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Abstract | This artist-response essay exam­ines some eth­i­cal and aes­thet­ic con­tours of media-the­o­ret­i­cal hoax­es (and of a hoax­ing media the­o­ry). I accom­plish this through an explorato­ry reflec­tion upon my own expe­ri­ences and dilem­mas as a media hoax artist, a voca­tion that has been influ­enced by Harold Adams Innis’s “authen­tic” schol­ar­ly per­sona as well as by McLuhan’s “prob­ing” meth­ods. Where­as recent work in the field of hoax art has tend­ed to rely on the even­tu­al text-bound rev­e­la­tion of the truth of the sit­u­a­tion, my McLuhan­ite method aims rather towards mag­ic and mediation.

Résumé | Cet essai et réponse d’artiste exam­ine quelques con­tours éthiques et esthé­tiques des can­u­lars médi­a­tiques (et d'une théorie des can­u­lars médi­a­tiques). J'accomplis cela à tra­vers une réflex­ion exploratoire sur mes pro­pres expéri­ences et dilemmes en tant qu’artiste de can­u­lar médi­a­tiques, une voca­tion qui a été influ­encée par la per­son­nal­ité académique « authen­tique » d’Harold Adams Innis ain­si que par les méth­odes « exploratoires » de McLuhan. Alors que les travaux récents dans le domaine de l'art du can­u­lar ont eu ten­dance à dépen­dre de la révéla­tion éventuelle de la vérité de la sit­u­a­tion, ma méth­ode McLuhan­ite s’appuie plutôt sur la magie et la médiation.

Hen­ry Adam Svec

L(a)ying with Marshall McLuhan: Media Theory as Hoax Art

It’s a com­men­tary on our extreme cul­tur­al lag that when we think of crit­i­cism of infor­ma­tion flow we still use only the con­cept of book cul­ture, name­ly, how much trust can be reposed in the words of the message.
– Mar­shall McLuhan (Coun­terblast 119)

The con­tent of every Harold Adams Innis is always anoth­er Mar­shall McLuhan.
– Staunton R. Livingston

The world itself has become a probe.
– Mar­shall McLuhan (From Cliché 12).

I nev­er meant to bam­boo­zle. I have just enjoyed the ways that things can get in the way—on stage, on record, online, on the air, on the street. Pos­si­bil­i­ties can be opened and unex­pect­ed path­ways can be paved; direc­tions one nev­er thought pos­si­ble can be made to cas­cade out into bloom­ing black tops. I have not meant to con­ceal (I would not know where to start) but rather to embrace, which often involves only desir­ing and won­der­ing: Wouldn’t it be fun?

Mar­shall McLuhan’s mis­chie­vous print­ed mat­ters and per­for­mances have offered insight and inspi­ra­tion. Although notions of “the real” and “the true” iron­i­cal­ly haunt con­tem­po­rary hoax artists, the approach that I have bor­rowed reimag­ines the rules of this game—which can mea­sure less than they engen­der and can sig­ni­fy less than they ampli­fy. McLuhan offers a light for hoax artists who want not to lie but mere­ly to have lain with oth­ers across the tech­no-cul­tur­al ter­mi­ni of all that might be, or become, or have been becom­ing.[1]

A Hoaxer’s Dilemma 

First there was Hen­ry Thomas, the actor who played “Elliott” in ET: The Extra-Ter­res­tri­al, who I decid­ed not to research except for the sparse­ly nar­rat­ed fil­mog­ra­phy I found on the Inter­net Movie Data­base. I knew only his image—a sweet face and voice that could have been mine, more or less, from a cer­tain dis­tance. Wouldn’t it be fun if “Hen­ry Thomas” was from South­west­ern Ontario and has decid­ed to move back home to focus on his song­writ­ing? The Boy from ET was not a mat­ter of obscur­ing, con­ceal­ing, and then reveal­ing. I saw myself rather putting into motion branch­ing streams of pos­si­bil­i­ty, join­ing myself up with an image and rum­mag­ing around, scav­eng­ing what I could and fab­ri­cat­ing what I could not, and plac­ing my final find­ings for plea­sure with­in the reach of oth­ers.[2] When “Hen­ry Thomas” prop­er mes­saged me through MySpace and asked me to stop, I learned that his own ver­sion of “The Boy From ET” was also try­ing to make it as a singer-song­writer, which is an incred­i­ble coin­ci­dence. I even­tu­al­ly oblig­ed him by adding a dis­claimer and we both went onto our sep­a­rate ways (see www​.myspace​.com/​t​h​e​b​o​y​f​r​o​met and www​.myspace​.com/​h​e​n​r​y​t​h​o​m​a​s​m​u​sic).

