In 1962, Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan effectively predicted the Internet. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, he wrote about an electronic age when technology would unite people in a “global village” where everyone had equal access to information. Two years later, in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he went on to talk about how the method of communication would become the most influential fact of the electronic age. Hello, smartphones: by 2017, we know more than ever that “the medium is the message.”
As a dance artist, Vanessa Goodman feels that one of the most eerily prescient things McLuhan said was that technology would become an extension of our physical selves. Consider the way we jump to attention when our cellphone buzzes in our pocket. “With what we’re experiencing now, I feel there’s a strong relevance to revisit what he said,” the Action at a Distance artistic director tells the Straight over the phone before rehearsal at SFU Woodward’s. “So much of what he predicted has come true.”
In fact, Goodman has devoted three years to exploring those ideas physically, sonically, and visually in her multimedia Wells Hill.
But Goodman’s fascination with the theorist goes far beyond the artistic and into the realm of the personal. She grew up in the Toronto house where McLuhan once lived—the Tudor-style residence at 29 Wells Hill Avenue.
“My parents were always interested in art: my dad owned a jazz club for a short while, my mom was an art conservator. And I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know it was Marshall McLuhan’s house,” Goodman says, recalling that her parents never painted over a basement wall where McLuhan’s son Michael had scrawled his name.
She also clearly remembers the day a commemorative plaque was dedicated at the house site. “That’s when they revealed to my family just how many amazing people had come to the house and met with Marshall in his study. And one was Glenn Gould.”
Here’s where the story gets even more bizarre. It turns out that Goodman’s parents had also lived in Gould’s former Toronto apartment before she was born. “It was one of those weird moments and intersections,” says the choreographer, who explores the way McLuhan and Gould’s theories intersected and contradicted throughout Wells Hill—and the way they altered how we consume art and information.
Flashforward to a few years ago, and Goodman was relaying that anecdote to Michael Boucher, director of SFU’s Cultural Programs & Partnerships, when he encouraged her to take on the two icons and their complex concepts in her next work. At first, Goodman, who had just won the 2013 Iris Garland Emerging Choreographer Award, admits she felt trepidation. “They’re both such prolific characters and icons in their own right,” she says. “But when I started to read their material, I realized I could apply these theories to create dance. I began to find my way through: my medium is movement and my message is that I’m interested in embodiment.”
Goodman slowly began building the work, integrating low-fi and high-tech elements, from the electronic soundscore by Scott Morgan (of Loscil) and Gabriel Saloman to projections that include sometimes glitched-out black-and-white footage of McLuhan and Gould speaking. (Goodman collaborated with Ben Didier and Milton Lim on the projections.) For those video elements, she applied multiple processes, working from original film of the two men, and then employing everything from an old cathode-ray projector to VHS recording.
“I like to use older technology to make something new,” Goodman says. “I even made a lo-fi hologram for this [version].
“It’s always my goal to make an immersive environment—to make the room dance,” she adds, bringing to mind her 2014 work with the Contingency Plan, What Belongs to You, which created an ethereal, ever-moving environment with just sheets of plastic and a few hundred balloons. “That’s always my puzzle.”
Wells Hill has evolved since shorter versions appeared at the Chutzpah Festival, the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, and Small Stage. It features seven dancers: Lara Barclay, Karissa Barry, Dario Dinuzzi, Bynh Ho, Arash Khakpour, Alexa Mardon, and Bevin Poole. And Goodman says she’s now split the new, full-length rendition into two distinct sections. “The piece works chronologically: the first part is pre-Internet and the second is post-Internet—or at least, where we are today,” Goodman says. “So the second is the hyperspeed essence of our consumption of information today.”
Staging the work at SFU, where she earned her degree at the School for the Contemporary Arts, brings her full circle: she presented a short, early work there in 2010 when the Woodward’s site opened its Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. But the program is also part of Celebrate Canada 150+, and joins the international DanceHouse presentation series.
“DanceHouse has been incredibly influential to me: it’s inspired me to study abroad and study with some of those companies,” Goodman says. “They have actually blown my mind with some of their programming, so I’m pinching myself that I’m part of that.”
And the real house that she grew up in? Although it doesn’t make its way into Wells Hill in any literal fashion, it still plays a huge role in Goodman’s personal life. “It’s where I go when I go there to visit family,” she says. “I still sleep in the same bed.”
SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs, DanceHouse, and SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts present Wells Hill at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre from Friday to Sunday (November 24 to 26).