10 May 2008

A time capsule from the global village

In my May 4 post, I surveyed Marshall McLuhan's metamorphosis from a nerdy Canadian academic into the very model of an avant-garde intellectual.
In the 1960s, avant-garde intellectuals and wannabees liked to spend downtime in Aspen, CO. The resort town had earned its highbrow cred as home to the Aspen Music Festival since 1949, and the International Design Conference since 1951. In the mid-60s, a Manhattan magazine editor named Phyllis Johnson was inspired by her stay in Aspen to launch a magazine by that name, meant to embody the experimental spirit of the Aspen arts community. She invited a different artist to design each issue, and she made Aspen a box
rather than a bound volume, so each guest artist could fill it with whatever he chose.
Gone was the linear-text straightjacket. Articles were printed separately in different sizes, shapes, and colors, to discourage reading them in a fixed sequence. Besides the printed articles, eight of the ten issues published contained short pieces of music on phonograph records, and No. 3 even anticipated video by including a flipbook of frames from underground films by Andy Warhol and Jack Smith.
When Aspen debuted in 1965, Understanding Media had already made McLuhan famous for blaming our hangups on linear text, so the magazine and the media messiah were a perfect fit. In 1967 McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore had a new book, The Medium is the Massage, that was as non-linear as a $1.45 paperback could be, so they were tapped to create Aspen No. 4, published in the spring of that year.
It's a
vision of transforming society without conflict, a time capsule from an America whose optimism had not yet been tempered by the murder of Martin Luther King and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

The Aspen Vol. 1, No. 4 box, with contents.

Fiore puts quotes from McLuhan as teasers on the box and all the articles in it. The main course is a "press proof" from The Medium is the Massage, a 23 x 30-inch sheet of 32 pages that are not in printer's imposition, or any other sequence (the back of page 63 is page 18). The lack of order is the point, of course, as McLuhan explains: "Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. 'Time' has ceased, 'space' has vanished."
In a rambling essay from the preceding year's
International Design Conference, avant-garde composer John Cage writes: "Utopia? Self-knowledge. Some will make it, with or without LSD."
There's a 22 x 15-inch poster with bright, blurry photo of
Big Brother and the Holding Company playing at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom. On the back, McLuhan writes that automation has given modern humans too much free time. He calls it "a liberation that taxes our inner resources of self-employment and imaginative participation in society." His answer? We are all called "to the role of artist in society. The mark of our time is its revulsion against imposed patterns. We are suddenly eager to have things and people declare their beings totally." Beneath this headline are stories about the Drop City and Solux communes and the "tribal sense" in the Haight-Ashbury (where the Summer of Love would begin in just a few weeks).
This stuff all points to a conclusion: If the problem is conformity, then the solution must be non-conformity. Or as McLuhan puts it, "The poet, the artist, the sleuth--whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial . . . [they] cannot go along with currents and trends . . . [they] see environments as they really are." This epigraph graces the cover of "Psycles," a 20-page booklet of excerpts from The Bikeriders, photographer Danny Lyons' book of photos and interviews he made while he was a member of the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club.
What an irresistible proposition, especially for a buttoned-up literature professor: Drop acid, ride your chopper to the commune, and declare your being totally! You're not a shiftless bum, you're a social-change pioneer!
But the medium reveals much more than the words do, and Aspen was not a medium for dropouts. It was a $4 magazine at a time when Life was selling for 35 cents. Its readers may have daydreamed about slumming with the hippies and the bikers, but the advertisers knew what they really wanted. Quentin Fiore must have relished the irony of enclosing the advertising inserts in a folder imprinted with McLuhan's catchphrase, "Advertising is all good news."

The advertisements in Aspen Vol. 1, No. 4.

In the advertising folder are ads for Gordon's Gin, Remy Martin Cognac, and St Raphael aperitif wine. A flyer shows an MG sportscar in front of an English castle. A color brochure for Eastern Airlines says, "We want everyone to fly" (at a time when air travel was considered such a luxury that the rich were called the "jet set").
Aspen's audience could afford a $4 magazine, a sportscar, a flight to the Bahamas. They were the fortunate few who really were liberated from drudgery, free to declare their beings totally. Their biggest problem was the dull conformity that prevailed in high society and higher education at the time. Aspen offered them a brand of social change that was as easy to swallow as a fine Cognac.

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