In 2010 my inter­ests shift­ed from for­mer child stars to the con­cept of the folk. I won­dered if it would be fun to have dis­cov­ered tapes record­ed in the 1970s by “Staunton R. Liv­ingston,” the icon­o­clas­tic Cana­di­an folk­lorist who believed that cul­ture was com­mon property—and also believed that, if one want­ed to doc­u­ment authen­tic Cana­di­an folk­lore, one would need to scour the teams of the Cana­di­an Foot­ball League for the play­ers’ tales, leg­ends, and songs. (I could not have been sure why “Liv­ingston” believed this, because he did not write or pub­lish, but he was com­mit­ted to the belief as far as I could dis­cern.) Wouldn’t it be fun if these folk songs of the Cana­di­an Foot­ball League evinced a remark­able per­spi­cac­i­ty regard­ing the uni­ver­sal­i­ty of bore­dom and drudgery, yet also the pos­si­bil­i­ty of redemp­tion via sol­i­dar­i­ty, under late cap­i­tal­ism? Fun, too, if some of the coach­ing staff of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to var­si­ty foot­ball team came out to a per­for­mance, curi­ous about this his­tor­i­cal worm­hole, ask­ing excel­lent ques­tions after the show? It was, indeed, very fun (see www​.thecflses​sions​.ca).

My dream­ing has most recent­ly been pulled by the pos­si­bil­i­ty of an intel­li­gent machine hav­ing deci­sive­ly passed the Tur­ing Test in Daw­son City, Yukon (see www​.folksin​gu​lar​i​ty​.com).[3] With the help of Czech com­put­er pro­gram­mer “Mirek Plíhal” and Cana­di­an song­writer Math­ias Kom, I desired to have con­struct­ed an arti­fi­cial­ly intel­li­gent data­base of folk­song that can both com­pre­hend the total­i­ty of the Cana­di­an folk archive and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly gen­er­ate new yet hyper-authen­tic works based on the source data. (In hon­our of my favourite com­mu­nist folk­lorist, we named this machine LIVINGSTON™.) There were some glitch­es and errors, to be sure, but we nonethe­less man­aged to redi­rect media evo­lu­tion towards less spec­tac­u­lar and more egal­i­tar­i­an (and weird­er) ends, a task as dif­fi­cult as it was fun (see Svec, “From the Tur­ing Test”).[4]

Obvi­ous­ly, there can be mul­ti­ple yearn­ings involved in any act of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, includ­ing a hoax per­for­mance, and for me they have not always aligned. For instance, once, in Toron­to, I was kicked in the leg by a well-known play­wright when I let it slip, after a show, that I was not actu­al­ly an accred­it­ed folk­lorist and that there was not actu­al­ly a base­ment in what I had been call­ing “The Nation­al Archives”.[5] Anoth­er time, in North Bay, on the day after I had auto­graphed sev­er­al CDs for arti­fi­cial­ly intel­li­gent Cana­di­an folk music fans at the White Water Gallery, I received an email from some­one who had heard that my expla­na­tion of arti­fi­cial­ly intel­li­gent folk music giv­en in North Bay was an elab­o­rate hoax and would I please clar­i­fy. I wrote back that I would not describe it that way, and we left it at that. But I was strick­en with grief and with shame: my hard work of guid­ing oth­ers through fields of pos­si­bil­i­ty had been ric­o­cheted back to me, reap­pear­ing now only as obstruc­tion or shroud. Hav­ing recent­ly received a doc­tor­ate for a not-entire­ly-unre­lat­ed body of research­es, I felt guilty in North Bay, even if the pre­sen­ta­tion I had offered occurred on stage in an art gallery and not in a uni­ver­si­ty or at a folk­lore con­fer­ence.[6]

Authenticity and Media Theory

In one of Mar­shall McLuhan’s many media appear­ances, he is espe­cial­ly elu­sive. Audi­ence mem­bers pose ques­tions about the sage’s con­tro­ver­sial and famous pro­nounce­ments, while the Eng­lish pro­fes­sor slow­ly spins in his chair, lob­bing probes: “I have no point of view. See, for exam­ple, now, I couldn’t pos­si­bly have a point of view—I’m just mov­ing around,” he more or less explains (glob­al­bee­hive). McLuhan makes the non-artic­u­la­tion of a clear posi­tion into a play­ful Great Refusal. He will not serve print-ori­ent­ed log­ics. At least, he would pre­fer not to.

