The gesture was more graceful than the act. With one generous flick of the wrist I sent the paperback sailing across the room. The book, The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present, is a small volume tri-authored by an intellectual supergroup: novelist and artist Douglas Coupland, international curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, and cultural critic Shumon Basar. In wry deference to its subject, the cover is inked in an oil slick chromo metallic. As Earthquakes arced from the couch to the closet door, which it hit with a thud before dropping to the floor, light reflected off its glistening surface, giving the appearance of a salmon spawning upstream.
(For the record, S,M,L,XL also boasts a silver cover, but I can’t imagine throwing the six-pound tome very far. Earthquakes, by contrast, is lightweight at 7.8 ounces).
When it landed, facedown, pages splayed and pressed against the floor, the half-light of the living room lamps seemed to illuminate a mysterious object. An alien ship crash-landed on oak boards. And so it sat there for a few days. Until my irritation with leaving a book on the floor trumped my irritation with the book itself and I picked it up.
Modeled overtly on best-selling The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, Earthquakes apes the pocket-sized format and sloganeering approach to content first published by Marshall McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Flore, with Jerome Agel in 1967.1 Both books (or nonbooks)2 share an understanding that text plus illustration equals image. Mad Men viewers will recognize it as ad man knowledge. Steven Heller describes the book as cinematic and book-as-performance, writing, “[It] was a prescient approach to book content in an era when television was stealing popular attention away from magazines and books. Between the graphic effects, McLuhan, the shaman of alternative-media culture, sprinkled his philosophical aphorisms and prognostications—many of which underpin today’s new media experiences.”3
Coupland, Obrist, and Basar’s book irritates. From its temblor title meant to destabilize and titillate—and is explained as the correlation between carbon usage, melting ice caps, and the resultant earthquakes caused by gravitational shifts due to moving ice—to the vintage embrace of Helvetica bold, a font that would seem the last typeface indicative of our post-Internet now, yet here it is dutifully mimicking Flore’s design. It is irritating that the authors stake claim on the contemporary using yesterday’s new media modalities. It irritates because it is nostalgic for provocation. Obrist’s Instagram feed populated with Post-it notes from art world stars is more entertaining than this distillation of Gen-X anxieties over the new world order.4 Still, I share their unlikely loves of kitty videos and sixties experimental typography.
Earthquakes‘ spine breaks at pages 156 and 157. As if I were consulting the I Ching or an Austen novel, I read out my fortune. “At the moment we don’t know which will triumph: the individual or the mob. It might be the biggest question of this century.” The authors paired the text with a photograph by Cao Fei from the 2014 La Town series. “Supermarket” depicts a scale model of a looting poised to happen. I think of Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California” and wonder if Walt Whitman is lurking in these aisles. “In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!”5 In the last century, Ginsberg answered what is set up as the biggest question of our era with a turn to the individual—the hipster, the homosexual, the solitary man, the flâneur. It’s a trick question, of course. Data-fueled algorithms make a collective of us all.
But to try to answer any of the questions, provocations, and philosophical banalities put forth by the authors is beside the point. In 1964, McLuhan wrote “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium”6:
The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. … An abstract painting represents direct manifestation of creative thought processes as they might appear in computer designs. What we are considering here, however, are the psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns as they amplify or accelerate existing processes. For the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.7
Irritating books irritate precisely because they emphasize technological shifts in format and unstable content. In trying to present the lessons and cautions of the Internet age, Earthquakes gets bogged down by its pulp, ink, and marginalia. Illustrations and citations are banished to tiny type notes, thus stripping actual content away from a source. Early Internet proponents extolled the hyperlink for its ability to forge a more synthetic relationship between shallow and deep content. Here, depth assumed and embodied: Dear Reader, you know these references.
An addition to an inventory of irritation is The BLDGBLOG Book: Architectural Conjecture, Urban Speculation, Landscape Futures, published in 2009. Too clunky to toss across the room, Geoff Manaugh’s compendium of digital enthusiasms exemplifies McLuhan’s slippery relationship to content and appropriated mediums. Indeed, the pages are filled with versions of texts, interviews, and images already published online. The title suggests that new technological modes require legitimation via older formats: a blog must have its book.
