Creativity & Medium

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what the medium means for creating.

Or, more accurately, have been feeling paralyzed by it.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan* coined the phrase “the medium is the message” as part of his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man [note: casual racism]. He writes [emphasis, mine]:

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

Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference. It could be argued that these activities are in some way the “content” of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that “the medium is the message” because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.

CC BY-SA 3.0  by Runner1616.

CC BY-SA 3.0 by Runner1616.

How we interact with the message depends a lot on the medium we’re presented. Film reels are a made up of many photographs. How do we interpret it differently from any other set of photographs? Why do we?

With a film, we’re viewing the photographs in a sequence. And it is this ordering of the images that produces the medium’s meaning (usually, a narrative). While there are other interpretations of this same narrative (à la the script), these won’t have the exact same meaning.

And this—this— has gotten me twisted up in knots. Because choosing a medium implicitly chooses its meaning. How it’ll be considered. What works it’ll be compared to. What tropes and æsthetics it can play into or against. The expectations of the audience. Even who the audience is.

It’s scary. Thinking that your choice of medium dictates so much about the interpretation of your work; examining every potential pitfall and outcome; considering how the production/release sequence impacts the reading. But…

Who the fuck cares‽

Like it or not, anything I produce is going to be misinterpreted. Appropriated. Reused. Ignored. Lost. So, I’ve decided to separate the meaning from the medium. That doesn’t mean I want to create vapid and shallow work. But, I can’t spend so much time on arting defensively.

That’s time I could be spending on making more art.


* McLuhan's work includes racist and sexist language.