He coined the oxymoron "the global village" and predicted the impact of the Internet on society. Media guru Marshall McLuhan would've turned 100 this year; Berlin reviews his influence on European art and media culture.
McLuhan foresaw a dramatic change in the way we communicate
"Marshall McLuhan is taken far too seriously," Marshall McLuhan said in a 1967 television interview. For a man who was wary of his own wisdom - claiming it was impossible to have a point of view in the electric age - the Canadian visionary sure did one heck of a job at becoming the quintessential media guru of the 20th and 21st centuries.
As an educator, philosopher and scholar, it's safe to say that McLuhan predicted how we now interact with technology and, even more accurately, how media and the Internet have seeped into the everyday facets of our lives.
"We shape our tools and then our tools shape us," McLuhan once said. He's also the proprietor of well-known slogans like "the medium is the message" and the oxymoronic "global village."
Decades before its existence, Marshall McLuhan identified the "new" technology - which would eventually become the World Wide Web - so precisely it was as though he had interacted with it intimately. As an English professor turned media philosopher, McLuhan left behind a legacy for scholars, theorists, media analysts and artists to dissect and rehash.
McLuhan in Europe 2011
In celebration of the centenary year - his 100th birthday would have been on July 21 - the Marshall McLuhan Salon at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin, in collaboration with the Berlin-based Transmediale digital art festival, launched the cultural network project called McLuhan in Europe 2011. Throughout the year, the project explores, critiques and celebrates McLuhan's impact on European art, media and culture.
McLuhan (left) questioned ideas rather than trying to sell them
"Art at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it," said McLuhan in 1969. Indeed, the works included in the pan-European McLuhan project are pushing future buttons during dozens of events in over 10 countries, bringing together academics and artists.
The Electronic Man project from Rome, for example, produces a "connective global body" in a real-time performance that takes place simultaneously all over the world using QRCodes and smart phone applications. Meanwhile, the VASA Workshop: New Media Theory, McLuhan and Contemporary Reality contemplates the pitfalls of the Internet, such as surveillance of personal data, excessive commercialization and useless information.
Other legs of the project include a conference in Liverpool that touches on McLuhan's role in the history of media art, and a seminar in Brussels set to explore McLuhan's musings on media to be anything made by humans, from cars to political systems to mere ideas.
Straight jacket of the Western mind
The McLuhan in Europe 2011 project started as a twinkle in the eye of Canadian architect Stephen Kovats, former director of Transmediale and McLuhan disciple. With media artist and fellow Canadian Michelle Kasprzak onboard as project director, Kovats' project took shape in corners of Europe where McLuhan's scholarship had already influenced art and academia.
The reason for this, Kasprzak thinks, is not just McLuhan's interdisciplinary teachings but also his appeal as a generational pop culture figure. "Some people remember seeing him on TV and the rest of us are seeing him on YouTube for the first time," said Kasprzak. "And to the YouTube generation, what he's saying makes perfect sense."
In Europe, Kasprzak feels McLuhan's impact has to do with how the continent analyzes its own history and culture. "McLuhan is a nice gateway into rapid change. This is a continent with a real cultural way of life, where technology gets integrated in different ways," she said. "Using a McLuhan-esque analysis of why Europe is not just an older version of North America is really useful. He's a nice conduit into that."
Famous for his critiques on television - he was once accused of saying TV is undermining literacy - a large portion of the projects included in McLuhan in Europe 2011 come back to print. That's a little ironic when speaking about a media guru.
Gingko Press recently released a limited edition of McLuhan's COUNTERBLAST, a never-before published manifesto McLuhan had distributed as a hand-made "zine" in 1954, before the official version was released in 1969. The manifesto is full of his sprawling thoughts that bridge philosophical rants with beat poetry, like "the printed b(oo)k moth-eaten STRAIGHT-JACKET of the Western mind."
But even as a media oracle, McLuhan was intrinsically human and charismatic. "There's something about him that inspires personal reactions. As one of the first TV gurus, he really knew how to work it," said Kasprzak. "I think that has endless appeal for people who are interested in the history of media and how it developed over time."
The Internet has contributed to the creation of a 'global village'
Indeed, McLuhan was the real deal, questioning ideas rather than trying to sell them.
The Canadian Embassy in Berlin has honored the McLuhan legacy by developing the Marshall McLuhan Salon, essentially a window into Canada. Located in the embassy, the Salon was opened in 2007 as a state-of-the-art digital multimedia learning and information center for teachers, students and the general public for research about McLuhan and his country.
The Salon now holds the most comprehensive collection in Germany of digitized audio-visual documentation on the media philosopher, as well as a library of his publications and the most influential books written about McLuhan and his work. Yet Andrea Bögner, technical coordinator of the Marshall McLuhan Salon, admits that only after his death in 1980 did Germany really begin to re-think McLuhan as a serious researcher.
Since this revival, Bögner has recognized a rising interest in McLuhan among German educational institutions that are using his theories as a basis for research in various fields, from art, literature and philosophy to technology, media studies and communications.
"It's interesting to see how this charismatic Canadian intellectual public figure has taken hold in Europe," commented Michelle Kasprzak. McLuhan's 100th birthday falls at the halfway point of the McLuhan in Europe 2011 project.
Click on the link below for more on Marshall McLuhan and his ideas.
Author: Melanie Sevcenko
Editor: Kate Bowen