Manaugh’s stated goal with both the blog and the book was to use architecture as the constraint and lens by which to view any number of subject areas from the speculative to the sublime. His methodology thrives on appropriation and recontexualization—a mediation on “what if?” “Never take the appropriate next step,” he writes. “Talk about Chinese urban design, the European space program, and landscape in the films of Alfred Hitchcock in the span of three sentences—because it’s fun, and the juxtapositions might take you somewhere.”8
Revisiting the volume some six years later, the tight relationship between the hard-copy design and its screen origins is striking. The pages resemble in scale and format a mid-aughts website: medium-sized images and wide columns of text flanked by narrower columns reserved for long captions and asides. The stronger graphic match, however, comes from 2007, when Storefront for Art and Architecture hosted Postopolis!, a happening curated by then Storefront director Joseph Grima. The marathon-like symposium, which owes credit to Obrist’s similarly marathon event-as-discourse format, brought together bloggers, writers, designers, and thinkers over the course of five days.9
Content (both implicit and overt) celebrated a moment of technological change—the move of architecture and design discourse from analog to digital. Still, the gallery, struggling to represent the subject matter in a spatial form, printed out hundreds of blog posts and affixed the pages to the walls. Hung in long columns, the blog pages became the default backdrop of the conversations. So, it is that graphic image of page after printed page reduced/raised to the level of wallpaper that ultimately presages the later BLDGBLOG Book. The repetition of text and illustration across the wall changed the resolution of understanding content. The specifics fall away until only the format holds fidelity.
And then there is Content. Rem Koolhaas’s 2004 assemblage produced under AMO/OMA with editor Brendan McGetrick and art directors Simon Brown and Jon Link. The question of how to identify this volume proves the subtext of the entire work. After opening pages splashed with full-color advertisements by Prada, Gucci, and Nigerian Tourism, readers are presented with a double-page spread that spells out the dilemma: “I’m not sure if this a book or a magazine,” speaks a cartoon caricature of OMA’s Guangzhou Opera House. A counterpart cartoon replies, “Actually, I find the tension between the two super-interesting.”10 Is it? Actar Publishers first entered into this tension-filled territory in 2001 with their Verb BOOGAZINE™ series, describing the format as “A hybrid, thematic publication that combines the heterogeneity and topicality of a magazine with the referential and comprehensive approach of a book.”11
The magazine format is a counterpoint to S,M,L,XL; whereas the earlier book upholds the singularity of the book object, Content is cheaply made and disposable. One part Wired, one part Vogue. In retrospect, the content of Content relies on techniques of collage and Photoshop. The cover wants to shock, to provoke, to irritate, with a mash-up of CCTV, Kim Jong-il, Saddam Hussein, George Bush, and Freedom Fries. A period piece of publishing, it represents fleeting interpretation of media culture, where we see the meme-like effects of the Internet celebrated, but value is still put on print—even if that value has shifted from archival books to recyclable magazines.
A self-proclaimed follow-up to S,M,L,XL, the editors suggest that the book/magazine is a product of its moment, not a historical document, even if it does identify itself as “an inventory of seven years of OMA’s tireless labor.”12 Here, labor replaces Massage’s effects. Where The Age of Earthquakes and The Medium Is the Massage each boast three authors, and The BLDGBLOG Book is a solo endeavor, Content is the product of a full masthead and dozens of contributors. Perhaps then, the most irritating proposition offered by Content is also the most insidiously replicating today’s Internet values, the conflation of labor and effect. I wonder how far it will fly (Figure 1).
1 Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel, The Medium Is the Massage (New York: Bantam, 1967).
2 Jeffery T. Schnapp and Adam Michaels, The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan/Agel/Fiore and the Experimental Paperback (New York: Inventory Books, 2012), 8.
3 Ibid., 15.
4 hansulrichobrist Instagram, https://instagram.com/hansulrichobrist/ (accessed May 14, 2015).
5 Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California,” in Howl, and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights, 1956)
6 Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium Is the Message,” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964), chap. 1.
8 Geoff Manaugh, “Introduction,” in The BLDGBLOG Book (San Francisco: Chronicle, 2009), 11.
9 Postopolis!, http://storefrontnews.org/programming/postopolis/ (accessed May 12, 2015).
10 Rem Koolhaas and AMOMA, Content (Cologne: Taschen, 2004), 12–13.
11 http://www.actar.com/ (accessed May 22, 2015).
12 Koolhaas, Content (note 10), 6.