Professor explores the machinations of the media through art

What started as simple teenage curiosity for York Professor Marc Couroux, about how the media framed the Iran-Contra hearings on a daily basis, has grown into a fascination with the inner workings of the media.

Couroux watched the Iran-Contra hearings on TV in 1987 and followed the news reports, noting discrepancies between what he’d witnessed in the actual hearings and what was later reported by the media. "It didn’t jibe with what was being reported in the mainstream media," says Couroux. It was this observation that led the fine arts cultural studies professor in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts to begin work recently on his latest project, titled The Memory Hole: Four American Suicides – a nod to George Orwell’s 1984.

The project will be a 360-degree surround video and audio installation spread across 10 large screens at the Recombinant Media Labs in San Francisco in spring 2009. The interactive nature of the installation, along with the use of raw materials, will help viewers participate in the news making, rather than passively accepting it. In this way, viewers will come to understand how they mediate the information they receive from the media and decide for themselves where the truth lies.

Couroux, a video artist, pianist and composer, is interested in exploring sociopolitical issues through art. He is currently working on designing and implementing the logistics of how viewers will interact with the raw coverage in this installation and have the ability to change the outcomes.

The project is all about critical thinking and analysis, about developing the ability to reason through contradictory media reports and conspiracy theories, which have proliferated since the Second World War, to find what makes the most sense given all the empirical evidence. The viewer will have the opportunity to actively construct or deconstruct conspiracy theories surrounding Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair as well as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

Above: Marc Couroux

At the same time, Couroux wants the viewers to come to certain realizations. "The viewer’s critical faculties are always mobilized. I don’t want to impose a point of view on the viewer. I want to allow his/her impressions to be generated slowly, without being hit over the head," he says.

The Iran-Contra hearings were intriguing to Couroux on more than one level. "It was as fascinating as art, as it was as politics. There was something that was very theatrical for me about it and that stayed with me," he says.

"Things that aren’t resolved keep coming back. What is maintained, what is retained and what slips through the memory hole is fascinating to me." Couroux will explore what is or isn’t retained through The Memory Hole: Four American Suicides, with funding from the Canada Council and a York SSHRC small projects grant.

The installation will examine how information can easily morph into something completely different, how conspiracy theories are created and sustained, the mechanisms that allow the media to absorb these theories and how they are incorporated into an individual’s personal ideological makeup.

Using the Internet, people can quickly find alternative points of view on events and conflicting reports of what transpired. Couroux says it’s incumbent on the viewer to decide for themselves what is accurate. "So it’s really about becoming an activist in their own right. You have to learn how to assess theories, even those that may appear wildly implausible. How to read the news, how to read between the lines, no one teaches you how to do that. And what is a conspiracy theory? We have to agree on a definition of that first."

The Memory Hole: Four American Suicides will allow people to see how conspiracy theories are generated and how the media can play a part in their manifestation. It’s very much tied up with Marshall McLuhan’s "medium is the message" mantra, says Couroux.

People don’t usually have the time to examine and analyze what the media is feeding them. They either accept it or outright reject it. Couroux hopes his work will give people the chance to critically explore what goes on in the making of news, what decisions are made, how they are made, what the outcomes are and how they would be altered if different choices were made or the emphasis was placed elsewhere.

"It’s really to open up the field of investigation. The manner in which the news media presents and frames events has a direct impact on their growth and metamorphosis," says Couroux. "What happens to the information before it gets to us, what is the timing of things, what gets said and when, and how does time pass in these situations?"

The viewers will become performers in the installation, becoming more aware of their own role in the propagation or acceptance of conspiracy theories and news coverage as they go along.

"The viewer is no longer a passive receiver, overwhelmed by information, but an increasingly canny, analytical performer, capable of directing and performing his or her own analytical process," says Couroux.

It’s a subtle process of analysis; a marriage of art and politics. "All these things start growing and coming together. It’s not about giving answers, it’s about opening up questions."

And although the project has a sharp political edge, Couroux says it is primarily art. "To me the art side remains very important. It does not function solely as a pedagogical tool. There has to be a balance between the artistic and political side. They both fertilize each other really nicely."

What he wants, however, is to leave the viewer feeling uneasy about what they just experienced. "It’s up to the viewer to take it further, in their own way. That’s the beauty of art. It kind of goes everywhere, even places I didn’t intend."

Couroux has created works for the Festival de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, Vancouver New Music, the Society for Art and Technology and Théâtre La Chapelle in Montréal. In 2003, he organized the FreeRadicals festival, dedicated to experimental multidisciplinary work. In 1997, Couroux co-founded Ensemble KORE, which produces concerts in Montréal.

For more information, contact Marc Couroux at

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer