted and embodied very similar rights-of-passage through ‘new’ media, which even then saturated all of daily life.  Mine would be an extraordinary tale if somehow it had been otherwise.

      And, it was during these not-so-distant times that Marshall McLuhan came to fame as an academic/media celebrity.  He inspired awe, bewilderment, stupefaction and derision with his intellectual gymnastics.  Even in the faraway farmlands of the midwest, I knew of him through TV and LIFE magazine.   Indeed, he was everywhere... as electric light itself.    (McLuhan Audio, 1971)


Paperback Book - 1967

Vinyl Audio Album - 1968

Click the image BELOW to hear McLuhan’s audio album -- with images.





An American

resident of Canada, experimenting with new forms of critical media ethnography in Cultural Farming.


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