“Every generation discovers McLuhan in its own way,” I said about Marshall McLuhan, the epochal progenitor of media studies (“The Media is the Message“/”The Media is the Massage“). McLuhan is the guiding spirit behind this year’s Gray Area Festival, Sepember 24-October 2, called “Distant Early Warnings,” after a playfully philosophical pack of cards that McLuhan tweaked from a Cold War-era nuclear attack advance warning system.
The cool thing was that I got to say that to McLuhan’s grandson, Andrew McLuhan, who was overseeing historical and often humorous artifacts from the McLuhan Institute that are on display through October 28. He agreed very politely, and encouraged me to look through the multitude of posters, books, designs, and gewgaws his prolific grandfather had used to reveal the underlying importance of TV, newspapers, and other systems of mass communication in our lives. (A speaker cheekily placed in the bathroom played clips of McLuhan expounding on LSD, among other things. He was in favor.)
“Distant Early Warnings” provided a chance for young people from the social media age to interact with McLuhan’s legacy. (In my day it was all about post-structural communication theory and the yummy graphic design of his books.) Gray Area invited a number of young artists to create works engaging with that legacy, and for a week displayed their projects in a “world of rapidly evolving media and technology.” Most were obviously digital and played with social media in complicated, puckish ways that reflected concerns with the climate crisis, rising authoritarianism, the surveillance state, fun stuff like that.
The one that struck me most was LA artist Paige Emery’s meatspace pieces, To Recalibrate With Tree Divination and Methods of Descrying, a gorgeous series of standing discs, mirror-like, full of blue pigment, derived from a flower that the artist cultivated and drank as tea every morning. They engaged with McLuhan’s oracular side, as many of his prognostications are now fact.
There were speakers throughout the weekend of the fest, including virtual care lab founder Alice Yuan Zhang 张元 and Afro-Hungarian trans-fem experimental animator Huntrezz. And of course, hewing to Gray Area’s musical side, there were concerts, with YACHT showing their feature documentary The Computer Accent and Daveed Diggs’ avant-garde rap act clipping.. The music is the message, too. —Words: Marke B. Photos: Jon Bauer