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The McLuhan Festival of the Future

McLuhanatics gathering to get back to the future

James Adams
October 7, 2004

The Globe & Mail

'Marshall McLuhan

What yuh doin'?'

-- a poem by Henry Gibson, on

Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, 1968

The trouble with the future is the risk that it can go so very wrong. This is especially true of an event called the McLuhan International Festival of the Future, the first instalment of which begins tomorrow in Toronto and runs through Oct. 17.

If this were a "regular" festival or themed conference, it would be anchored at one location at which lectures or activities (plays, movies, concerts, product demonstrations) of varying degrees of interest would occur at precisely scheduled times. The audience would know, more or less, what to expect. There would be a trade show hawking services and commodities relevant to that audience. There would be a barbecue.

But when you create a festival in the name of Herbert Marshall McLuhan -- Oracle of the Electronic Age! Prophet of the Global Village! Seer of Cyberspace! -- you can't do that, certainly not in the city he called home for much of his 69 years. Or you could -- but such a happening would be decidedly un-McLuhanesque in our wired world of cellphones, HDTVs, DVDs, e-mail, pagers, Game Cubes, home satellite dishes, on-line shopping and digital cameras. As McLuhan observed more than 30 years ago: "Tomorrow is [now]our permanent address."

That's why there aren't that many scholarly papers being presented at the first McLuhan International Festival of the Future, not to mention symposiums, slide shows or vigils on the lawn of McLuhan's former home in leafy Wychwood Park. True, over the next 10 days the Fairmont Royal York will be serving something called the "Marvellous McLuhan Martini" -- three ounces Tanqueray Ten Gin and a splash of dry vermouth poured into an ice-cold glass and garnished with four oversized olives, something McLuhan himself liked to imbibe -- but the actual festival is going heavy on stuff like "interactivity," "new media," "psychogeography," "flow," "distributed intelligence" and "aggregate nodes."

"McLuhan is simply the filter," explains Thom Sokoloski, who was hired last year by festival founder William (Bill) Marshall to be its creative director. "It's a festival that celebrates his legacy. . . . We're taking him out of the book, so to speak; we're taking his words and manifesting new ideas. It's about finding ways and tools for people to take back the future and begin to shape it themselves."

In other words, it's not going to be a predictable, neat-and-tidy occurrence, at least not in the "linear, sequential" way that McLuhan deemed one of the hallmarks of the phonetic alphabet/book culture that dominated Western culture until midway into the 20th century. It's also not the first festival to be invoked in McLuhan's name; that honour is generally given to the University of British Columbia, which hosted a McLuhan-inspired "happening" in the mid-sixties complete with a maze of plastic sheets suspended from the ceiling and overhead light projectors. The Toronto event, however, is clearly the most ambitious: One visit to the vortex that is the festival's website is enough to convey both that and its rampant eclecticism.

Which is all to the good for Anna Serrano. She's director of Habitat New Media Lab at the Canadian Film Centre and one of the key organizers of the festival. Instead of presenting a festival as "an event-based thing . . ., I see it as a process," she said this week. Here "the audience is the medium. . . . We're developing a model for how people will actually use the festival" -- something she acknowledged may take as many as five years to figure out. "The trouble with using aggregate nodes to deliver an event such as this is that it's a decentralized command system. The chances of someone getting lost are quite high. It's not like a highly organized book. It does seem very, very confusing. But there is some method to the madness."

So while it's true that the bits and pieces of the Festival of the Future are occurring in something like 20 different locations and involving dozens of organizations and enablers, would-be participants should realize that these sites are, by and large, centred around "two massive nodes," one on or near Queen Street West, the other at the headquarters of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto.

Habitat, started seven years ago "to catalyze original interactive media in this country," will be involved in presenting two overarching "core activities" -- "curatorial presentations" and "panel programming" -- as its contribution to the McLuhanfest. One of the most significant curated events -- what Serrano calls an "explicit articulation of the notion of the audience is the medium" -- is "P2P," which will see a nine-metre-high marquee equipped with 125 light bulbs erected outside the Drake Hotel on Queen Street West. Across the street will be a control panel with 125 corresponding switches which passersby can use to form messages and patterns of their own choosing ("from vanity and profanity to emotion and allegiance").

A couple of blocks to the east, at the DeLeon White Gallery, there's a three-part presentation exploring "relations between the natural world and technological developments." One element, Sonic Sunset (aka Music), is described as a "sensor piece": Each day at roughly 6:45 p.m., on the gallery rooftop, a machine will evaluate "the quality of the light at sunset" which, in turn, will generate what Serrano calls "a Japanese aural symphonic composition." Another feature, Impossible Skies, invites participants to lie on a bed on the gallery's first floor and stare up at a screen upon which they'll see webcam-captured skies from around the world.

Back at the Drake, Habitat will co-host at least three panel programs. One, starting at 2 p.m. on Oct. 15, is entitled "Is There Life After the Web/TV Convergent Business Model?" Translation: it's an exploration of how interactive concepts can be turned into financially feasible businesses. One of the case studies to be discussed is Odd Job Jack, the popular Comedy Network animation series, or "," that was originally conceived for the Web. Each TV episode has an interactive Web component corresponding to the odd job that Jack -- a directionless sociology grad -- has agreed to do that week. In its first season last year the site drew a reported 220,000 game plays.

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