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Amodern 5: Harley Parker

AMODERN 5: HARLEY PARKER

Gary Genosko

Harley Parker was born in Thunder Bay (then Fort William), Canada in 1915 and spent his youth there, graduating from high school and then in a compressed one-year degree from a local technical institute. He studied at Ontario College of Art (OCA), where he excelled, graduating in 1939, and between 1940-42 he took up posts at Cooper and Beatty and T. Eaton and Co. in Toronto as a typographic designer. His typographic skills and experimental style would prove to be dazzling, to which two of his later collaborations with Marshall McLuhan would attest, first in the guise of Explorations 8 (Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations) (October 1957), and later in the book Counterblast (1969). After serving in the Canadian military from 1942-45 where he was Sergeant Instructor to the Camouflage Wing, he returned to take up a teaching post at OCA where he remained until 1957 when he joined the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). During his second year back at OCA he pursued a post-graduate course at the Summer Arts Institute of Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina. That year (1946) Bauhaus professor Josef Albers taught color theory and Parker took his class. Parker’s career as Head of Exhibit Design at the ROM lasted until June 30th, 1968, after completing most of a year-long leave of absence. The ROM’s employee card put the matter dryly: “Did not return.” During his leave Parker accompanied McLuhan to Fordham University where he took the post of Associate Professor in the Albert Schweitzer Program, during McLuhan’s year there as a research chair. Parker would later occupy the first William A. Kern Chair in Communications at the Rochester Institute of Technology (1973).

The story of Parker’s career is not well known, despite his much publicized collaborations with McLuhan in books (co-authoring Through the Vanishing Point, 1968), films (Picnic in Space, 1967), and events like the seminar on Museum Communication at the Museum of the City of New York (1967). This special issue of Amodern – the second of my Parker-focused activities following upon the 2012 seminar in Oshawa, Harley Parker and Challenge to Curatorial Authority, during which several of the papers published here were first presented – will contribute to filling in the gaps and consolidating Parker’s considerable accomplishments. Parker remains an enigma in part due to his status, first, as a problem-solving installation designer within a university museum that valued curation over design, and second, as a celebrated designer operating in the shadow of a major public intellectual, McLuhan; at worst, this position can be summed up by those newspaper wags who simply said he was “fronting” for McLuhan. The essays in this special issue reveal that Parker authored numerous articles on design and perception, and appeared regularly in the Toronto newspapers as a jack-of-all-trades prepared to speak on art, society, technology, and architecture. Parker also enjoyed a long career as a painter and his final years, before his death in 1992, were spent in the interior of British Columbia painting landscapes. His final exhibition, at the Burnaby Art Gallery in 1991, presents him as a “cultural hero.”

I do not mean to suggest that Parker has been forgotten. Far from it. He was made an Honorary Fellow of Ontario College of Art and Design in 1984. And his OCA students, like Graham Coughtry and Michael Snow, did not forget him. Historians of the graphic arts note his active leadership roles in the Canadian Society of Graphic Arts during the 1950s, and as consulting designer to the Canadian government on Expo 67 in Montréal. His commitment to a number of Canadian arts organizations was never in question, as his efforts on behalf of a new Art Loan Society that would provide works for rent to public institutions such as libraries, and his promotion of Canadian art at the Canadian Conference of the Arts, were commended in the press in 1961-2. After joining the ROM he continued to exhibit his own work, for instance, his watercolors were featured at the Rodman Hall Arts Centre in St. Catharines in 1963 – the same year that his first article on communication through museum exhibition appeared in the journal Curator. Much of his everyday design and installation work at the ROM went unnoticed and unacknowledged, as many catalogues at the time neither included installation photographs nor did they note the designer’s contributions. Yet he put his mark on both signature exhibitions and permanent galleries (i.e. Ming Tomb), influencing a generation of museum-goers. His work at the ROM begins to appear around 1959 -62 in a more public light with laudatory accounts of his installations of travelling exhibitions of masks (The Many Faces of Man, 1962) posters (Impact: Poster Art of the World, 1960), relief sculptures (Gandhara Sculpture, 1960), and a 50th anniversary show (Search and Research, 1962). His masterpiece of gallery design, the Hall of Fossils, opened in 1967 and put Parker in the international spotlight. Yet what should have been a glorious new beginning, marked his end at the ROM.

In his contribution to this issue, “A Clash of Spaces,” Adam Lauder provides a richly documented detailing of Parker’s major achievements and activities, situating him in terms of resonances between his proposals for a newseum and invention of the designer as an institutional irritant. Lauder’s focus is the Museum of Modern Art’s 1970 exhibition INFORMATION, which arrived in the wake of the McLuhan-Parker seminar a few years earlier in New York on Museum Communication. Capturing the informational and communicational theorization of specific art projects of the period, Lauder provides examples from Iain Baxter& and N.E. Thing Co., as a fulcrum for understanding the museum as a nexus of information.

