Robert Bean, 2010, “Voicewriter” from the Illuminated Manuscripts exhibit. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Media theorist and academic Marshall McLuhan is recognized throughout the global village for coining expressions like “global village.” Even now, 100 years after his birth, his theories about culture, media, and communications continue to be widely taught, reprinted, referenced, and commented on, making him one of the 20th century’s most-discussed thinkers. But no matter how relentlessly quotable McLuhan may be, his ideas are not only expressed through the written or spoken word. As this year’s CONTACT Photography Festival illustrates, they can be explored visually as well.
As she was running 2010’s festival, CONTACT’s artistic director Bonnie Rubenstein was simultaneously thinking ahead to this year’s and the two shows she knew for certain would be included: Edward Burtynsky’s Oil (which has been on display at the ROM since early April) and Suzy Lake’s Political Poetics. One is a naturalistic exploration of our society’s self-destructive reliance on oil, the other a more interpretive look at female identity, body, and beauty through today’s political and cultural perspectives. How the two were connected wasn’t obvious—at least not last year.
Robert Bean, 1970, “Innovation is Obsolete” from the Illuminated Manuscripts exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Library and Archives of Canada: MG31 D156 Vol.135–35 (1971) © The Estate of Marshall McLuhan.
But then she came across McLuhan’s interpretation of figure and ground—an idea taken from Gestalt psychology that a subject’s environment and cultural context changes our perception and experience of it, and that subject and context need to be understood together. McLuhan’s analogy in particular struck her. It uses the car as the figure that directly impacts the ground through its presence, requiring roads, signs, and—connecting directly to Burtynsky—the auto and oil industries.
“I thought, ‘My God, this can also frame Suzy Lake’s work,'” she says now, in the middle of the month-long photography festival, the largest of its kind in the world. “And because we need to engage the entire community, it had so much room for interpretation. There’s the Gestalt point of view, the perception of art theory, really so many different ways to explore the concept.”
Thus, the theme of 2011’s CONTACT Photography Festival became Figure and Ground, which brings together 159 projects to study how an image can alter our perception of a subject, while also probing the relationship between humans and nature. Some projects, at least for the duration of the festival, will literally alter the way we perceive our ground in the form of site-specific, nationwide public installations.
“I never studied his work academically at all, but of course he was always in my vocabulary,” Rubenstein reflects. “But the more [research] I did, the more I realized his influence [in photography].” Known mostly for his views about TV and prophecies of global communication and the internet, Rubenstein notes one essay in which McLuhan called a photograph a “brothel without walls” as especially inspirational for her. She began researching it in-depth for the theme of last year’s festival, Pervasive Influence, which examined McLuhan’s notion of the photograph as a permanent fixture in all aspects of life, eliminating the idea of a private space.
In the thematic statement on CONTACT’s website, Rubenstein writes, “In its simplest form, the theme Figure and Ground asks: What is our relationship to the environment?” Not the most provocative of queries, especially when compared to last year’s Pervasive Influence. Instead, in time for the year-long celebration of his centenary, 2011’s event is all about celebrating the man who made “cool” media hot. Now McLuhan is at the centre of the message and not only its observer. In fact, one of the primary exhibitions literally turns his words into art.
Halifax artist Robert Bean was already working on a McLuhan-inspired project, photographing his manuscripts from the Library and Archives Canada, when Rubenstein asked him to contribute it to CONTACT. The result is Illuminated Manuscripts, a site-specific project in McLuhan’s former seminar room at the Coach House on the U of T campus. A photographic timeline, it documents the evolution of technology from cutting edge to obsolete, beside the texts predicting their demise, in the very room McLuhan wrote them. The show positions McLuhan’s writings and technological theories as the figure against a ground of technological progress, illustrating just how astute his comments were for his time. In a sort of chicken-or-egg conundrum, we ask, would these changes have occurred if McLuhan hadn’t told of their possibility first?
“It’s important in Toronto that we celebrate McLuhan. I find that his impact is downplayed locally but celebrated globally. He’s one of the greatest thinkers to come out of Toronto; we have to realize how important his ideas are and increasingly so,” Rubenstein says. “That’s the goal of the centenary, to get his legacy back front and centre and make sure the significance of his writing is understood on a larger scale.”
To use another well-known quote: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But when the words you’re dealing with are McLuhan’s, perhaps only photos with the scope and strength of those in CONTACT are worth the exchange.