Catalysts of Multimedia

“After more than a center of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our plant is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves the various media.” – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964)

Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole in Space, satellite video installation, 1980

Catalysts of Multimedia is a historical investigation of the artists, engineers, philosophers and their visions that have catalyzed and shaped the media-saturated environment we live in today. Weaving the various branches of art, science, technology, philosophy, and sociology – as well as the multiplicity of media, inventions, forms, and artistic genres – the histories are unearthed for their rich interplay of aspirations, research, and artistic/technological accomplishment. The various strands of multimedia did not evolve in a vacuum: to recognize the complexity of media conditions today, we must fully grasp the interdisciplinary nature of the past. Or as Ted Nelson said: “everything is deeply intertwingled.”

What are the ideas, concepts and motivating forces that have driven this engine of invention and creation? What does Richard Wagner’s dramatic form of the gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) have to do with the “metamedium” conceived by Alan Kay at Xerox PARC in the 1970s when he led the first research on the graphical user interface? How has the science of cybernetics as investigated by Norbert Weiner coincided with open, participatory forms of performance art? How might the dream of the global knowledge repository envisioned by World War II scientist Vannevar Bush underlie the emerging crises today of Internet equality and big data? And how do the avant-garde, communications Happenings of Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, such as Hole in Space from 1980, speak to the collapse of geographical boundaries that Marshal McLuhan so appropriately forecast when he coined the term “global village.”

In our cyber-anthropological search for meaning and context, we might turn to futurist-cyberpunk writer William Gibson, who described in his preface to Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, the urgency for unearthing the media histories where “the bones of our ancestors are buried.”

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