[4 December 2008]
As I write this—staring at the screen, the blinking curser egging me on to be more productive, to be more eloquent, to express myself ever more quickly—I am reminded of the many poets in the past who have decried the cruelty of the blank page. No matter what one writes, it seems to fall short of the demand of the emptiness that one always confronts in that blank page, or this blank screen. As I write this, you are not here. I have no inkling of who you are and what you want from me. As you read this, staring at your computer screen, I am not there. I am no longer thinking these thoughts. I am not available to you for further discussion. We are marked for each other by our mutual absence—your absence as I write, mine as you read. We are connected, you and I, only through the medium of this electronic image, this modicum of data that has no materiality of its own but is only translated into a legible form by your computer screen. At any moment, you might turn away, the electricity might fail, your Internet connection might drop and our tenuous link will have been broken.
Our connection at this moment is not immediate; it is mediated. Indeed, it is doubly mediated inasmuch as language itself is a medium that serves to bridge (albeit imperfectly and while fulfilling demands of its own) the chasm that always lies between us. This communication is filtered through the medium of this image on your screen, surrounded by advertisements and links that I did not choose to bring to you, that I cannot foretell. These advertisements might be for products that I would not endorse, products that I might even find objectionable, and yet they become part of what you are taking in at the moment that you are reading these words. In as sense, they become part of this message; you and I become their unwitting accomplices.
But it would be disingenuous of me to claim that these advertisements distort my message or that they are merely the necessary detritus of our fleeting communication. They are as much a part of the communication as any of the words that I now write in your absence and that you now read in mine (two different “now”s mediated by this image, by this language). As Marshall McLuhan never tired of reminding us, “the medium is the message” or as he sometimes wrote, “the medium is the massage”. Reading these words on a computer screen (as opposed to reading it printed in a newspaper as opposed to hearing me speak these thoughts to you over the telephone as opposed to speaking with me in person) alters the message itself. Indeed there is no message without a medium. And no medium is innocent just as no message is innocent. All media are tendentious. And yet media are often self-effacing (hence “the massage”), always asking you to ignore their presence.
McLuhan’s thoughts concerning media suffuse the various essays, artworks, and interviews contained in the weighty new tome Buffalo Heads: Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers, 1973-1990, edited by Woody Vasulka and Peter Weibel. This impressive book was assembled for the exhibition Mindframes: Media Study at Buffalo 1973-1990 and documents the work and writings of a remarkable cadre of media artists and theorists associated with the Center for Media Study at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo (now the Department for Media Study at the University of Buffalo). The Center for Media Study, the first organization of its kind in the USA, was founded in 1972 by Gerald O’Grady. O’Grady, an English professor influenced by McLuhan, also founded the Educational Communications Center at SUNY and the public institution Media Study/Buffalo. Thus by 1973 there were three institutions under the stewardship of O’Grady, all in Buffalo and in constant communication, that were working toward exploring and furthering our understanding of media and developing their aesthetic, social, and political potential. Buffalo Heads illuminates a fascinating chapter in a history that continues to unfold, a history in which we are participating at this very moment in our mutual absence—I, the writer, and you, the reader.
The book opens with a preface by Peter Weibel that articulates the wonderfully rich historical moment in which Gerald O’Grady found himself in early 1970s Buffalo and that led him to cultivate ties with several fascinating thinkers, artists, and writers. An essay by John Minkowsky then discusses the exhibition, Mindframes, which was on display at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany from 16 December 2006 to 25 March 2007, featuring artworks, writings, and interviews of James Blue, Tony Conrad, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Steina, Woody Vasulka, and Peter Weibel. The exhibition contained roughly 400 hours of film and video and the curators designed the architectural layout of the show in order to reinforce but also to reinvent the artwork on display. That is to say, the exhibition space enters into the art and forges a new range of possibilities for one to interact with that art; the space and the art, wholly entwined, then involve the viewer in their complicity. Minkowsky’s careful description and the wonderful photographs of the exhibition document what is ultimately an ephemeral and almost unimaginable event. In this case, the vicarious experience is better than none at all.
Indeed this book is rife with vicarious experiences. The remainder of the volume consists of the writings of Gerald O’Grady and the artists whose work was on display in Mindframes interspersed with photographs of the people and their works. The essays are of varying degrees of complexity and interest. The essays are organized by author, beginning with O’Grady and then continuing with the artists. This is not the kind of book one reads cover to cover. Indeed it seems to reward a far more casual form of reading in which one flips to an essay, reads it carefully, and then ponders the ideas it contains. It is a book that demands slow consideration. But if given the time, many of the essays prove worth one’s trouble.
O’Grady’s essays are perhaps the most prosaic of the lot. His discussions mostly just lay out the projects behind his three institutions, the degree tracks he established, and the equipment and facilities he had at his disposal. No doubt such information is useful as documentation but it makes for less than compelling reading. O’Grady is at his best and most tantalizing in the two speeches in which he directly comes to grips with the writings and thoughts of his friend Marshall McLuhan. Here one gets a sense of what an engaging thinker O’Grady could be.
Other highlights of the collection include a bizarre interview/discussion among Gene Youngblood, Woody Vasulka, and Steina in which they try to come to terms with the smallest unit of meaning within video art, Tony Conrad’s essay “A Propaedeutic for Active Viewing” that claims that quality in art ought to be disparaged in preference for “difference”, the various interviews with filmmakers (including Godard) conducted by James Blue, and almost any of the writings of Peter Weibel—particularly the essay “Photo-Fake” in which Weibel debunks the notion that the photograph somehow captures reality unawares and can present the truly authentic.
Buffalo Heads is not a book for everyone. It is not a quick read even for those who are predisposed to be open to its subject matter. Some of the ideas expressed are rather dated (after all some of these writings are over 30 years old) but many remain prescient and deeply intriguing. Buffalo Heads is an intellectual challenge that, at the very least, will force its readers to contemplate media as extensions of our nervous systems, as McLuhan would have it, allowing us to reach and feel farther than we have heretofore been able to do—to reach out, to grope perhaps, for each other.