21 July 2005

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - July 20 - Janine Marchessault - Screens

Screens are a metaphor for consciousness, embodying the material practices of consciousness, as film makers and film scholars have known for a very long time. Yesterday’s McLuhan lecturer, Janine Marchessault from York University, uses McLuhan’s work in her examination of the connections between screens and consciousness as a way of connecting the actions of the present to the context of history. For Marchessault (and many others of us), McLuhan’s methodology provides a vehicle to understand what’s (really) going on, beyond what is obvious. Thus, she situates concrete uses of contemporary screens and technology within a historical context, specifically looking at Canada’s Expo 67, and within that context, the marvel that was the Labyrinth pavilion.

It was, according to Marchessault, “the most impressive and successful of all the multi-screen exhibits at Expo 67.” Indeed, the Expo during Canada’s centennial year was a formidable showcase of audio-visual technology and experimentation. Multiple-screen exhibits were the order of the day long before today’s ubiquitous “video-walls.” Multiple split-screens, screen components that moved independent of one another, screens that provided texture and depth, 360 degree “circlevision” screens that put the audience at centre ice during a hockey game (among other illusions), and Czechoslovakia’s “Kino-automat” – interactive theatre with audience choice of plot forks with involvement of the (live) actor who is depicted on-screen, all explored the new vistas of participatory (albeit in a rudimentary fashion) cinema.

The site and pavilions of Expo 67 itself were conceived and constructed as the epitome of urban modernity – dematerialized culture, expressed in ephemeral, moveable, impermanent, relocatable structures, characterizing the flexibility of a city in motion.

The Labyrinth pavilion was specifically designed as an impermanent, architected environment that demonstrated the relationships among between architectural theory, urban theory and media theory. According to McLuhan, communications media create environments that are inherently biased, that is, they impose their own assumptions on the user, thereby transforming the user(s) and the relationships among the users. McLuhan called for the creation of anti-environments – both physical, and cognitive – to uncover these biases, or, as he called them, hidden ground effects. One way, among many, to accomplish this is to create “hybrid media” that reveal these new forms. Marchessault draws our attention to the closing paragraph from chapter 5 (“Hybrid Energy”) of Understanding Media:
The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. For the parallel between two media holds us on the frontiers between forms that snap us out of the narcissus-narcosis. The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses.

Marchessault connects the iconic 1960s architecture of Buckminster Fuller to the development of expanded cinema in that era. The notion of a non-linear universe courtesy of Einstein was entering the common consciousness. Fuller reflected this expansion of thinking in his design and construction of non-linear spaces, Expo’s famous geodesic dome being exemplary. Expanded cinema likewise creates a new sense of space, consciousness and simultaneity as visualized on screen. Both of these observations are completely consistent with McLuhan’s writings on the non-linear “allatonceness” of acoustic space. Indeed, Expo 67 was the first world exposition to transcend the industrial age strictures of iron, steam and automobile (that characterized three previous Expos) to feature the “new media” of multi-modal tactile imagery as new ways of experiencing the world, reflecting an expanding conception of reality. Synaesthetic cinema relates directly to the characteristically 1960s experience of psychedelia and the expansion of mind and awareness.

“Television is the software of the earth, obsolescing cinema as documentary art,” observes Marchessault. As enacted at Expo 67, screens in their myriad experimental forms become architecture, reflecting the new medium of television that (at that time, at least) is reflexive and ubiquitous, part of an imploding picture of the earth enabled by the uncontrollable simultaneity of satellite connection.

When considered as environmental, cinema becomes less “theatrical” and more realistic, and therefore complex. This shift in perception of the nature of cinema was exemplified by Canada’s National Film Board, shifting their focus from showing their films in theatres to television. As “the medium is the message,” this shift affected the nature of what was shown – namely Canada and Canadians – shifting from a theatrical portrayal to a realistic one. At the time, television brought the (real) outside world into our living rooms.

The Labyrinth project was the NFB’s innovation at Expo, featuring large screen projection, simultaneous multi-screen recording and projection, and the introduction of “vertical editing,” that is, images that connected across multiple, horizontally and vertically stacked screens. Greater participation was demanded from the viewing audience in making the requisite connections among the screens, increasing the cognitive mobility of the audience, and reflecting the mobility of reality itself. The concept originated from Colin Lowe’s idea of environmental cinema. His original conception had the audience looking down through a glass floor to see an aerial view of Montreal from above. The idea was that the audience would have the effect of moving through space. As it was actually built, Labyrinth was comprised of three chambers.