As Glenn Willmott’s book on the char­ac­ter and con­text of McLuhan’s pro­to-post­mod­ernism has demon­strat­ed, McLuhan’s incon­sis­ten­cies and media games can be gen­er­ous­ly viewed as a per­for­ma­tive embod­i­ment of his analy­sis of con­tem­po­rary media cul­ture: “McLuhan became less and less, let us say, sin­cere. He became increas­ing­ly the mask-wear­er of post­mod­ern satire, a mas­ter of the ‘put-on’” (172). Thus, as McLuhan him­self had already gone to great pains to remind his read­ers in many of his books, his work should not sole­ly be judged from with­in the con­ven­tion­al par­a­digms of schol­ar­ly prac­tice in the human­i­ties. As Will­mott describes:

To [the “irra­tional” gram­mar of mod­ern exis­tence], McLuhan sub­mit­ted him­self, in his post­mod­ern mas­quer­ade as the first imaged, incor­po­rat­ed, com­mod­i­fied, and dis­sem­i­nat­ed ‘Pop’ philoso­pher.… When “total” is world­wide and tech­no­log­i­cal, rather than trib­al and ver­bal, the self can no longer hope to rec­og­nize itself in an onto­log­i­cal mir­ror pro­ject­ed upon it: the indi­vid­ual bound­aries and coher­ence of the self are increas­ing­ly prob­lema­tized as a col­lec­tive techne pen­e­trates and absorbs every­thing in sight. (134)

The cor­po­re­al and inter-sub­jec­tive modes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and aware­ness fos­tered by “cool” media demand mul­ti­plic­i­tous modes of per­cep­tion and expo­si­tion (see McLuhan, Under­stand­ing), which McLuhan’s com­plex per­son­ae, per­for­mances, and texts aim to open. As McLuhan him­self put it in The Medi­um is the Mas­sage, “The main obsta­cle to a clear under­stand­ing of the effects of the new media is our deeply embed­ded habit of regard­ing all phe­nom­e­na from a fixed point of view” (68).

Yet McLuhan’s splin­tered optics and play­ful modes of expo­si­tion, if log­i­cal­ly con­sis­tent and rhetor­i­cal­ly nec­es­sary, famous­ly sat unwell with many of his con­tem­po­raries, despite (or per­haps because of) McLuhan’s main­stream suc­cess­es. As Theodore Roszak declared, “McLuhan’s asser­tions are not, he would have us believe, propo­si­tions or hypothe­ses. They are ‘probes.’ But what is a ‘probe’? It is appar­ent­ly any out­ra­geous state­ment for which one has no evi­dence at all or which, indeed, flies in the face of obvi­ous facts” (268). McLuhan’s method from this angle seems noth­ing but charlatanism—a spec­tac­u­lar show for the spotlight.

Even crit­ics sym­pa­thet­ic to Cana­di­an media the­o­ry some­times pre­fer to see McLuhan as an inau­then­tic echo of the orig­i­nary source, Harold Adams Innis. Such dis­tinc­tions appear both intel­lec­tu­al and per­son­al. Con­sid­er James W. Carey’s open­ing to his influ­en­tial essay on Innis: “Dur­ing the third quar­ter of this cen­tu­ry, North Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ca­tions theory—or at least the most inter­est­ing part—could have been described by an arc run­ning from Harold Innis to Mar­shall McLuhan. ‘It would be more impres­sive,’ as Oscar Wilde said while star­ing up at Nia­gara Falls, ‘if it ran the oth­er way’” (109). Carey goes on to ren­der Innis as an un-com­modi­tized hero with integri­ty, swim­ming against fash­ions, cur­rents, and col­leagues. Using words and phras­es such as “com­mit­ment” and “revolt” and “ran­sacked expe­ri­ence with­out regard to dis­ci­pline” and “res­cued” and “freed” and “attempt­ed to restore” (114), Carey paints Innis with vig­or and virility.

Although McLuhan has been giv­en his due since the back­lash­es (we have recent­ly seen edit­ed col­lec­tions, con­fer­ences, and cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions), it has seemed to me that, at least in water-cool­er dis­cus­sions in sub­ter­ranean folk-music archives, one of the two prog­en­i­tors of Cana­di­an media the­o­ry is ren­dered as com­mit­ted intel­lec­tu­al, the oth­er as celebri­ty sell­out. One toils away in rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty, buck­ing trends and pur­su­ing truth, the oth­er rid­ing his pre­de­ces­sors’ coat­tails, mak­ing cameo appear­ances in films and spin­ning in his chair on tele­vi­sion. I am not endors­ing these judg­ments but am mere­ly point­ing out that they have had some weight, dura­bil­i­ty, as Innis him­self observed of oral dia­logue in The Bias of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

