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2005 04 05
Empire of Bricks - 7
imageThis past January a couple of friends who live in Los Angeles invited us to come down and stay with them for a couple of weeks. Our Winnipeg winter helped us with our decision. It was a low key affair not what you expect a vacation if Los Angeles to entail. We hung out with them as they went about their jobs. Suzanne has an online book-finding business so it was basically a kind of daily treasure hunt. Peter is an astro-physicist who was able to do a lot of work out of his home, at least while we were there. We did go to see Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, which I understand has been blinding passers-by with its glaring surfaces. We were not blinded because we were there on a very overcast and drizzling day. In fact, our entire visit coincided with an historic stretch of rainy weather. Arnold Swartznegger declared California a state of emergency. Ten people had died in mudslides just north of the City. We also visited the Huntington Collection where I knew that they had a Gutenberg Bible. I was excited to see this item because I was working on a public art project that involved a lot of research on McLuhan, Who as you probably know referred most significantly to the Gutenberg Bible as a shorthanded reference to the media revolution brought about by the introduction of moveable type. But we spent most of our time driving around our friend’s neighbourhood in South Pasadena searching out residential projects by Green & Green. The two legendary architect brothers whose small body of work inspired an entire movement known as the American Arts and Crafts Style. Pasadena has the largest collection of Green & Green projects, 90 percent to be exact. While touring the Gamble house (Gamble being of Proctor & . . . ,the soap business moguls) I was astonished to find extensive use of ‘klinker’ brick! Foundations, retaining walls, fences even the pool deck, all studded with this nubbly aberrant-looking building material. I just couldn’t comprehend it. What I did understand was that I was looking at the source of the use of this aberrant material (it is truly aberrant, as I understand it these are blackened wart-like bricks which have exploded in the brick ovens and which until people like Green & Green and Eden Smith came along, used to be rejected ) in the suburbs of Toronto. The chronology was right and there were other moves in Eden Smith’s design vocabulary which would indicate that he, although largely considered a product of the English Arts and Crafts school, had been taking a peek at the American movement as well. I had inadvertently come up-stream, closer to the source, to the historic origin of this usage of material. This was one of those quests that you never really set out on, rather they glom on to you, they announce themselves and because you still have somewhat of a memory for this type of thing. You make a mental note. Where will this take me next? Where are we headed with this thing? Hmmmmmmm.

Back to Wychwood Park home Eden Smith’s largest collection of residential projects, I think all but two of these historic homes were built by Smith. McLuhan lived there, in an Eden Smith house. He lived there longer than at any other Toronto address.

“Most scholars use their knowledge as a flashlight,” McLuhan remarked to me as we strolled around the trees near his home, squirrels in tow, at Wychwood Park in the summer of 1977 - “Not to illuminate the world but to shine back into their own bedazzled eyes.”
This worse than useless, self-deceptive light on the eyes – light coming from outside the eyes, not inside, shown back at the eyes via the externalization of interior knowledge in the flashlight – was but an extreme example of the “light-on” method McLuhan attempted to improve upon in his and our understanding of media. The “mosaic procedure, which I try to follow throughout, waits for light through the situation,” McLuhan explained in 1960. (p.11) “It does not primarily try to play light on the situation.”
But it was more than a procedure.
Whether it was coming from inside the eyes – not via flashlight shown back on the eyes – or beyond the skies, whether through a window from someplace outside or, eventually, through a television screen, McLuhan held “light-through” in media to be more profound and involving of the human observer than the more commonplace falling of light on the world and its things. Thus, for McLuhan, the contents of a room, illuminated by light shining on and off them, were far less interesting than the electric bulb through which the light was shining (another rendition of “the medium is the message”). Similarly, according to McLuhan, the reading of pages (unless they were illuminated manuscripts) and the viewing of movies are intrinsically less involving as processes than watching television – the audio-visual equivalent of the light-bulb, with light shooting through its screen rather than bouncing off its screen as in movie projection. The result is that, in television viewing, “illuminations project themselves at the viewer” (Carpenter & McLuhan, 1960, p.x) – the television becomes the projector and the viewer becomes the movie screen. No wonder TV is so involving.
Significantly, the personal computer too partakes of the light-through procedure.
Does this explain, in part, its astonishing colonization of pre-digital culture in the past few decades, with a speed rivaled only by television vis-à-vis radio and motion pictures in the 1950’s?
[email this story] Posted by Bernie Miller on 04/05 at 08:47 AM

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