DATE: 7/29/2011 | BY THOMAS EVANS
In his contribution to the Documenta Notebook series, New York video artist Paul Ryan talks to Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri. In the following excerpt, Ryan recalls his years as teaching assistant to Marshall McLuhan at Fordham University. (The numerals used to denote the speakers are intended by the interviewers to "allow an opening, a depersonalization and a movement to happen between the three of us."  is Ryan.)
 Tell us about working with McLuhan.
 McLuhan was brilliant and he had a lot of guts. I had an office two doors down from him, so I got the chance to familiarize myself with his way of operating. Amazing man. Always reading an eclectic selection of books, always probing: “The sense ratio of a Russian peasant is like tar.” “The New York Daily News
has two front pages. One of them is on the back.” “War is education. Education is war.” It got to a point where I said to myself: “This man is either full of it or what he has got to say is really worthwhile. I will never know unless I test it out for myself.” So, I got hold of some video equipment and started experimenting. If the medium is the message, what are we to make of the medium of portable video? My first concern was to distinguish video from television, so in 1968 I coined the aphorism “VT is not TV,” and went on from there. Would you agree with commentators who say McLuhan was naïve? When McLuhan came to New York one of the things he wanted to do was invite members of the Mafia to a public forum about how they did business without paper. How they kept their word without paper. His two friends John Culkin and Ted Carpenter persuaded Marshall it was not a good idea. I’d say yes, in ways Marshall was naïve, but that naïveté made possible the unique insights of a well-educated, fearless innocent with first-rate rhetorical skills. Maybe a McLuhan-Mafia dialogue would have significantly illuminated the oral/literate/electric schema.  In your encounter with McLuhan, what were the doubts that led you to say, “I will have to test it out for myself”?  I couldn’t get the politics; the politics were not clear. I’d say to McLuhan, “So, what do we do?” He’d say, “Well, it is too early to tell.” When you’re a young guy with the Vietnam War burning on your butt, that’s not the kind of thing that you want to hear. You want to get something done. McLuhan was an academic; he could say, “Wait, wait, we don’t understand.” He was not offering any strategy other than the traditional artistic one; you contribute to the perception of problems and move on. For me, that wasn’t good enough. I was looking for both social change and aesthetic concern.
McLuhan claimed artists could decode new media. So I said: OK, besides my own experimentation, we have got to get video in the hands of serious artists. Somebody introduced me to Frank Gilette, a painter who had taught a course on McLuhan at the 14th Street Free University. I handed over two portable video cameras and editing equipment we had at Fordham to Frank. I just gave him the equipment for a whole summer. Frank did some serious perceptual experiments as well as strong street tapes. We became friends. Not long after, Frank founded Raindance, an alternative video group now widely known for publishing Radical Software