Carve carefully: Why the future of journalists is as architects and newsprint is the new stone

Thoughts on newspaper layoffs and resignations, art, John Oliver, the Tragically Hip, the poet Shelley, craft beer and Marshall McLuhan, as if you would expect anything less

NOW Magazine co-founder Michael Hollett has resigned to focus on building up the annual music event North by North East and to write. In a statement on NOW's website he says he is looking forward to working with Austin’s SouthXSouthWest organizers to create a greater impact in Toronto for North by, showcasing the city as a centre for live music.

NXNE has grown from a club crawl to a larger street presence with free concerts outdoors and last year it localised itself in the TO Portlands for two days, creating its own environment. Building one's own house is important for control of delivery  of one’s messaging but I think Hollett is going one step beyond. My understanding of it is he wants to recreate or at least have a hand in creating the kind of city he wants to live in by way of North by.

Hollett is moving from author to architect. Its not just authors, many contemporary artists no matter their discipline, are creating environments, expanding their canvas and studio outwards into the physical realm. The result is a reimagining of what the world can be. Arts organizations are also expanding beyond their walls. Nuit Blanche makes galleries of alleyways and Luminato made over the Hearn Building as art installation. The Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa presented Liminal, a show about curation of space and its possibilities. The artists are building, watch them carefully. Where they go we will follow.

Canadian Art recently ran a feature, “9 group exhibitions that defined Contemporary Indigenous Art” . By far the most pertinent of the collection is Rebecca Belmore's 1992 “Mawu-che-hitoowin: A Gathering of People for Any Purpose”. It is a circle of different chairs on a large floor rug. It is a closed circle but it is open for discussion. It is the beginning of a city. Belmore made it in 1992 a decade before best selling author and marketing guru Seth Godin delivered his book and TED talk, “Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us”.

photo by Louis Joncas

photo by Louis Joncas

That is what Hollett is doing I think with NXNE, he is gathering people for the purpose of city building, but within the acoustic space of music. The space will dictate the conversation. And the conversation will direct future growth in Toronto. He has been doing it for decades. While NOW didn't have an agenda it did have a distinct voice, one of a left-leaning socially conscious bent but one heard loud and year after year. The Toronto we have now is NOW's doing. NOW will continue doing what it does in print but there was always an element of what in contemporary art is called Social Practise, a marriage between product and purpose, a marriage for the greater good.

But NOW was not the first media in Toronto to marry commerce with information for the greater good. The Toronto Star has operated for over a century within its founder's Joseph E. Atkinson's guidelines. The Atkinson Principles have framed the editorial decisions of the Star and whether one agrees or disagrees with how the paper has implemented the principles they do give the Star a personality, a particular voice, a uniqueness and an authenticity; a virtual checklist of modern media necessities. The Principles  provide ground for the figure, context for the message, a raft in the stream for people to gather on, a raft with chairs in a circle on a rug.

One can not be bland in the overflowing flood of information streaming by. One needs to have a distinct voice to stand-out and one needs to be anchored. Newspapers or News Gathering Organisations which are anchored in geography are as granite in the stream. The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Toronto Star; one sees them instantly in the mass of media swimming by but it’s not their brand it is their city which is the rock island in the stream. The newspaper builds on the foundation. The Star can moor it’s raft to it. A newspaper’s job is to reflect the stories of its anchoring rock but it has also a role in shaping the rock, shaping its city.

NOW’s Hollett knows this but other newspapers not so much. They have lost their voice by immersing too deeply in the digital stream forgetting its very deep relationship with the city. The folks at the top could also brush up their Marshall McLuhan.

The communications guru, part of the Toronto School of Communications along with Harold Innis and Northrop Frye, says new media makes old media obsolete. However the new media will reverse into old media at some point further along. The 19th century French writer Victor Hugo provides an illustration. In his 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” the Parisian Archdeacon says This will kill that, the Book will destroy the Edifice.