How­ev­er, per­sonas and the affects they let loose, like argu­ments artic­u­lat­ed in aca­d­e­m­ic mono­graphs or jour­nal arti­cles, are raw mate­ri­als for the hoax artist. Thus, both ideas and per­for­mances are to be found in the “Toron­to School” of Cana­di­an media the­o­ry, both con­tent and media, which just so hap­pen to have drawn me out of the eth­i­cal impasse I encoun­tered in North Bay. Innis’s and McLuhan’s con­ver­gent the­o­ret­i­cal propo­si­tions and their diver­gent styles of being and think­ing togeth­er make up a palette of sig­nals and nois­es in which we can find both truth and hocus-pocus, both authen­tic­i­ty and that against which it has his­tor­i­cal­ly been defined, and in potent com­bi­na­tions.[7]

Authenticity, Media, and the Folk

I had already been toy­ing with Innis’s work and with the myth of the com­mit­ted rebel-schol­ar. Con­sid­er the bio­graph­i­cal details of “Staunton R. Liv­ingston,” the char­ac­ter whose record­ings of CFL play­ers singing authen­tic Cana­di­an folk songs I claimed to have found in the base­ment of “The Nation­al Archives,” and after whom I named my arti­fi­cial­ly intel­li­gent folk data­base, LIVINGSTON™. Staunton R. Liv­ingston was born and raised in Wind­sor, Ontario (is there a more authen­tic city?); he was an auto­di­dact who briefly stud­ied at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to but who dropped out before tak­ing his degree (Innis was one of his teach­ers); he was a com­mu­nist folk­lorist who did not pub­lish or hold an aca­d­e­m­ic posi­tion; and he died in 1977 in Trois-Riv­ières, QC of heart fail­ure. Like Innis, Liv­ingston was a “mar­gin­al man” (Wat­son), on the out­side look­ing in, pay­ing lit­tle atten­tion to dis­pos­able and exter­nal process­es of val­i­da­tion or accred­i­ta­tion. Liv­ingston was a truth­ful seek­er of truth, a cap­tur­er and assem­bler of real voic­es; he refused even to write or to pub­lish, thor­ough­ly com­mit­ted as he was to the arts of oral­i­ty and phonog­ra­phy. Audi­ences seemed to love this side of our hero and to desire more reli­able information.

Con­sid­er too Livingston’s approach to his folk­loris­tic arse­nal of tools, in par­tic­u­lar the mag­net­ic tape recorder, which was marked for him by an insa­tiable desire for pres­ence, touch, and time; Liv­ingston sought to dig below con­scious­ness and mean­ing, down to the fun­da­men­tal grounds of authen­tic exis­tence.[8] As I ren­dered his folk­loris­tic method in my play On Livingston’s Method:

If you were to take the tapes that Liv­ingston made of CFL play­ers in the 1970s, if you were to lay these tapes across the ground, and if it were pos­si­ble to see on tape the grain of the music, you would see noth­ing but this grain on Livingston’s tapes. It would not be pos­si­ble to see, there, the lack that is the oppo­site of the grains of music. This means that to lis­ten to The CFL Ses­sions is not to hear a singer who is sim­ply pass­ing on a song. If we fol­low the path Liv­ingston has laid out for us, in The CFL Ses­sions we can hear the singer become some­thing oth­er than a mere chan­nel of a mes­sage; we can hear the singer reach towards communion—an instru­ment for itself and yet long­ing for others.

Sound, in this light, has a utopi­an ring­ing built into it, which mag­net­ic tape record­ing has a unique abil­i­ty to locate and mag­ni­fy. Livingston’s use of phonography—given that he did not record for a record label or even for a pub­lic institution—can thus be under­stood as a folk approach to folk­song col­lect­ing: he fig­ured him­self as a pure reser­voir for pure reser­voirs, a clear win­dow for clear win­dows. So the leg­end goes, I claimed.

Sig­nals can get crossed, how­ev­er. Clear­ly smit­ten with Livingston’s life and meth­ods, I myself (Livingston’s legacy’s care­tak­er) tend­ed to mis­use my sources, var­i­ous­ly read­ing too far and not far enough (see www​.folk​song​sof​canadanow​.com/). In speak­ing and in mak­ing dig­i­tal archives, and in writ­ing and singing, I tend­ed to get in the way. The work of a “Guten­berg man [sic]” (McLuhan, Guten­berg), my aca­d­e­m­ic dis­course con­tend­ed with Livingston’s implic­it pleas for being togeth­er, for I essayed too much (see http://​www​.folksin​gu​lar​i​ty​.com/​f​a​q​.​h​tml). I could often see it in my audience’s glazed-over eyes—could feel the dis­dain and, some­times, con­tempt for their too-tight relay. They want­ed Liv­ingston, and his Folk, but were stuck in the mid­dle with me.

