Obsolescence is the moment of superabundance

I’m in Toronto, home of renowned Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan. 2011 also marks the centenary of McLuhan’s birth. There are therefore numerous events this year around the globe celebrating his legacy. The most interesting one here in Toronto that I have come across so far is ‘Illuminated Manuscripts’, a photo exhibition showing the work of Canadian artist Robert Bean. While looking at the exhibition I had a small chat with the artist about his art, McLuhan and media technologies more generally.

Bean, an artist, writer and teacher living in Halifax, Nova Scotia was commissioned to create a site-specific exhibition at the Coach House, The Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto. Tucked away behind various other bigger and bolder buildings the Centre for Culture and Technology was created on October 24, 1963 to keep Marshall McLuhan at the University of Toronto as he had received various other lucrative offers from foreign universities.

The House still remains more or less in the shape it was when McLuhan held his famous seminars through the 1970s. “McLuhan and one or more guests shared dialogue, ideas, controversy and explored truth and awareness, while students and other participants sat around them on their floor.”1 Even much of the furniture still in the house belonged to McLuhan. Curated by Bonnie Rubenstein, the Coach House indeed is the perfect place for hosting the exhibition.

Inside the Coach House

As Robert Bean explains: ‘Illuminated Manuscripts’ is a project about writing, archives and photography. It emphasizes the figure/ground relationship that is physically inscribed on the surface of Marshall McLuhan’s documents. Along with photographic works depicting the texture of McLuhan’s handwriting from the first draft of his seminal work ‘Understanding Media’, the exhibition also a variety of obsolete technologies from the 1920s – 1950s.

Most of the technologies that Robert Bean researched and photographed are from the collection of the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa and include such long gone devices as the ‘Monotype’ a typesetting machine, and the ‘Edison Voicewriter’ a voice-recording device intended to streamline the workflow of the contemporary office environment. With a McLuhanesque pop cultural reference, Bean points out this are the sort of technology used in Mad Men. The social and cultural impact of these dictation technologies became manifest in the gendered division of labour in office environments.

'Edison Voicewriter' photographed by Bean in 2010

The collection of photographs also include 4 intriguing works depicting some of the most important predecessors of modern day computing, the SAGE computer system, punch cards and the UNIVAC computer. SAGE, or the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment was the computerized command and control air defence system designed to protect North America from nuclear attack during the Cold War. The SAGE system was the largest, heaviest and most expensive computer system ever built. First used in the 18th century to control automatic looms, machine-readable punch cards transformed how we store data — freeing it from hand entry into ledgers and, ultimately, from human input. Popularized by the 1890 Census, punch cards held sway for more than 100 years and gave rise to IBM. 2 The UNIVAC on the other thand was the first commercially viable computer marketed to government and industry in the United States.

'Finger Apparatus' photographed by Bean in 2010
Bean depicts these obsolete technologies without any sort of interfering noise. They are what they are; neither glorified or depicted as nostalgic relics from a time long gone. They are shot in close ups without any context or other potentially visually disturbing cues competing for the viewers attention. For the younger generation these objects may seem strange and rather archaic and many will probably have no idea as to their original uses or workings (aha that’s what they did on Mad Men!). The slighter older generation will be reminded of the passing of time that eventually leads to the once new and exiting technologies loosing their allure. Everything eventually becomes obsolete. While these photographs make the viewer think of technologies in a potentially new way by forcing forgotten ordinariness into the foreground, these photos by stylistically resembling a catalogue from some Technical Museum can seem a bit repetitive. One device here, one device there. Some of the photos however, especially ‘The Noiseless Typewriter’ and ‘Finger Apparatus’, succeed in capturing some of the aura that only an original or the residue of something left behind may have, not just by the motive itself but also by the share scale, whiteness of the background and glossy paper used to show the obscure. It’s not that the viwer is given a chance of not noticing. What is fascinating is how once very ordinary and new media technologies regain some of their initial aura as time passes.

Just think of the Sony Walkman, now proclaimed an obsolete technology or dead media. With a life span of 31 years, the Walkman was finally taken out of production in 2010. We’ll get a smirk on the face when we see someone with a walkman on the bus, we commemorate the habit of making mix tapes and  make art by using the cassette tapes as material. When is the critical point at which technology transforms from boring, mundane even outdated to regain a certain sense of aura, mysticism and curiosity about them? When will I be looking at a photograph of the mobile phone with the same sense of wonder surrounding pictures of the ‘Audograph’? Let alone, what would be the significance of a blown up depiction of a mobile phone today?

As Bean explains, these pictures are not about a nostalgia. They are simply about understanding the present by means of exploring McLuhan’s observation that ”obsolescence is the moment of superabundance”.



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