From the film Picnic in Space (1967) by Marshall McLuhan. Director: Bruce Bacon

Media and its messages

Symposium on the legacy of Marshall McLuhan

3.12 2011 – 4.12 2011


What is a medium? Have we finally moved beyond the confines of the inherited artistic media into a ”post-medium condition,” a development further enhanced by digital technologies? Or are artistic mediums rather to be understood as resulting from artistic operations, in the sense that they would have a temporary and strategic mode of existence?

In many respects, these questions originate in the 19th century debates that pitted painting against photography. This was the first fundamental crisis of the system of the fine arts, and was to be followed by innumerable others throughout the unfolding of modernism. But they also resonate with problems of media emanating from another discursive horizon, i.e. the theory and practices of “media” in contemporary information technology as it has evolved from the 1960s onwards. While on the some level this development has occurred independently of the practices of the visual arts, it has also intersected with them in many cases.

The symposium Media and its messages brings together these two questions. The first day takes its cues from three major exhibitions organized by the Moderna Museet in 2011—the first devoted the history of photography, the second to the painting of Turner, Monet, and Twombly, and the third to the legacy of Marcel Duchamp – and is dedicated to the idea of medium in art. The second day takes its point of departure in the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, and also celebrates his 100th anniversary. His theory of the media, while it is just as contested as it is celebrated, forms the inevitable backdrop for most current attempts to theorize the media in an generalized sense that includes all forms of human interaction and communication. Re-reading his work in the light of current developments may shed light not only on our recent past, and in this sense contribute to an archeology of the present media situation, but also create the possibility for new exchanges between the arts and the digital media landscape.

Schedule 3-4 December

Saturday 3 December

11:00-11:10 Welcome
11:10-12:00 Thierry de Duve: Duchamp the Messenger of Art Unlimited
12:00-12:50 Gabriele Guercio: Picasso as a Post-Media Artist?
12:50-13:30 Micropanel
13:30-14:10 Lunch
14:10-15:00 Beatriz Colomina: Manifesto Architecture: From ZANG TUMB TUMB to Twitter.
15:00-15:50 Mette Kia Krabbe Meyer: Photography in the age of its digital reproduction
15:50-16:30 Micropanel
16:30-18:00 Bookrelease Another story. Bar.

Sunday 4 December

11:00-11:10 Welcome
11:10-12:00 Richard Cavell: Re-Mediating the Medium
12:00-12:50 Douglas Coupland: New Brains for the Twenty-First Century
12:50-13:30 Coffeebreak
13:30-14:00 Film: Picnic in Space by Marshall McLuhan
14:00-14:50 Branden W. Joseph: Muzak and Biomusic
14:50-16:00 Micropanel and conclusion


Richard Cavell is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Chair of the Program in Canadian Studies at the University of British Columbia. His most recent book McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography has been hailed as a significant new departure in studies of spatial and multimedia dimensions of culture. Current books in progress are devoted to Canadian attitudes toward the Cold War and to the acoustic environments of postmodernity.

Beatriz Colomina is Professor of Architecture and Founding Director of the Program in Media and Modernity at Princeton University. She is the author of Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media, Sexuality and Space and Domesticity at War. Recently she curated with a team of Ph.D. students from Princeton the exhibition Clip/Stamp/Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X-197X, which opened at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York and traveled to, among others, the CCA in Montreal, Documenta 12, the Architectural Association in London, Norsk Form in Oslo. The catalogue of the exhibition, Clip/Stamp/Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X-197X, co-edited with Craig Buckley, has just been published. Her next research project is X-Ray Architecture: Illness as Metaphor.

Douglas Coupland is an novelist of, among others, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Life After God, Microserfs, All Families are Psychotic and the biography Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! He is also a visual artist with focus on the corrupting and seductive dimensions of pop culture. He has been collaborating with PLANT Architect for a new national monument in Ottawa, The Memorial, that will be erected for the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation in 2012.