And yet, in spite of the cal­cu­lat­ed incom­pe­tence of his prog­e­ny, even and per­haps espe­cial­ly when our “cov­er” was blown, Livingston’s method func­tioned across both time and space. Some kind of authen­tic­i­ty echoed out and away from our cer­e­mo­ny (and from all its oth­er incar­na­tions), in which folk-singing foot­ballers can sing and rev­el and make poet­ry, and in which tech­nol­o­gy can be recal­i­brat­ed towards human and un-com­modi­tized ends. “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy,” as the machine LIVINGSTON™ wrote in “Take It Easy But Take It to the Lim­it,” iron­i­cal­ly entranced there­in by its own pow­ers of com­po­si­tion. Which is to say that in spite of the glitch­es and noise com­mu­nion was made to hap­pen. No lie. I could feel it.

Hocus Pocus

In my expe­ri­ence, it is impos­si­ble to pre­dict how an audi­ence will react, but it seems to me that ide­al audi­tors have sus­pect­ed, doubt­ed, believed, won­dered, accept­ed, delight­ed, and revolt­ed alto­geth­er. As the con­tem­po­rary McLuhan­ite media the­o­rist Siegfried Zielin­s­ki puts it, “It is of vital impor­tance to know that a mag­i­cal approach toward tech­nol­o­gy con­tin­ues to be pos­si­ble and to be reas­sured that invest­ment in it is mean­ing­ful” (Deep Time 255). Thus for me it was impor­tant not to include in my work a hoaxer’s reveal. Zielin­s­ki again: “When the spaces for action become ever small­er for all that is unwieldy or does not entire­ly fit in, that is unfa­mil­iar and for­eign, then we must attempt to con­front the pos­si­ble with its own pos­si­bil­i­ties" (Deep Time 11). Livingston’s rad­i­cal phonog­ra­phy and LIVINGSTON’s authen­tic archive are only two pos­si­bil­i­ties with­in late-mod­ern media cul­ture, but I want­ed to fore­ground them—and to make them both real and durable.

Yet, “hoax art” has often tend­ed to require a moment of unmask­ing, a moment at which the per­sonas are deflat­ed and at which the true mean­ing or inten­tions of the artist are revealed. Accord­ing to Chris Flem­ing and John O’Carrol, this strat­e­gy makes hoax­es an inher­ent­ly educa­tive type of text or per­for­mance: “Like irony, the hoax means the oppo­site of what it says and its ulti­mate truth, if we are still brave enough to talk in these terms, depends on its fal­si­ty being tak­en for truth. The decep­tion, in this respect, is tem­po­ral and temporary—the hoax is no good if it can­not, at some stage, be revealed (unless, of course, the aim is sim­ply to defraud)” (48). Fleming’s and O’Carrol’s the­o­riza­tion of the hoax draws on Jacques Derrida’s engage­ment with J.L. Austin; although they acknowl­edge that hoax­es oper­ate across numer­ous gen­res and can exist as texts or per­for­mances, they see the hoax as a pri­mar­i­ly par­a­sit­i­cal (and inher­ent­ly dis­cur­sive) form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “Hoax­es are at once tex­tu­al and meta­tex­tu­al in their strate­gies of attack” (57), they write.

Some of the most high-pro­file hoax artists of late would seem to agree with Flem­ing and O’Carrol about the inher­ent tex­tu­al­i­ty and meta­tex­tu­al­i­ty of the form as well as its educa­tive func­tion of writ­ing truth to fal­si­ty. One of the most vis­i­ble prac­ti­tion­ers, The Yes Men, have espe­cial­ly required moments of unmask­ing in which their decon­struc­tive inten­tions have been revealed. They spend weeks or months or days join­ing up with and inhab­it­ing var­i­ous media appa­ra­tus­es and ide­olo­gies; set­ting truth and rep­re­sen­ta­tion aside, they meld their bod­ies and clever faces with the mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al-enter­tain­ment com­plex in a way that fore­grounds and height­ens its absurd log­ics and ten­den­cies (see Hynes, Sharp, and Fagan). But the satir­i­cal func­tion of The Yes Men’s per­for­mances requires a moment at which we real­ize that it has all been a polem­i­cal act: masks are stripped away, cos­tumes dis­card­ed, and they final­ly help us to see their point of view on the glob­al con­se­quences of var­i­ous neolib­er­al poli­cies. In oth­er words, despite their clear knowl­edge of and invest­ment in the tac­ti­cal guide­lines of media the­o­ry, the knowl­edge that The Yes Men have to offer is a print-based and visu­al knowl­edge. In their first doc­u­men­tary The Yes Men (2003), for exam­ple, while explain­ing their mis­sion and role one of The Yes Men points to stacks of print­ed news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines that have cov­ered their antics, imply­ing that their real work is the draw­ing of atten­tion (using media stunts) towards print-based argumentation.

