Sunday, October 7, 2012

Dancing the Book

So, it's well known in media ecology circles that The Medium is the Massage was McLuhan's bestseller, an innovative and experimental little book published in 1967 that combines McLuhan's words with images, photographs, cartoons, etc., with artistic design by Quentin Fiore who's listed as co-author, and produced by Jerome Agel (and the unusual idea of a book having a producer was itself unheard of). Not long ago, a new edition of the book was put out, featuring a new cover:

The success of this book led to several similar efforts to produce cheap paperbacks featuring the thought of contemporary intellectuals such as Buckminster Fuller, Carl Sagan, and Herman Kahn, combined with innovative graphic design, and this also included a sequel by the McLuhan/Fiore/Agel team entitled War and Peace in the Global Village:

So, earlier this year, a book entitled The Electric Information Age by Jeffrey Schnapp, co-authored by designer Adam Michaels, provides a historical review and analysis of this series of books.  Here's the official write-up:

The Electric Information Age Book explores the nine-year window of mass-market publishing in the sixties and seventies when formerly backstage players-designers, graphic artists, editors-stepped into the spotlight to produce a series of exceptional books. Aimed squarely at the young media-savvy consumers of the "Electronic Information Age," these small, inexpensive paperbacks aimed to bring the ideas of contemporary thinkers like Marshall McLuhan, R. Buckminster Fuller, Herman Kahn, and Carl Sagan to the masses. Graphic designers such as Quentin Fiore (The Medium Is the Massage, 1967) employed a variety of radical techniques-verbal visual collages and other typographic pyrotechnics-that were as important to the content as the text. The Electric Information Age Book is the first book-length history of this brief yet highly influential publishing phenomenon.

Now, back in 1967, McLuhan, Fiore, Agel, and some others including John Culkin, at that time a Jesuit priest and communication professor at Fordham University, went into a recording studio and made a record album also entitled The Medium is the Massage, loosely based on the book, but most certainly not an audiobook, as there would be no way to create an audio version of that highly visual work, even if audiobooks were common in those days, which they weren't. It's a bit of 60s-ish fun with audio, but also has some of McLuhan's best quips and quotes:

So, finally, this recently came to my attention via the Media Ecology Association discussion list, a new audio "album" of sorts (actually, a vinyl version is available), based on The Electric Information Age, with samplings from The Medium is the Massage recording, in a contemporary rendering that combines a bit of a rock sound with hip hop-related aesthetics. I'm sure someone more up on recent music trends could give a more precise rendering of the genres, and please feel free to do so in the comments section.  But in the meantime, apart from purchasing the LP or buying the MP3s, you can listen to the music online, and here is the player that they kindly allowed me to embed here on Blog Time Passing:

The Electric Information Age Album is attributed to a group called The Masses, and Jeffrey Schnapp provides the equivalent of liner notes, first giving some background on The Medium is the Massage recording, and then going on to say that it was

a free-standing remix: an acoustical roller-coaster ride through whispers and shouts, ethereal theorizing and Laugh-In humor, studio wizardry and lollipop clips, conversational chitchat and prophetic pronouncements. It prefigures the present LP just as The Medium is the Massage figures as the centerpiece of The Electric Information Age Book (TEIAB), the print exploration produced by Adam Michaels and myself on a window in the history of industrial paperbacks when they became sites for multimedia experimentation. The window remained open for less than a decade and the ludic pairing of print and sound was mostly ignored. Few heard in the McLuhan/Agel/Fiore soundtrack what Alan B. Cameron described on the pages of the Village Voice: “for the first time, techniques developed in electronic music and its forerunner musique concrète, applied to spoken narrative, […] the first guided tour through the paradoxes, problems, and possibilities of the auditory media.”

Sixties critics (Cameron aside) may have proved deaf. But THE MASSES have heard the call from the distant shore of another cybernetic age. Our reply takes the form of a vinyl bridge to The Medium is the Massage; a performed reading and reading performance of a book; an acoustical interface to TEIAB that we are calling The Electric Information Age Album (TEIAA).

Like the B-side on which it is built, this after-the-fact A-side, produced with Daniel Perlin, takes you on an inner trip into the interior of a volume that has been vocalized, chopped up, re-scripted and remixed. The spoken architecture of TEIAA (and of the works it inventories) takes varied forms, from page cues, lists, quotations, slogans and paragraphs. At times, the sound of the record refigures the very act of paging, providing a recurring rhythm track alongside the sounds of cities, bodies (some lifted from “the first spoken arts record you can dance to”), and the patter of printing — all layered with real and synthetic drumbeats, guitars and basses. Alternately remixed and massaged, the voice of McLuhan professes alongside that of other clued-in or clueless professors in a conversation that spans four and one half decades of media history and theory. The Book of the Now is a perpetual work in progress, so THE MASSES serve up little more than time grains on this mid-century vinyl platter.

What’s the difference between this “second spoken arts record you can dance to” and its 1967 predecessor? For all its pop fizz, the latter dangles its propositions and prepo­sitions, but seems to leave the body stumbling, fumbling for itself on the dance floor. In its labors of reworking, The Electric Information Age Album honors its predecessor while seeking to further advance its claims.

If nothing else, if all this sound and fury help in getting individuals to explore and understand McLuhan's thought and our shared media ecology approach, then it can be judged a great success. And the fact that you can dance to it is without a doubt a bonus. In all these different ways, we have broken out of typographic space, and retrieved and reworked new versions of acoustic space.  Let's just hope that this is just an expansion of possibilities, and not an indication that typographic space is irreparably broken, or stretched to the point that it's being torn apart. Maybe it is, though, but anyway, what the hey, let's dance!

No comments: