Kate Armstrong



I’m working on a new book project for an exhibition by Year Zero One in Toronto. The exhibition, medium_massage2.0: an infinite inventory, is curated by Michael Alstad and is concerned with contemporary perspectives on the ideas and creative processes illustrated in Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s 1967 book The Medium is the Massage.

There have been a lot of projects this year relating to Marshall McLuhan because people are using the 100th anniversary of his birth as an occasion to re-examine his legacy and his contributions to media studies, culture, and art. I chose to look at this by making a book called Medium. In the project I’ve taken as a starting point the physical qualities of The Medium is the Massage, which is an iconic work in graphic design for the way it dealt with the relationship between text and image.

In that book, McLuhan’s short texts about the nature of media and the effects of media on human experience are matched with Fiore’s imagery, which invites interpretation on the part of the reader. It has been observed that the book acts on the human senses in a similar way as media, for example, bombarding viewers with textual and graphic information and making it necessary for a person to do a lot of mental switching around on the level of meaning as a way to make sense of things. When Michael invited me to make a new project dealing with The Medium is the Massage, I decided to deal with this aspect of it.

What I’ve done is essentially make a new edition of Fiore’s book by matching the pages of the original with similar images from the internet. Each page of the original has been fed into Google, which uses an algorithm to find similarity from within the chaotic mass of images and documents on the internet.

The algorithm is working on the level of compositional similarity so that visual pattern, rather than the meaning or context, is what drives the match. It means that when Fiore’s page features a short text next to a fingerprint, and is fed into Google, it comes back with a map of the streets near Lake Winnebago and an 1854 musical score for a song called “Happy Land”. The computer finds the spidery black and white lines in all three.

Because it is a graphical search, pages from the original that show mostly text are matched with texts from the internet and are on any subject, and this has been funny. For example, I am seeing a lot of inter-office memos come back. The machine looks at a page and returns another page that might have similar paragraph breaks, or something the same in the overall visual information from the scan. So this process transposes the text of the book as well.

There is something I like about that. It is very associative, and for me, it gets to the essence of the networked media landscape, which is so different than it was in the 1960s. In this version, the book is compiled by the network and through the network.

The images have been added by people over time and have accumulated. The whole thing is formed out of random human documents like wedding photographs, powerpoint graphics or photographs of refrigerators, and these documents are being strung together by an automatic process. I find something eerie about this book as recompiled by a machine. Fiore’s version was so highly designed and considered, whereas this version is loose, imperfect, impressionistic.
The original book is 168 pages. I’ve taken each page and matched it multiple times, keeping the pages in order, so the new version of the book is three times that. Doing it this way is like the original book is blowing up.

The book can be ordered in print form as well as downloaded at katearmstrong.com

The exhibition medium_massage2.0: an infinite inventory, features work from Kate Armstrong, Myfanwy Ashmore, Jeremy Bailey, David Jhave Johnston, Willy Le Maitre, Martine Neddam, Rafael Rozendaal, Cheryl Sourkes, Donna Szoke and KD Thornton can be found here.


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