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Amodern 5: Harley Parker

AMODERN 5: HARLEY PARKER

Gary Genosko

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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.