Thierry de Duve is a Professor of aesthetics and art history at the Département d’arts plastiques de l’Université Lille 3. He has been a visiting professor at Sorbonne, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University, and was the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Distinguished Visiting Professor in Contemporary Art in the History of Art Department at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include Pictorial Nominalism; On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp, Clement Greenberg Between the Lines and Kant After Duchamp.

Gabriele Guercio is an independent writer living in Milan. He has a doctorate in art history from Yale University and has lectured at the Universities of Rome and Naples. He has been a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery and a recepient of a J. P. Getty Postdoctoral Fellowship in the History of Art and the Humanities. Editor of Art after Philosophy and After by Joseph Kosuth and De Dominicis, Raccolta di scritti sull’opera e l’artista, he has written on modern and contemporary art as well as the history of art theory.

Branden W. Joseph received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1999. His first book, Random Order: Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-Garde, examined all aspects of the artist’s development from 1951 to 1971 from a theoretical perspective drawing from Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Georges Bataille. Joseph’s area of specialization is post-War American and European art, focusing particularly on those individuals and practices that cross medium and disciplinary boundaries between visual art, music, and film. He is also a founding editor of Grey Room, a scholarly and theoretical journal of architecture, art, media, and politics published quarterly by MIT Press since the fall of 2000.

Mette Kia Krabbe Meyer is a research librarian at the Department of Maps, Prints and Photographs at The Royal Library in Copenhagen. She is responsible for collecting, digitization, research and communication in the image collection. In 2004 she defended her PhD thesis at the University of Copenhagen, entitled Haunted. The being of things and the mechanics of the body in the photographic universe of advertising, art and occultism, Denmark 1910‐1950. Her publications include Foetal attraction. Om fosterbilleder og opfattelsen af det ufødte liv (Visuel kultur. Viden, Liv, Politik. Hans Dam Christensen og Helene Illeris (ed.)); Objets flottants (Images re-vues, No. 4); Et direkte udsnit af virkeligheden. 1920ernes rene fotografi (Dansk Fotografihistorie. Mette Sandbye (ed.)). She is a board member in LFF, Landsforeningen til bevaring af Foto og Film.


Richard Cavell: Re-Mediating the Medium

What can media theory tell us about the “post-medium” condition? One answer to the question “What has become of the traditional artistic media?” is that they have been remediated by forms such as photography, performance art, installation. Remediation—the process whereby a previous medium becomes the content of a new medium—was the central principle of McLuhan’s foundational media theory, and my paper addresses McLuhan’s notion that electronic mediation would result in an increasing inter-mediation of artistic forms both generically and hierarchically. Focusing on McLuhan’s 1968 book Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting, my paper demonstrates how the book contests Lessing’s 1766 proposal in Laocoön of the distinction between temporal artistic forms (poetry, or narrative art in general) and spatial forms (sculpture, or the visual arts generally). Interest in Lessing was revived in the 1960s by Greenberg’s insistence on the primacy and purity of painting as a medium, an insistence that was in direct response to McLuhan’s celebration of the inter-medial. My paper traces this debate through Rosalind Krauss’s contemporary iteration of medium specificity to the present moment, when digital technologies pose the question of intermediation anew. At the present moment, however, it is not simply that the digital has supervened traditional artistic boundaries, but that art shares a platform with fashion and society. As McLuhan’s theories propose, art has become environmental.

Beatriz Colomina: Manifesto Architecture: From ZANG TUMB TUMB to Twitter

The history of the avant-garde (in art, architecture, literature) can’t be separated from the history of its engagement with the media. It is not just the avant-garde used media to publicize their work. The work didn’t exist before its publication. This paper focuses on the last 100 years of architectural manifestoes as they migrate from printed media to new media and beyond.

