Originally published at ACL
“Rapidly we approach the final phase of the EXTENSIONS of man- the technological simulation of consciousness.”
Understanding Media (1964)
After a bit of a delay, Mark Templeton inaugurates his new label Graphical Recordings with the release of Extensions, an audio-visual collaboration with filmmaker Kyle Armstrong. A 12” LP and DVD, this fine debut draws inspirations from fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan, whose Understanding Media is now half a century old. The duo, both based in Edmonton, Alberta, use McLuhan’s aphoristic insights as catalysts for the movements that make up Extensions. Both artists explore the materiality of their respective media, treating their instruments and raw material as the eponymous extensions, favoring media specificity over conveying signified meanings. The two may also be working together as extensions of one another, the final product taking a form that is the result of the interplay of audio and visual reciprocally influencing one another. Rather than a tedious intellectual exercise in conveying McLuhan’s ideas, which would be somewhat ironic for the man who famously argued that the “medium is the message,” the pair instead use his reflections as a launching pad for a particular kind of engagement.
Templeton’s earlier work was often characterized by a very deliberate clicks-and-cuts style, approaching glitch but maintaining a dominant impressionistic electro-acoustic component. His instrumentals took form compositionally through editing, one suspects, seemingly finely wrought and carefully considered. 2013’s Jealous Heart opened things up a bit, feeling looser and perhaps more improvised. He has worked previously with Ezekiel Honig’s Anticipate Recordings, a label which also features Nicola Ratti, fittingly as Templeton’s aesthetic falls somewhere in between Honig and Ratti. Not to overstate my case, but I make note of Templeton’s association with Ratti –working with Anticipate, performing at the same festivals, on short tours, promoting each other’s records –since considering their parallel evolutions might be illuminating.
Kyle Armstrong is a filmmaker who specialized in short, non-narrative cinema, often working with super8, 16mm, and manipulated video. His techniques of altering film by hand include use of “bleaches, dyes, scratches, and paint” to transform his footage and reappropriate existing images, as exemplified by his critically acclaimed short film Magnetic Reconnection. Armstrong and Templeton have collaborated previously over the past several years, including on the short “Carved and Cared For.” Their collaboration on Extensions is certainly the most sophisticated and interesting of their projects together thus far, clearly the result of a successful and intuitive partnership.
As critics and as audiences we can (and should) engage in an analysis of media that goes beyond content, something Extensions invites us to consider. Again, for a record memorializing the man who stressed the importance of media specificity, I wonder about my ability to properly consider this vinyl record and DVD through an mp3 and streaming video press kit. That said, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to the audio from Extensions divorced from the images, on headphones and on my home soundsystem. Perhaps it is better for all of us to memorialize McLuhan by attending to the audio-visual document itself, and not over analyze the reference to Canada’s most famous media theorist.
Structurally, Extensions feels most complete as an audio-visual project. This is clearly the intention, as the two are clearly working together and neither feels quite sufficient divorced from the other. Still, this presents an opportunity to play out McLuhan’s hot/cold distinction, because inevitably we will listen to the vinyl or digital files divorced from the intended context.
Sonically, we’re not miles away from Handcut, the critically praised Bellows LP that Nicola Ratti and Giuseppe Ielasi produced through live improvisation with old LPs and contact microphones. I even hear echoes of Ielasi’s Stunt series, in the rhythmic and textured loops that comprise this record. That said, Extensions is unique, more thoroughly composed and structured while incorporating the freedom of improvisation and happy accidents of its media being exploited for aesthetic gain.
At times Extensions is operating in very abstract territory, full of noise, static, and blurred sounds and images. Other places tend to be more minimal and electronic, with reverb and saturation extending each moment into one another. There is recognizable use of samples, in the audio as well as the visual. A brief descending melody of looped brass pitched down, the extraneous sound of vinyl or tape, the grain of film, images of the sky, a field, numbers counting down. Excerpts of McLuhan lecturing occasionally emerge, fragmented and decaying as they stutter and disappear before expressing a full thought. The images run the gamut from abstract and oversaturated to realistic. Moving bars of light become abstract color clouds, flashing lights, a pastoral view through a window frame and back again. In between movements, epigraphs from McLuhan frame the various ‘scenes,’ adding an additional sense of narrative.
Extensions is fairly loosely related to some of McLuhan’s ideas, especially the notion of technological devices as processes which extend our abilities, rather than just conceives them as mere instruments or tools. The binary of the audio and visual also calls to mind contrasting “Hot” and “Cold” media. To oversimplify what is a rather open-ended and dynamic process, McLuhan’s conceived of some media as being “hot” when they emphasize one sense in high definition, requiring little audience participation. On the other hand, a medium is considered “cold” when it necessitates more audience engagement, utilizing multiple senses and often containing less data. Hot media engenders fragmentation while cold media produce holistic patterns. One might fruitfully contemplate this concept when considering the difference between experiencing the DVD compared with solely listening to the LP alone. In the end, McLuhan has identified a shift in thinking about media in terms of their effects and not their intended meaning, and Extensions is no doubt successful in affecting its audience. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Three sections of Extensions, in earlier iterations, were featured in a mix Templeton made in 2013 for Tiny Mix Tapes, which you can listen to here.
“Carved and Cared For” is an earlier collaboration that foreshadowed this project.
Postscript: The text accompanying this release actually oversells McLuhan’s significance, from my perspective. Even his most famous line (“The medium is the message,” fine as far as soundbites go) is not nearly so novel as it is made out to be, but a slogan distilled from the insights of earlier thinkers. For instance, the American sociologist C.H. Cooley wrote, in 1897, that “the social influences act through a mechanism; and the character of their action depends upon the character of the mechanism.” This isn’t exactly the same point, but it’s a very small move to get to “The medium is the message.” As far as Canadians go, I’d argue that Harold Innis’ work deserves far greater attention and that ultimately his work is more significant than McLuhan’s. Rather than uncritically and optimistically go along with a changing mediascape consumerism and presentism, we should head Innis’ warnings about the way our tools use us, and not just how we instrumental our tools. McLuhan himself wrote “I am pleased to think of my own book The Gutenberg Galaxy as a footnote to the observations of Innis on the subject of the psychic and social consequences, first of writing then of printing.” But of course Innis never appeared in a Woody Allen film. I’d recommend Jonathan Sterne’s recent reassessment of McLuhan’s legacy in “Media Analysis Beyond Content” to any interested in thinking about these topics further.