Hugo is referring to the emergence of the printing press, to books, and to the mass distribution of information and he says it will destroy the church and by church he means the monopoly the church holds on knowledge but also the actual physical church, the architecture, the statutes, the stories carved in stone, the use of of edifice to inform the illiterate.

The edifice and the pulpit provided the means for the news delivered Sundays. The news was reflected in the stained glass, and also delivered via artworks, by way of  the sheer powerful statement of the building itself, dripping eternal power. The word was made not flesh but stone.

Gutenberg’s printing press changed everything. In the modern age Apple founder Steve Jobs was as impactful as the enterprising German printer. Jobs knew too that his media would shape its own environment so he shaped it first. Apple operates as a whole with everything fitting in to everything else. Before launching a product Jobs created the environment in which it would work best. He didn’t release the Ipod until he had Itunes. He understood too that media reverses and he recreated the phone as the Iphone knowing full well, I imagine, it would reverse into telegram. The phone would deliver visuals not audibles. Jobs created the environment for Instagram and Facebook to thrive. In line with Marshall’s teachings digital made print obsolete and print reversed back into stone.

So what can print do now it has become stone? A quick look at Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” will tell you stone is not so permanent, it crumbles, it falls apart, Time erodes stone as does water, the go to metaphor for describing media. However it is the arrogance of Ozymandias which prompted Shelley to write the poem. It is warning against hubris, it is not a warning against the medium. Stone as a medium survives when it reaches the level of art and avoids being or becoming propaganda. Is that the lesson then for newspapers? Do they aspire to art and avoid propaganda and how can one avoid propaganda when one has a particular message?

Let’s take a look at the Star’s Newsroom Concert Series hosted by its resident music critic. The short interview and performance videos are sponsored by Mill Street, once an  independent craft brewery but now owned by Labatt’s. The Sheepdogs, Metric, Monster Truck, Tuns, White Lung, K-Os, Joel Plaskett, Lindi Ortega have all taken part in the session originally held in the Star’s newsroom before moving to the brewery in the Distillery District. The videos are available online and the purpose is of course to increase website hits and to sell beer.  But what about the music? What does it do for the artist? Does anyone care about the art and the art of it?

There are two elements within the session scenario that most certainly do care about the music; the act and the host. The host participates to tell more of the band’s story. The band participates because they care about their music and wish to showcase it. They do it for the exposure.  They can bump her up by using every channel available to push the Sessions out to the public. There are many channels; paper, website, website, tablet, social media and a building. Podcast the sessions too. Create a pop-up shop and sell the band’s merch. Demonstrate a greater concern for the art by further facilitating the exposure and aligning themselves with the artist.

Honour the artist’s participation but to do so it needs an understanding of the needs of art, it needs to foster and favour art. But the question is how, it’s always how? How does one make the culture change needed to favour art over everything else?

Again McLuhan is the go-to. He revered the artist. It was his conclusion all media aspires to be art and ultimately becomes art. If newspapers are already reversing into architecture how long before they cross over into art? Antonin Artaud and The Surrealists thought newspapers were ready-made collages, thought they were already art. But that was just in the juxtaposition of stories, a seemingly random creation but one of course that was curated even if its collective effect was not considered.

Some newspapers seem to be designing their pages as if they are surrealist collages. There are references to other stories on the pages, hints and a nudge nudge wink wink in the headlines. The National Post on Saturday July 30 had a page, (A2) that couldn’t possibly be have been laid-out without art direction. It is in itself a piece of art, subtly layered with stories about Swedish policewoman, Hillary Clinton and cat fights. It wraps in on itself creating its own environment, it’s own effect.

It is a step from the building of pages around artful ideas to the building of promotional events around artful ideas and a step from there to the actual building of promotional buildings around artful ideas. And yes a step from building buildings to building cities, the infrastructure and channels for the distribution of media, and in this modern world we are all our own media, our own channel. When creating cities this mobility of person and idea is the most important function of the city. A person’s idea has more mobility than the body that holds it. The body is anchored in geography. The body is as stone compared to the speed of ideas. The body is as print but also it is as architecture and it is also as art.

