Partnership between University of Toronto/McLuhan Program and University of Bologna
By Caterina Rotunno
Originally Published: 2011-12-18
Art and technology, a binomial that appears contradictory – two distant worlds through their very nature – yet they turn out to be very similar if not interdependent. Steve Jobs himself had often affirmed that, “the liberal arts (grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) definitely have something to do with innovation, design, and the very soul of a technological commercial product.”
Technology has entered our lives, modifying the way we perceive the world, and inevitably also modifying our mental structure itself. We may not notice, but by now the sensorial awareness activity of everything around us has been modified and substituted by instruments of communication. These become in themselves our intermediaries with the external world.
“The new discoveries in technology affect us and fascinate us as if they were works of art – the art that has always represented a privileged channel of interpretation of reality and that has fascinated and awed man, evoking not exclusively cognitive but emotional sensations. And aesthetics, which studies the aspect of awareness that pertains to the uses of the senses, is unavoidably called on to involve itself and analyze these new modalities of perceiving the world through the media.”
Speaking is aesthetics and art historian Paolo Granata, lecturer on cultural assets management at Scuola di Specializzazione in Beni storici e artistici (school specializing in history and art assets) at Università di Bologna. He is currently in Toronto as Visiting Scholar at McLuhan Program of the University of Toronto.
Marshall McLuhan was a significant forerunner to contemporary technological society’s modern theories, with insights that even after several years, remain very current.
“He had humanities training, having studied English language and literature at University of Manitoba then at Cambridge in England”, emphasizes Professor Granata, interviewed during his visit to Corriere Canadese/Tandem editorial offices. McLuhan continued teaching English language and literature at various universities, even after having brought to light his original historic analyses in his doctorate thesis. In 1962, with his book The Gutemberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, McLuhan demonstrates the importance of the media in the history of man for the first time. In particular, he studies the influence of the press on mobile characters who in his opinion represent the technology that has made the modern era possible, signalling the passage from oral to alphabetic culture.
Nonetheless, already by 1964, with his best known work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan begins research in the field of “ecology of media” confirming the importance of studying the current tools of communication (radio, television, internet) not so much in the sense of the content they carry, but on the basis of structural criteria with which communication is organized. From this comes the famous phrase “the medium is the massage” that was also to become the title of one of his books.
“McLuhan wasn’t an aesthetics expert, but had an obsession, which is that of understanding how the media changes our lives,” affirms Granata. What McLuhan – representative of the McLuhan Centre at the University of Toronto along with W. J. Ong, maintained – is that “there’s no need to concentrate on the message but on the change that the presence alone of the media produce in our lives and in particular in our way of perceiving the world.” McLuhan’s “technological determinism” rings out like a warning so much so that the expression “narcissus as narcosis” is attributed to him “in this way wanting to put us on guard against the dazzle that the media itself can cause with the consequence of being left dulled by this illusion. According to McLuhan’s theories,” Granata continues, “man is not able to seize the changes that technology causes in his life because he’s numbed and little aware of the changes that the media produce in him, or he notices very late, that is, when these changes have become part of his daily life. Only the artist, defined by McLuhan as being ‘the person with the overall awareness’, is the only one who manages to become aware of these changes and the media’s consequences on our life, and the only one who knows how to discover the mechanism and consequently how to manipulate it. There, then, is the return of the art and technology binomial.”
Where does your passion for Marshall McLuhan’s research come from?
“After attending high school in Cosenza, the city where I was born, I moved to Bologna to attend the DAMS (Discipline delle arti, della musica e dello spettacolo), (arts, music, and performance) degree program. I quickly became impassioned with these studies especially for their characteristic of transversality and therefore interdisciplinary which is a key word of McLuhan’s. During the ’70s and ’80s, along with art, DAMS also hosted the communications course which after separating, went on to become Umberto Eco’s science of communications faculty. In its original project, therefore, DAMS answered perfectly to McLuhan’s inspirational idea of interdisciplinary.”
Your studies had a common thread with applied arts technology.