Chamber 1 was designed with balconies overlooking two screens, one on the floor and the other vertical on one wall. The audience had to lean over to see screen on floor below. Often there were two images that had to be connected to complete the scene, such as a child on the vertical screen feeding a goldfish below. Chamber 2 was comprised of a maze of mirrored glass with lights and sounds that respond to people moving through the zig-zag path. The sounds combined human, animal and technology sounds, in order to create chaos, confusion and sense of losing oneself. The third chamber was a regular theatre with the seating in balconies. There were five screens in crucifix form (i.e. one in the centre, and one connected to the centre’s top, bottom, left and right) showing various images comprising life rituals and experiences, and found stories from a variety of cultures. The film was edited both vertically and horizontally, thereby creating complex composite images that necessitated audience participation to complete the total image, in true cool media fashion.

Labyrinth’s synaesthetic cinema created a sensory training ground for the global city and global citizen, demonstrating an expanded consciousness of the global cultural plurality that was consistent with multi-cultural focus of Canada in 1967. The relationships and clashes among the five screens of the third chamber became a metaphor (in McLuhan sense of a transformational agent) for the experience of the global village’s chaos, emergent experiences, and allatonceness, and presaged the culture of the internet. As we are now discovering, the global village is a space of experiences.

Carolyn Guertin’s response began by observing that transformative architecture may have been new to cinema in 1967, but was indeed an old concept in tradition and literature, pointing to Lewis Carroll’s classic, Alice in Wonderland, as a labyrinth that created an immersive space. She related the depth created by labyrinthine walls on what was once an open surface to the depth experience that hyperlinked new media attempts to create via internet technologies in cyberspace. Where depth of field in cinema involved the convergence of lines of light, depth of field for the online screen environment can be related to the depth of search, depth of time, or the depth of hyperlink tracking, as de Kerckhove observes.

Guertin observes that Labyrinth in 1967 had viewers, not interactors, in the sense of today’s contemporary interactive media. In fact, she makes the claim that Labyrinth was experimental, but ultimately its own dead end, since there were no follow-ons. The reason, she says, is that Labyrinth was not interactive.

While I understand Guertin’s claim, particularly from the ground of her work, I don’t necessarily agree that it is a completely useful claim to make. Considering Labyrinth from the ground of media temperature, it was a very cool experience for the audience relative to their active participation and completion. In this way, it was cinema (at the time, a hot medium) attempting to cool itself to become television-like (at the time, a cool medium). The audience connecting and completing the images to create a narrative environment is seen today in gaming environments that, I would suggest, has some of its multi-modal roots in experiments that began at Expo 67.

Guertin continues with an interesting observation: Synaesthesia is to the body what metaphor is to the mind – a way of transforming one thing (concept or sense) into another. Synaesthesia is thus used by the environmental creator (cinematographer, cyberspace designer) to confuse the mind, thereby creating a sense of immersion in acoustic space. Analogue immersive environments are psychologically transformational, as is art. The idea behind both art and immersive environments is to create a space that attempts to transcend dimensions, times, and spaces, and to link various experiences of the world in ways that transcend physicality. Simultaneity in the analogue world shifts to instantaneity in the digital.

The second responder, Dominique Scheffel-Dunand queries the metaphor of screen and cinema as ways of understanding the metaphors – that is, transformations – of our experience. Screens, she says, expand the collective memory and collective consciousness. In the past, theatrical cinema created common cultural experiences. She now asks, what are the effects of private (computer or game) screens and media? What effects do audience involvement, creative additions, and “tampering” with the original artefact engender in the audience itself as they remix, remake, and these pre-constructed (or should I say, partially constructed) environments? What are the constraints (if any) on these changes that will still allow us to afford collective remembrance, and a collective consciousness that is enabled by today’s instantaneity?

These, I think, are important and significant questions, as collective cultural touchstones become at once tribalized within apparently fragmented subcultures, but paradoxically, enacted as collective cultural experiences in the act of remaking and remixing the artefacts. In other words, the cultural commonality no longer inheres in the artefacts, but in the act of making (and remaking). This, of course, once again opens conversations about intellectual property, consumer becoming producer, participatory culture, and (he chuckles to himself) the role of museums and artefacts in contemporary culture and society.

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