Anoth­er influ­en­tial and famous hoax artist, Iris Häus­sler, has also required a moment of unmask­ing, though as a visu­al artist she is moti­vat­ed by a dif­fer­ent set of dis­ci­pli­nary con­cerns than The Yes Men. Gilles Deleuze’s claim that “[e]very actu­al sur­rounds itself with a cloud of vir­tu­al images” is con­cretized in her expan­sive art­works (Deleuze and Par­net 148), which invite the view­er into appar­ent­ly lim­it­less worlds. I had the good for­tune of attend­ing Häussler’s He Named Her Amber (2010) at the Art Gallery of Ontario. After being led through an exquis­ite­ly detailed exca­va­tion site at The Grange by a guide who explained and recount­ed the most fan­ci­ful of his­tor­i­cal tales in a way that made the sto­ry feel all-too-real, we were giv­en a let­ter by our tour guide and sent on our way. It was in this let­ter, on this page, that we learned of the artist’s imprint on the site and nar­ra­tive: “Final­ly reveal­ing the fic­ti­tious nature of Amber’s story—after a time of reflection—is absolute­ly as much a part of my art­work as con­struct­ing the sto­ry is in the first place” (Häus­sler, "Dis­clo­sure" n.p.). In read­ing the artist state­ment, which accord­ing to Häus­sler is nec­es­sary, the expan­sive “cloud” of vir­tu­al­i­ties were thus cast into the dust­bin of the indi­vid­ual imag­i­nary of a sin­gle creator.

I admire both The Yes Men and Iris Häus­sler (and even Alan Sokal), and also rec­og­nize that they are in dif­fer­ent leagues than my poor folk. But for me the hoax is not a text, nor should it end with one. It is rit­u­al, enchant­ment, and com­mu­ni­ty. It is a bring­ing togeth­er and a mak­ing pos­si­ble, not a lie but a kind of hocus-pocus, which is the orig­i­nary mean­ing of “hoax.”[9] Accord­ing to Flem­ing and O’Carroll, many con­tem­po­rary media and aca­d­e­m­ic hoax­es have an educa­tive func­tion: “[The hoax] com­mences with the premise that it has supe­ri­or knowl­edge of some kind” (57). How­ev­er, fol­low­ing McLuhan’s lead(s), my kind of hocus-pocus is not so severe or print-dom­i­nat­ed, because it does not reveal supe­ri­or, dis­crete knowl­edge from an authen­tic mar­gin, or even artic­u­late a point of view. I am rather join­ing up with oth­ers, includ­ing machines, and expand­ing, mul­ti­ply­ing, and thick­en­ing (or at least try­ing). “A moment of truth and rev­e­la­tion from which new form is born,” as McLuhan observes of media hybridiza­tion in gen­er­al (Under­stand­ing 80). Sim­i­lar­ly, the unre­vealed hoax is not nec­es­sar­i­ly untrue, and does not need to be framed as such. It is rather a new form of truth—a new kind of revelation.


It might seem like a para­dox, or entire­ly inau­then­tic, that I am fol­low­ing up an alleged­ly McLuhan­ite, mixed-media hoax project with a peer-reviewed “artist response” essay on the work. It is, in a way. Cer­tain­ly the com­mu­nist folk­lorist Staunton R. Livingston—who, again, nev­er wrote or published—avoided such indul­gences. But this arti­cle is mere­ly a com­po­nent point­ing through­out to oth­ers (e.g. www​.lost​stomp​in​tom​songs​.com), a meet­ing place for the hybrid media assem­bled by my com­rades and me. Which is to say that this doc­u­ment does not con­tain the final word but per­haps just the first one, which leads to oth­ers (and not just words) even more real. Such as the out­put of LIVINGSTON™, the arti­fi­cial­ly intel­li­gent archive of Cana­di­an folk music that I built in Daw­son City, Yukon:

I’m gonna burn all my bridges
But can I get a witness?
I’ve got a shovel.
I’m gonna dig a tunnel.
It ain’t gonna be long but
It’s going to car­ry my song.  (“Win­ter Is Cold and Good”)

Who will join in this cer­e­mo­ny of wit­ness­ing, dig­ging, singing, and sound­ing? Who will join in this cer­e­mo­ny of burning?