Baxter&’s own contribution, “&Tondo Thoughts,” is a series of meditations on the role of the artist in the anthropocene. The ampersand (&) is for him a connective tissue that applies at every level of reality from genes to infrastructures, intermingling humans, animals and artifacts in a complex machinic ecology. For Baxter&, information is mobile and ecological, constituting inflowmation, fluxes and flows of networked agential forces. Reflecting on his 1967 piece at Simon Fraser University, 24 Hour Class, Baxter& highlights extended, reflective periods of concentrated immersive learning as education without walls and this serves as a model for the potential syntheses of the conjunction.

Bruce Elder’s essay “Myth and the Cinematic Effect” is a learned re-embedment of Parker in the foundational milieu of Canadian communication studies, that is, the Toronto School figures of Innis, Frye, and Havelock and their debts to Vico and Plato. Elder explicates two experimental films, Picnic in Space and Sorel Etrog’s Spiral (1974) in order to investigate the thread of “space” as a lively, tactile interval (aligned with the dark intervals of intervallic film frames and jazz syncopations) in Parker and McLuhan’s thinking across book and installation design, and their other visual studies. Elder’s goal is to develop the concept of a perlocutionary poetics that McLuhan and Parker put into play in an effort to reach and awaken the body, its senses, in acts of making not matching, adequate to the world of electric information which is its natural-artificial habitat.

In “Present Tense and Future Amenities,” Robin Simpson provides an extended analysis of a single example of an immersive space in the form of Ken Coupland’s restaurant “The Same” at the experimental school, Rochdale College (1968-1975), in Toronto. Using Parker’s Hall of Fossil Invertebrates as a model, Simpson traces the incongruities of the restaurant within youth countercultural ethos and aesthetics and its transformation from an initially futuristic industrial to a rustic space, as it fell victim to hippy conservatism and born again capitalism. The countercultural denizens seemed like they had wandered into a future amenity divorced from their perception of the present through the lenses of earth tones, organic shapes and folk sensibilities.

In my contribution, “Where the Youth Aren’t,” I focus on Parker’s ambitions for the Hall of Fossils with regard to the audience he wanted to reach, but which remained elusive quarry: the same countercultural hippies studied by Simpson, but a group not known for visiting the conservative Royal Ontario Museum. Although Parker could theoretically deduce the post-literate youthful audience that would have been best equipped to experience his gallery space, it congregated in festive village atmospheres not far from the ROM, in both Rochdale and Yorkville. Like Lauder, I draw upon Alex Nagel’s chapter on Parker from his book Medieval Modern (2012) as a foil to explore the details of the Hall and how Parker managed to usurp curatorial control and deviate from disciplinary constraints, not to mention undermine the naturalistic symbolism (scallop shells) on display in the form of a pre-Cambrian abstract diorama: an escape hatch of Parker’s own design.

Contemporary Toronto-based artists Daniel Borins and Jennifer Marman present a selection of their collaborative work dating from 2000 to 2013 under the title “Transliterations, Space and Form.” Many of these pieces explore the information environments of a new era that the artists evoke with caged black monoliths of server farms for the era of the cloud, and black box printers fruitlessly spewing printouts into pop art-sized metal paper catchers; the unblinking gaze of search engines and “total information awareness” have friendly eyes that nevertheless follow your every move. Borins and Marman often use architectural details in support of multiple kinds of screens that evoke colour field paintings in the shapes of vertical blinds, passenger information display boards in train stations, and menacing and authoritarian fragments from brutalist architortures. Borins and Marman have inherited from Parker the sensory problem of how to measure “presence” in a gallery space, and to this end they mount minimalist systems of measurement of viewership, with the recognition that any record of involvement is exploitable. In this respect they are inheritors of Baxter&’s ecological concern with information, but mix together sharp edges of surveillance and seductive whispers of proprietary algorithms.

The academic essays and artists’ contributions to this special issue on Harley Parker mark the culmination of an earlier conference, but also point to the next phases of my Parker project: an exhibition of his visual art works – paintings and design works across the decades of his career, and the re-publication of his neglected articles on museum design, perception, technology and social change, and the prospects of interactive experience in cultural institutions.

I am grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with the academics and artists in this issue, and would like to thank Eric and Margaret Parker for their support and generosity.


Article: Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Image: Harley Parker, by Yousuf Karsh. Used with permission.
Banner Image: Flip Out by Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins. Used with permission.