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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) (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 newspapers 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.


Harley Parker’s Reconceptualization of the Museum as a Communication System

Adam Lauder

The innovative exhibition designs of Harley Parker (1915-1992), who served as Head of Design and Installations at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum from 1957 to 1967, have been consistently overshadowed by his association with Marshall McLuhan, with whom he collaborated on two book projects. This article reassesses Parker’s experimental ROM installations as well as his visionary descriptions of the museum as a communication system. Challenging Alexander Nagel’s reading of Parker’s Hall of Fossil Invertebrates as an application of McLuhan’s ideas, this reexamination will draw attention to the irreducibly dialogical nature McLuhan and Parker’s exchange as well as the exhibition designer’s previously overlooked impact on contemporary artists such as IAIN BAXTER& and the era-defining 1970 MoMA exhibition INFORMATION.


R. Bruce Elder

In this paper, I probe Parker’s and McLuhan’s ideas on a new mentality they believed was emerging, first by relating these ideas to a revival they believed was occurring, of a forma mentis associated with orality and with mythic thinking (they shared this belief with other members of the Toronto School of Communication). I then turn to explore relations between film and this oral/mythic mentality, by considering Labyrinth, Spiral, and Picnic in Space, works that were, in one way or another associated with the members of the Toronto School and raise issues around the history of mentalities.


Ken Coupland’s Restaurant at Rochdale College

Robin Simpson

Between 1968 and 1975, Toronto’s Rochdale College was North America’s largest free school. At its foot sat The Same 24-hour Restaurant. Designed by Ken Coupland, this futuristic and sensorial space served as a liminal site between Rochdale’s new society and the world outside. This paper traces the development of the restaurant’s designs and operations through the college’s printed ephemera, considering this material in light of Harley Parker’s exhibition designs. Where Parker was concern with the contemporary relevance of the museum experience in regards to the “participatory wakefulness” of its audience, I propose that Coupland’s futuristic design aimed to advance a utopian project embedded in Rochdale’s contested late-Brutalist form.


Harley Parker’s Struggles at the Royal Ontario Museum

Gary Genosko

This paper examines Harley Parker’s main achievement as Head of Installation at the Royal Ontario Museum, the “Hall of Fossils” that opened in January 1967; it was dismantled decades later. Parker’s explanations of the decisions he made in constructing the exhibits, as well as deviations from the subject matter proper of paleontology, are considered within an overall critical assessment of the challenge he faced in reaching a very specific audience. His meditations on why it was important to reach a youth and “hippy” countercultural viewership are contextualized in relation to the theories of his colleague and collaborator Marshall McLuhan, and his failures in this regard are exposed and discussed.


Iain Baxter&

Iain Baxter&’s Art Project for Amodern is a new series of language art works encompassing his oral statements through an & (ampersand) speech bubble as tondos – regarding his influences from Harley Parker, Marshall McLuhan, Zen, Bagged Place, SFU, VSI, ECOARTVAN, his ideas about life, art, information, 0s & 1s, teaching, and finally the coming ANTROPOCEANE. The &MANS thoughts & speech is always another &.


Jennifer Marman, Daniel Borins

Our practice often contextualizes visual art within everyday life while simultaneously referring to and reassessing twentieth century art history – its utopias, and stylistic polemics. Concurrently, our projects discuss contemporary museum modalities within the context of ideological stances compromised by globalizing forces. We seek to expose the tensions arising between the historicity, formalism and politicization of the artwork to produce new meanings. Contained within this visual essay are images of our artwork from our early practice up to the present. Our visual contributions are intended to comment on the changing role of the exhibition – one that has moved beyond specimens, and toward designed and immersive environments.