The content of architecture is theatre. Music creates sonic architecture and the space created works well when it contains theatre. Of course theatre can collapse into spectacle and spectacle into cartoon very quickly. The icon was once key to success in modern music, Alice Cooper, KISS, Frank Zappa’s moustache, Jim Morrison’s stage antics, Iggy Pop and the king of it all Freddie Mercury who was spectacular incarnate. Exhibit A, Live Aid. David Bowie took rock ‘n roll spectacle and made it art. He was ahead by a century or more curating even his own death as art (still can’t believe Bowie is dead).

The Tragically Hip are on tour, death is the support act. They are on their final tour after the announcement Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer. One hopes of course for a different ending that the one given. The band is playing across Canada with several dates in some cities. Downie is performing in a variety of brightly coloured metallic leather suits and a top hat. It is theatre, it is a performance, it well may be his last. He is going as loudly as he can into the night, singing on “Great Soul” from the new album Man Machine Poem, “Nothing, eternity, nothing? And then? What then, to resist?”

The shows are sell-outs, complete sell-outs in mere moments such is the demand to share in the final times of The Hip. The band represents something about Canadians that is quite rare, they represent nationalism. They bind this country as fast as the steel ties of the railways. Canucks are not prone to rar-rar patriotism or rather they were at not at one time. But times have changed and The Hip are part of the reason. They created an artistic presentation of Canada to their fans, constellations over Bobcaygeon, Kings of Wheat, late breaking news on the CBC, girls of Thompson, hockey pucks, poets and road apples. They created new icons, icons the many nations that make up Canada could all understand and all of it washed over by references to oceans, streams, waters, seas, coasts, rivers and all thrashing madly in the fray.

The music created a space and within the space Downie created anchors for us to gather around, chairs in a circle on a rug, so we don’t drown in the media flood washing at our own shores.

Now Downie is facing a final curtain call so many millions want to reach out and touch him, to share his tragedy, his burden but also to share their own experiences in this new unnamed space the Hip created.

Those touched by the Hip are gathering. They will make the pilgrimage to touch the band and each other. The Hip, once just a handful of kids from Kingston Ontario have created all of this. Their individual voice has become the voice of many and those voices will carry Downie and his bandmates clear across this huge wide country.

The Hip’s art is the cornerstone for this new nationalism. People have moored their raft to The Hip, to the art of it and should a statue be erected by some at some point it will be guarded night and day and will never suffer the ignominy of Ozymandias. The songs will survive the singer.

If art survives and if media inevitably becomes art is it possible then to begin as art. Yes, Jobs did it. Is it not better then to incorporate art into the design of everything the media does? And if that is music sessions in a brewery is it not preferable then to begin with the art and build from that?

Instead of designing with art as an afterthought one could start with art. Ask the artist, consult with them to assess and meet their needs. Art is not a resource, it is not a means. When art is a means it becomes propaganda and no matter what stone you use propaganda will be allowed to crumble. Propaganda will be destroyed by subsequent generations, if it even gets that far in this future-is-the-past world we live in. Art is the end game but it is not a player.

Hollett it seems has always considered the artist, his publication has championed art, no matter the context or controversy, He values art and with NXNE I bet he will begin by creating a space that fits the artist first and foremost. With NXNE he will put the music first, if we are to believe he is using SXSW as the template (and there is no reason to believe otherwise).

The Toronto Star has a lot going for it. Of all the print newspapers in Canada it will most likely survive because it has a distinct voice and it is anchored in geography. However it will be left behind unless it does something with that voice. It needs to use every one of its channels to tell the story of Toronto artists, past and present but it also has to dig in and start creating Toronto with art and as art.

Hollett was never just a disseminator of news, he is a visionary, a creative and the city was the canvas for his collages. He was of the present and he helped craft a future and will continue to shape its architecture. Other newspapers could take a page from his paper and realise its ultimate destiny is not as an agent of news but as an agent of social change. Social change married with art is Social Practise. It’s what Joe Atkinson began with, the art of change.

“I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want to own” - Andy Warhol