Blueprint for Counter Education Redivivus

I just received word that Paul Cronin, Rob Giampietro, Adam Michaels and Jeffrey T. Schnapp received a generous Graham Foundation grant for an exhibition analyzing and completing the inimitable Blueprint for Counter Education by Maurice R. Stein and Larry Miller, from which I quoted in this recent post. At the time I was writing a last-minute letter of support for the grant proposal, which I reckon it’s now safe to share with a new image and a few links. The fact that it fits 18 of my 30 subject tags indicates the project’s richness and its closeness to my heart! The Chicago-based Graham Foundation Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts is a wonderful institution that supported my first and last translation effort in the late ’90s.

Maurice R. Stein, Larry Miller & Marshall Henrichs; Blueprint for Counter Education, 1970, New York. Photo: Project Projects.

Maurice R. Stein, Larry Miller & Marshall Henrichs; Blueprint for Counter Education, 1970, New York. Photo: Project Projects.

23 January 2014 Dear Sir or Madam, I am writing in support of the project Blueprint for (a Media Archeology of) Counter Education, as presented to the Graham Foundation’s “Production and Presentation” grant category by Jeffrey Schnapp, Adam Michaels and Rob Giampietro. The proposed project as a natural successor to Schnapp and Michaels’ triumphant The Electric Information Age Book (TEAIB), an experiment intimately linked to the Blueprint project in form and subject matter. The book TEAIB defines the parameters of a short-lived and largely forgotten type of publication, variously described as the kinetic paperback, the inventory book and the experimental paperback. Beginning with The Medium is the Massage—the groundbreaking 1967 book written by Marshall McLuhan, designed by Quentin Fiore and ‘produced’ by Jerome Agel—these revolutionary little books rewrite the rules of style, layout and distribution. They also declare the irrelevance of divisions between highbrow and lowbrow, art and advertising, word and image, and (most crucially) form and content. This complicated mix of moves perfectly embodies McLuhan’s observation that the medium is the message.

Adam Michaels &  Jeffrey T. Schnapp, "The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan/Agel/Fiore and the Experimental Paperback"; Princeton Architectural Press, 2012.

Adam Michaels & Jeffrey T. Schnapp,
“The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan/Agel/Fiore and the Experimental Paperback”; Princeton Architectural Press, 2012. Photo: Project Projects.

For all their careful excavation of the historical record in TEAIB, Schnapp and Michaels never murder to dissect. On the contrary, they revive the kinetic paperback genre by artfully adopting its format and style. As with any serious emulation or revival, the motivations are complex and the result is never a mere repetition. Schnapp and Michaels carry the Agel/McLuhan/Fiore formula into the new millennium by means of new techniques and technologies. For instance digital manipulation and printing permit next-level montage, as well as the easy addition of a third colour (blue) to the black-and-white original. Not to mention the companion LP. Like the Medium is the Massage TEAIB was a commercial success, selling out in remarkably short order. I have every confidence that the proposed Blueprint project will likewise result in a hit. The proposal by Schnapp, Michaels and Giampietro to analyze Miller and Stein’s Blueprint for Counter Education is a natural extension of TEIAB, just as the original Blueprint aimed to put McLuhan’s thought experiments into pedagogical practice. In their day, McLuhan’s and Stein’s dreams of producing dynamic, reactive new learning environments seemed like dangerous and unrealizable fantasies. Who would have imagined that less than half a century later one would scarcely be able to go into a museum or learning establishment without running up against a “multimedia experience”? Sadly, these experiences are too often limited to click-through catalogs and games, or at best the manipulation of a screen containing a fancy 3D visualization. Is this really the best way to expand minds? How might we go beyond merely examining or repackaging old things and old ideas, and instead produce a truly participatory and environmental learning situation? Could a “sensor‐activated, visitor‐mixable fourth wall” complete and redeem a 1970 blueprint for a radically new kind of learning experience? How might it relate to rest of the proposed publication-cum-classroom? Would it be wonderful?

Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore and Jeronme Agel, Aspen Magazine, "The McLuhan Issue" (#4) New York City: Roaring Fork Press, 1967. Photo by Graham Larkin.

Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore and Jeronme Agel,
Aspen Magazine #4 (The McLuhan Issue) New York City: Roaring Fork Press, 1967. Photo: Graham Larkin.

Of course we can’t really know what the answer will be until the thing is built, and we experience it for ourselves. Most works of historical investigation follow the usual academic division of labor: the scholar produces a text, the book designer packages it, the publisher delivers it and the reader receives it. Or perhaps it’s an exhibition, generally involving a similar assembly-line approach with a few more steps. By contrast, the success of TEIAB, which bodes very well for the Blueprint installation, results from a merging of the roles of scholar and designer, and the recognition of the viewer/reader/listener as an active participant in the production of knowledge. Frankly the Graham Foundation seems like one of the few institutions that could support such a deeply interdisciplinary, installation-based iteration of a scholarly project. As a longtime McLuhan scholar, museum curator and university instructor I would love to know precisely how such a wraparound, interactive tool for media archaeology would work. I suspect that it will work very well indeed. […] Sincerely. signature_small


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