Douglas Coupland: New Brains for the Twenty-First Century

I’ll be discussing three things: 1/ The process of writing the biography and how it altered my perceptions of McLuhan, culture, ideas, the body, personality and interiority: what goes on inside the head. 2/ How those shifts made me rethink what I think about theory, most pressingly postmodernity versus media theory. 3/ My own work as a writer and artist and how I see the above two topics mapping onto what I do, and onto what others do.

Thierry de Duve: Duchamp the Messenger of Art Unlimited

It started in the sixties: as Duchamp’s rising star eclipsed Picasso’s and more and more people began to speak of a “post-Duchamp art world”, awareness grew that anything could be art. From this day on, the dissolution of the arts (in the plural) into art (in the singular), and the possible disappearance of medium-specificity into what Rosalind Krauss has dubbed the “post-medium condition”, have been on the agenda. But since when was it the case that that anything could be art? What did it mean in the sixties? And what does it mean, now? What was at stake then? And now? I shall argue that the time has come for a reinterpretation that sees Duchamp not as the author but as the messenger of a sea change in the institution we call “art”.

Gabriele Guercio: Picasso as a Post-Media Artist?

I propose to explore whether Picasso’s practice may be connected with the idea of “Generic Creativity,” by which expression I mean the belief that the creative is a faculty common to all human beings and thus it does not need a specialized field or medium to excert itself. Throughout the last century, the widespreading of such a belief in Western artistic culture gave rise to a true paradigm that took over the two previously dominant paradigms of the Beaux-Arts, established in eighteenth-century France, and of Art Tout Court, arising in the context of German Idealism at the turn of the nineteenth-century.

In particular my talk addresses the question of whether Picasso may be regarded a “post-media” artist. A 1913 photo of his Paris studio shows an assemblage in which artistic and non-artistic elements are chaotically interconnected. The notion that anything may pass as work of art is already conveyed by this key image. Focussing on the photo my talk moves first backward, exploring the nineteenth-century bent toward the Generic as arising in authors such as Courbet, Nietzsche, Riegl, and Croce, and then forward, discussing how and why the twentieth-century affirmation of Generic Creativity is quite an ambivalent phenomenon.

Rightly in view of the ambivalence of his own career, Picasso offers a valuable opportunity to explore the contradictions that affect Generic Creativity and the so called “post-medium condition.” Instead of fulfilling its promise of egalitarism and freedom, the advocacy of the Generic risks reflecting the new demands of labor in neoliberist societies. However, at least in some cases, Picasso’s works seem to suggest a way out of such impasse.

Branden W. Joseph: Muzak and Biomusic

This talk will discuss the emergence and development of “biomusic” in the late-1960s and 1970s within the context of more well-known practices, such as Muzak and the sound installations of Max Neuhaus. At stake was an epistemological shift in the notion of advanced musical practice—from “experimental music” to what composer Manford L. Eaton termed “experiential music”—as it was understood to address and impact the intellect and physiology of the listener. The larger conception of music as a distinct art form was here understood to cede before an implicitly audiovisual feedback loop that engaged with the “real” of the body as against the “imaginary” of (audiovisual) representation and the “symbolic” domain of the musical score. Ultimately, the notion of biomusic proposed a new conception of the listening subject in line with cybernetic and proto-cybernetic models developing within the post-World War II era.

Mette Kia Krabbe Meyer: Photography in the age of its digital reproduction

The question of whether photography is an art form or not — much debated in aesthetics in the late 19th century — lost much of its relevance in the arts in the 20th century when certain photographs began to enter fine art museums. Today the most lively debates concerning photography as a work of art take place among lawyers and not artists or critics. In many countries today photography is protected by copyright laws and some parties wish to see this protection enforced.

What are the consequences for the digitization and making the collections of libraries, archives and museums available? And giving access to the public, to historians, and artists of today working with photography, film and other sources in an archival art practice? I will address these questions in relation to my experience in the stewardship of the image collections of The Danish Royal Library. How did the collections originate? What was collected, by whom and for whom? What are the possibilities, the problems and the challenges related to the photographic collection in the digital era?

Contact: John Peter Nilsson, curator