Image Notes

Fea­tured Image: Kate Beat­on, The Song Col­lec­tor 2011.

Works Cited

Ben­dix, Regi­na. In Search of Authen­tic­i­ty: The For­ma­tion of Folk­lore Stud­ies. U of Wis­con­sin P, 2009.

Carey, James W. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion as Cul­ture: Essays on Media and Soci­ety. Rout­ledge, 1992.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guat­tari. A Thou­sand Plateaus: Cap­i­tal­ism and Schiz­o­phre­nia. Trans­lat­ed by Bri­an Mas­su­mi, U of Min­neso­ta P, 1987.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Claire Par­net. Dia­logues II. Trans­lat­ed by Hugh Tom­lin­son and Bar­bara Hab­ber­jam, Con­tin­u­um, 2002.

Flem­ing, Chris, and John O’Carrol. “The Art of the Hoax.” Par­al­lax 16.4 (2010): 45-59.

glob­al­bee­hive. “Mar­shall McLuhan: The World is Show Busi­ness.” YouTube, 27 April 2010,


Häus­sler, Iris. “Dis­clo­sure (Exca­va­tion Notes 01/2009).” Iris Häus­slerhttp://​haeus​sler​.ca/​a​m​b​e​r​/​a​r​t​i​s​t​.​h​tml. Accessed 10 Octo­ber 2016.

---. He Named Her Amber. Toron­to: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2008-2010.

Hen­ry Thomas.” The Inter­net Movie Data­base. IMDb​.com, Inc, n.d. Web. 1 Oct. 2017. <http://​www​.imdb​.com/>.

Hynes, Maria, Scott Sharpe, and Bob Fagan. “Laugh­ing with the Yes Men: The Pol­i­tics of Affir­ma­tion.” Con­tin­u­um, vol 21, no. 1, 2007, pp. 107-121.

Innis, Harold Adams. “A Plea for Time.” 1951. The Bias of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion. U of Toron­to P, 2003, pp. 61-91.

---. Empire and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. U of Toron­to P, 1972.

Innis, Harold Adams. The Bias of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion. 1951. U of Toron­to P, 2003.

Keight­ley, Keir. “Recon­sid­er­ing Rock.” The Cam­bridge Com­pan­ion to Pop and Rock. Edit­ed by Simon Frith, et al., Cam­bridge UP, 2001, pp. 109-142.

LIVINGSTON™. “Take It Easy but Take It to the Lim­it.” Arti­fi­cial­ly Intel­li­gent Folk Songs of Cana­da, Vol. 1. Inde­pen­dent, 2014 [www​.folksin​gu​lar​i​ty​.com].

---. “Win­ter Is Cold and Good.” Arti­fi­cial­ly Intel­li­gent Folk Songs of Cana­da, Vol. 1. Inde­pen­dent, 2014 [www​.folksin​gu​lar​i​ty​.com].

Miller, Karl Hagstrom. Seg­re­gat­ing Sound: Invent­ing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow. Duke UP, 2010.

McLuhan, Mar­shall. Counter-Blast. McLel­land and Stew­art Lim­it­ed, 1969.

---. From Cliché to Arche­type. The Viking Press, 1970.

---. The Guten­berg Galaxy: The Mak­ing of Typo­graph­ic Man. U of Toron­to P, 2011.

---. Under­stand­ing Media: The Exten­sions of Man. 1964. Edit­ed by W. Ter­rence Gor­don, Ginko Press, 2003.

McLuhan, Mar­shall, and Quentin Fiore. The Medi­um is the Mas­sage. 1967. Ginko Press, 2001.

Peter­son, Richard A. Cre­at­ing Coun­try Music: Fab­ri­cat­ing Authen­tic­i­ty. U of Chica­go P, 2013.

Rosza­ck, Theodore. “The Sum­ma Popo­log­i­ca of Mar­shall McLuhan.” McLuhan: Pro & Con. Edit­ed by Ray­mond Rosen­thal, Funk & Wag­nalls, 1968, pp. 257-269.

Sterne, Jonathan. The Audi­ble Past: Cul­tur­al Ori­gins of Sound Repro­duc­tion. Duke UP, 2003.

Svec, Hen­ry Adam. “FCJ-183 iHoo­te­nan­ny: A Folk Arche­ol­o­gy of Social Media.” The Fibrecul­ture Jour­nal, vol. 25, 2015.

---. “Folk Media: Alan Lomax’s Deep Dig­i­tal­i­ty.” Cana­di­an Jour­nal of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, vol. 38, no. 2, 2013, pp. 227-244.

