I’ve recently been following John Peffer’s series of discussions around what he terms intermedia, which recently culminated in a show ‘Think of Number 6’ (co-curated with Bettina Malcomess). The idea he seems to be voicing is that the space between media is productive and can open a space for social critique.
Some works under discussion were a series of retouched photographs, where original dompas photos were reimagined as keepsakes and commemorative pieces. Or a sound piece in which a group of women read out descriptions from an archive of lesbian activist t-shirts (The former could be seen recently at Commune.1, the latter appears in the show at Point of Order at Wits).
The term intermedia, in its traditional sense, was used by Fluxus artist Dick Higgins in the 60s to describe work which was interdisciplinary and pushed the boundaries of established media, such as performance art (which has now solidified into a medium itself). This word is useful, but doesn’t always fully describe many of the works in Peffer’s show, which seem to be more translation from one media to another, than interdisciplinary.
In fact, this translation between media, is an essential quality of media. If we consider a medium as information transfer, moving data in the broadest sense, then thought is the first medium, which is translated into action into the body (speech, gesture), the second medium. All media are extensions and translations of these first two. Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media describes this process:
The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the “content” of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. If it is asked, “What is the content of speech?,” it is necessary to say, “It is an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal.”
McLuhan goes on to describe how the lightbulb is pervasive and unnoticed as a medium until it is used to spell out content (words, another medium). He suggest though that we then focus on this “content” rather than looking at the actual medium. For McLuhan, it is only if we accept the content is another medium, and begin to study how these media change our pace and patterns of behaviour, that we understand the actual message.
In terms of art, focusing on pure medium, like the trend towards painterly abstraction, is reductively showing lightbulbs. Focusing purely on content, while forgetting medium, like the move towards showing identity politics through photographic self-portraits, merely continues the flow from medium into medium, replicating the extant patterns of mass-media. It is only when something jars this process, interrupts the medium and makes it apparent that we can understand the medium’s message.
In ‘Think of a Number Six’ for instance, Ulrike Müller’s Herstory Inventory 5 women read out descriptions of images from the Lesbian Herstory Archives’ expansive collection of T-shirts in New York. You never see the images, only hear the descriptions. This translation from t-shirt image to voice reveals not the messages of the individual images (though it is fascinating in itself) but also shows the power of collecting, of gathering and archiving as a form of ongoing protest. The T-shirts are also re-embodied, or re-worn, by the women in the act of translation.
In a vastly different example, which was recently on show at Commune.1 as part of ‘The Other Camera,’ dompas photographs are retouched to become commemorative images. These originate in the Apartheid era where access to self-representation was limited. The translation from one medium, state photograph, to another, keepsake photograph/painting, reveals the role of both these media as two opposing forces between state and private narratives. One is forced to consider the role of the photograph in the bureaucracy of the Apartheid state, as an instrument of control. Also apparent is how these images can be detourned, as political resistance hidden beneath a personal memento. These particular images in ‘The Other Camera’ are anonymous, further emphasising the primacy of medium over content.
Peffer’s contention that this translation between media is a space of social critique is an interesting one. It is more than visible in the two examples above, and in many other examples without the art context (The Arab Spring comes to mind, as does Malema making the showerhead gesture). It’s an antidote of sorts to the sense that the constant mediation of modern life is robbing us of social critique and leaving us with a world of simulacra. My suspicion though is that media mentioned above are so contentious to begin with that any intervention can be a space of social critique. That said, I like to believe that any media can be radicalised and social critique can be found in the most unlikely places.