“At its beginnings, I realized that Internet was a great font of knowledge, but at the same time contained a lot of information that needed to be catalogued even in the absence of research engines like the current Google. So I began to categorize, file, and archive, reflecting on the big themes of contemporary art, and how art was disembarking on the Internet and how the Internet was modifying the way of making art. Successively I conducted a series of projects on evolution of the language of video-art and I coined the term ‘videomorfosi’ (video metamorphosis) – video as a symbolic form, in other words ‘video ergo sum’: tell me which communications tools you use and I’ll tell you who you are.”
How did you arrive at connecting aesthetics and technology to Italo Calvino’s work?
“As I rushed to delineate the outline of my new book Arte estetica e nuovi media (art aesthetic and new media), I needed to find a logical structure to the categories and typologies into which to subdivide the topics to be dealt with. At this point I came across Calvino’s latest work Six Memos for the Next Millenium, which the author wrote for a series of six lessons he was to hold at Harvard, but which he didn’t finish due to his premature death. In the six lessons, Calvino displays six values that in my opinion correctly interpret and describe the modern digital world: the lightness of the software in relation to the heaviness of the hardware; quickness, that is the characteristic speed of the networks and information transfers; the characteristic precision of search engines; the multiplicity that aptly defines the concept of the absence of a well-defined place where we find ourselves in the net, in contrast to the presence of our profile and information in other places such as Facebook and our websites, which no longer include text that is static but that is hypertext; the visibility that can easily refer to the universe of constantly present images in our lives. The final attribute Calvino discussed is the consistency that we can trace back to the characteristic coherence and interconnectivity of communication.”
What is another example of art that combines with technology?
“In regards to this I’d like to demonstrate a few historical ‘coincidences’ that nonetheless lead one to think of a society that evolves according to well-defined plans and rules. It’s 1984 when Calvino goes to Harvard to prepare his first five lessons – he was to complete them in the U.S.A. but he died prematurely. Also in ’84, McIntosh launches on a world level the first personal computer, getting onto Time magazine’s front page. The year ’84 goes on to take special meaning as symbol of a new typically post-modern insight.”
In your opinion, are Marshall McLuhan’s ideas and theories still alive and current in the academic tradition, Canadian and otherwise?
“The Faculty of Information has recently re-launched McLuhan’s program – the idea comes from a centre founded in ’63 by McLuhan himself which had headquarters in the heart of the St. George campus at St. Michael’s College: the so-called Coach House, a small building 100 metres from where he lived and 200 metres from the church he attended every Sunday after converting to Catholicism. Here, McLuhan was able to unleash all his creative flair, with the students as well. In a short period of time, Coach House became a grand laboratory where professor McLuhan had big and endless discussions with students and that’s where his major insights were probably born. He called this centre ‘Culture and Technology’ which went on to become symbolic words of all his work. After his death there followed a period of abandonment and slowdown in the centre’s activities until professor Derrick de Kerckhove re-launched the program. By 2000 however, even the de Kerckhove program had lost its appeal and the image and contribution McLuhan made to the history of 20th century media had become less intense. At that point the Faculty of Information took possession of it and re-launched McLuhan’s program. Since 2008, the McLuhan program has had a new director, Dominique Scheffel-Dunand, and on occasion of the 100-year anniversary of the birth, a high-level academic scholarship program was established. There’s thought of continuing with the organizing of events even after the 100-year anniversary celebration. The coined slogan ‘then now next’ wants to focus on spreading McLuhan’s ideas as a methodology of study to be applied to other environments like, for example, that of aesthetics which I’m personally experimenting with even though it’s still dominated by the philosophic and artistic field, for which the passage of the aesthetic of art to the aesthetic of the media is definitely a new passage. Other colleagues of mine apply McLuhan’s theories to advertising – defined by the Canadian scholar as the biggest art form of the 20th century and a form of communication that is changing our perceptions, our way of listening.”
How do you assess your experience with U of T’s McLuhan Centre?
“The Faculty of Information which had called on me and where I’m doing my research activity, is an avant-garde institute because more than many others, it places great attention on culture, media, and technology, and I think, I hope, it can become the epicentre of ‘media, culture, and technology’ studies, catalyzing the attention of other university centres scattered across the world. The master’s program at the Faculty of Information and at the McLuhan Centre will certainly be able to prepare profiles that will be able to move in the cultural and technology field. As far as Bologna, we’re already looking at forms of institutional collaborative partnerships with student exchange.”