---. “From the Tur­ing Test to a Wired Car­ni­va­lesque: On the Dura­bil­i­ty of LIVINGSTON’s Arti­fi­cial­ly Intel­li­gent Folk Songs of Cana­da.” Lim­i­nal­i­ties: A Jour­nal of Per­for­mance Stud­ies, vol. 12, no. 4, 2016, pp. 1-7.

---. On Livingston’s Method. The Rhubarb Fes­ti­val. Bud­dies in Bad Times The­atre, Toronto,

---. “Pete Seeger’s Medi­a­tized Folk.” Jour­nal of Pop­u­lar Music Stud­ies, vol. 27, no. 2, 2015, pp. 145-162.

The Yes Men. Dir. Dan Oll­man, Sarah Price, and Chris Smith. Perf. Mike Bonan­no and Andy Bichlbaum, Unit­ed Artists, 2003.

Tur­ing, Alan M. “Com­put­ing Machin­ery and Intel­li­gence.” Mind, no. 49, 1950, pp. 433-460.

Wat­son, Alexan­der John. Mar­gin­al Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis. U of Toron­to P, 2006.

Will­mott, Glenn. McLuhan, or Mod­ernism in Reverse. Toron­to: Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Press,

Zielin­s­ki, Siegfried. Audio­vi­sions: Cin­e­ma and Tele­vi­sion as Entr’actes in His­to­ry. Ams­ter­dam Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1999.

---. Deep Time of the Media. The MIT Press, 2006.


[1] In addi­tion to McLuhan, my meth­ods owe much to the “imag­i­nary” media research of Siegfried Zielin­s­ki (Audio­vi­sions; Deep Time), who runs very far with the media-the­o­ret­i­cal max­im that our com­mu­nica­tive ecolo­gies are con­tin­gent and thus could be oth­er­wise. Per­haps not sur­pris­ing­ly, as Zielinski’s first major book Audio­vi­sions made clear in a way that his more recent research­es have not, he is a card-car­ry­ing McLuhanite.

[2] The work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guat­tari also informed my ear­ly attempts at hoax­ing, in par­tic­u­lar A Thou­sand Plateaus as well as Deleuze’s “The Vir­tu­al and the Actu­al,” an essay in his book of inter­views with Claire Par­net, Dia­logue II (148-59).

[3] Alan Turing’s famous exam­i­na­tion is won when a machine suc­cess­ful­ly imper­son­ates a human in the eyes of anoth­er human judge, per­form­ing not through the body but through the manip­u­la­tion of sym­bols (Tur­ing). So, giv­en that it involved a human (me) imper­son­at­ing a com­put­er imper­son­at­ing a human, my A.I. hoax was in a sense a hoax of an orig­i­nary hoax.

[4] I have skipped over two of my hoax­es for brevity’s sake. I also claimed to have retraced the steps of folk­lorist Edith Ful­ton Fowke, re-doc­u­ment­ing that which she once doc­u­ment­ed (see www​.folk​song​sof​canadanow​.com), and under a moniker (Staunton Q. Liv­ingston) I appeared to have found a lost record­ing by Stompin’ Tom Con­nors that was influ­enced by The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (see www​.lost​stomp​in​tom​songs​.com).

[5] As I myself learned after a show in Ottawa, from an actu­al archivist at The Nation­al Archives, “The Nation­al Archives” is not even what that place is called (it is in fact “Library and Archives Cana­da”). It was from this kind archivist, too, that I learned about the lack of a base­ment there.

[6] For evi­dence of these research­es, see Svec “Folk”; Svec “iHoo­te­nan­ny”; Svec “Pete.”

[7] In mak­ing these per­for­mances and in think­ing about them now, I am indebt­ed to so much great work in media and cul­tur­al stud­ies on the dis­cur­sive pro­duc­tion of “authen­tic­i­ty.” See, for instance, Ben­dix; Keight­ley; Peter­son; Miller.

[8] Thus Staunton R. Liv­ingston is a car­ri­er of what Jonathan Sterne has described as “the audio­vi­su­al litany,” a Chris­t­ian ide­ol­o­gy that iden­ti­fies sound and hear­ing with pres­ence and sal­va­tion, on one hand, and sight with alien­ation and indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, on the oth­er (Sterne 14-19). I very much had Sterne’s dis­cus­sion of “the audio­vi­su­al litany” in mind when con­struct­ing Livingston’s approach to song collecting.

[9] I am indebt­ed to Flem­ing and O’Carroll for point­ing out that the ambigu­ous ori­gins of “hoax,” accord­ing to the OED, includes “hocus pocus” (51).

This arti­cle is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons 4.0 Inter­na­tion­al License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.