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UBC Theses and Dissertations

A short trip on spaceship earth : Intermedia Society, 1967-1972 Fairbairn, Catherine Rebecca


In 1967 Intermedia Society was formed, providing a workshop facility, space to perform and a pool of equipment for interested artists, architects, technologists and engineers. Inspired by the ideas of Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller concerning the impact of the new electronic age on society, Intermedia endeavoured to foster a meeting place for the cross-germination of the scientist/artist, engendering experimentations involving multi-media productions and explorations into communication processes. Buoyed by an infectious interest from the local press, generous support from the Canada Council and what amounted to an 'open door' policy at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Intermedia quickly became synonymous with what was contemporary, significant and (best of all) intriguing in Vancouver's art scene. Interaction was established with other like-minded organizations, rocketing Intermedia into international status in the arena of 'Art & Technology'. Apart from personal reflections written for the exhibition catalogue, Vancouver: Art and Artists 1931 - 1983. there has been little investigation into the meaning of Intermedia Society in relation to important cultural issues which the Society attempted to address. It is the purpose of this thesis to examine the ideology represented by Intermedia through a close reading of their documents, an analysis of works from three Intermedia exhibitions held at the Vancouver Art Gallery and as exemplified in the writings of McLuhan and Fuller. I will then relate that ideology to a broader discourse concerning technology in the new 'Space Age'. Described as Happy Technophiles (as opposed to 'Anxious' or 'Desperate'), Fuller and McLuhan, crusaders for Technical Humanism, adopt an excessively optimistic stance in light of the social and political realities of the times. Intermedia Society chose to carve out a niche for themselves in this new electronic Eden and, in doing so, joined the forces of technical (liberal) humanism. It is my contention that this optimistic engagement with explorations into communication technology was in keeping with, and in fact fostered by, the reoriented cultural policy formulated by the Canadian Liberal Government. An examination of the political philosophy of Canadian Liberalism in the 1960's reveals a strong orientation toward the development of mass media and technology. Intermedia, seen as innovators in the arts for their positive response to the ‘Technological Society’ and their intended contribution toward communication theory, became linked with the cybernetic network enveloping Canada in its new role as 'Communications Frontier'. Ironically, in contrast to the sophisticated image Intermedia projected in their statements of purpose and intent, the content of their exhibitions became increasingly more festive in character and less technically ambitious. What becomes apparent in the latter years of the group's short history is a growing schism between two sensibilities: those who remained aligned with the original optimism of art's marriage to technology, and those who, although primarily of an optimistic vision, adopted 'carnival' tactics to align themselves firmly within the ranks of 'the sixties' counter culture. Both envisioned an alternative society, but the nature of the alternative for each was very different. Ultimately it was the infeasability of sustaining the disparate ideologies which created the final dissolution of the Society. Prior readings of the cause of Intermedia's disappearance have been credited to the problems encountered when sharing highly sophisticated equipment and the infeasibility of developing communications experiments and explorations when faced with a lack of industrial sponsorship and adequate funding. Obstacles certainly, but sufficient to close down the operation? Intermedia did not close down; it blew apart into satellite organizations much leaner than the unwieldy 'mothership', definitively separating the 'festive' from the 'technical'. The Utopian vision which had fuelled Intermedia's initial years was ideologically inapplicable after 1969. Continued repressive measures against the counter culture had blunted the movement's earlier idealistic zeal. The movement became increasingly subversive after 1970, resulting in a strategy based on alternative lifestyle rather than overt political protest. Intermedia Society members responded individually, either by taking refuge in the countryside, choosing to work independently, or by forming smaller groups with mandates which reflected concern for ecology, community and education.

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