Mark Templeton + Kyle Armstrong: Extensions

“Attention must be paid,” says Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman, and though the words are uttered in reference to her husband Willy, the words could be said in reference to a great many things in our memory-impoverished age—cultural history among them. Too many of a country's great figures threaten to fade away if they're not kept alive in one way or another, and that general principle applies as much to Canada as anywhere else, given how rarely names such as Northrop Frye, Irving Layton, Margaret Laurence, and Robertson Davies form part of the current national conversation. With that in mind, we applaud the efforts of sound artist Mark Templeton and film-maker Kyle Armstrong for doing their part in keeping the memory of Marshall McLuhan alive in the form of the audio-visual production Extensions. It's eminently possible that someone, after being exposed to the thirty-seven-minute work, will be curious enough to seek out The Gutenberg Galaxy or Understanding Media as a result.

Extensions, the inaugural release on Templeton's Edmonton-based Graphical imprint and available in an edition of 300 (gatefold LP and DVD), is a physical embodiment of McLuhan's oft-quoted “The medium is the message” in one very real sense: as it was designed to be experienced as both an audio and visual experience, one's experience of it would suffer if it were broached as a purely audio work only—even if Templeton's contribution to the project certainly holds up when listened to sans visuals. But both dimensions are integral for Extensions to be appreciated in its intended form, given the degree of synchronicity between the sounds and images as well as the fact that the work's content incorporates both original and sampled film and audio.

Armstrong brings an experimental non-narrative approach to the heavily manipulated images. Vertical colour bars flow across the screen, and excerpts from McLuhan's writings (sample: “Depth means relating perfectly obvious things to perfectly obvious things”) accompany colour-treated footage of landscapes, faces, numbers, astronauts, nuclear blasts, and so on. Oft distressed, blurred, and obscured by bleaches, dyes, scratches, and moiré-like effects, the multi-layered display flickers in tandem with the music, itself a stuttering stream of voice snippets, woozy horn phrases, and glitchy, turntable-like scratching. Fleeting glimpses of McLuhan himself—the footage lifted from an old CBC interview or National Film Board profile—appear amidst the fluctuating flow, and the work concludes with the man himself asking, “Where would you look for the message in an electric light?”

Templeton's sound design is far removed from the kind featured on his 2007 Anticipate album Standing on a Hummingbird, whose electroacoustic material often orients itself around guitar playing. By comparison, the collage-like music on Extensions is much more abstract in character, and anything so familiar as an acoustic guitar doesn't figure into the presentation. However, the treatments he and Armstrong apply aren't gratuitous but appropriate, given McLuhan's prophetic views on technology and media and their impact on our “global village.”

November 2014