“For thousands of years, earth’s resources have been extracted by bodies, most of whom were not free,” reads one of the opening pages of The Extreme Self. “But now, it’s our bodies, and our selves, being extracted. And… mostly we offer it up for FREE.” The word FREE stretches upwards away from the rest of the sentence, its serifs are elongated and a little unsettling: this isn’t “free” as in freedom; it’s “free” as in exploitation.
This sense of anxious ambivalence runs throughout The Extreme Self, the new “graphic novel” (and former exhibition) authored by the artworld dream team of critic Shumon Basar, novelist Douglas Coupland and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, which follows up their 2015 collaboration The Age of Earthquakes. Like its prequel, The Extreme Self collects neologisms and short-form textual fragments which question the ways that mass technological changes are changing how we experience the world around us. These texts are paired with images collected from a prestigious cast of artists, musicians and other contemporary thinkers from around the world and, crucially, tied together with graphic design by London-based studio Daly & Lyon.
Speaking to Eye on Design via video call, Basar describes the books as a “portrait of a friendship” between himself, Coupland and Obrist. This friendship had previously been expressed through a series of public discussions on the work and influence of Marshall McLuhan, whose book, The Medium is the Massage is a clear precedent to Age of Earthquakes and The Extreme Self. First published in 1967, McLuhan’s book provided a radical exploration of the effects of the modern media and technological landscape, expressed through the Modernist monochrome graphic design of Quentin Fiore.
“In 1967 Fiore described The Medium is the Massage as a dialogue between the computer and the book,” says Basar. “In our case, it’s a dialogue between the history and grammar of the book, and the history and grammar of the screen.” As with Fiore’s work on The Medium is the Massage, graphic design is central to the experience of The Extreme Self (so much that it’s odd Daly & Lyon aren’t listed as authors on the book’s cover, as Fiore was alongside McLuhan) which Wayne Daly of Daly & Lyon describes as akin to an “OS update” to Age of Earthquakes. Where the prequel was monochrome and dealt with broad economic, historical and political ideas, The Extreme Self is explicitly concerned with emotions and subjectivity, its pages ripple with full bleed images and collated “digital matter” which punctuate the paperback’s 250 pages. “The process for both books was myself and Shumon sharing screengrabs—any kind of online activity or screen activity—on a day-to-day basis,” Daly explains.
Thus, alongside regular print layouts and a meta-narrative of chapters announced through grotesque typefaces, readers find phone screens and chat bubbles, IG Live lovehearts and tracked changes, the They Don’t Know meme and bisected emoji faces. The blend of these different styles is effective in conveying the atmosphere of the internet – one of constantly shifting moods and aesthetic patterns, a blurring of text and image to express Tweet-length musings – rather than any particular website or digital activity.
The McLuhan/Fiore reference is important here again: The Medium is the Massage echoes the experience of watching television with sequences of pages that flicker with movement like frames of a 35mm film. The Extreme Self, meanwhile, is more jarring in its progression, and effectively so. A hand-drawn self-portrait portrait might abut a full bleed enlarged photo, which might lead to a scribbled phrase or a montage of side-eye emojis. The jumps across pages are more extreme, harder-edged than McLuhan’s, more like jumping between browser tabs than flicking across TV channels.
The jumps across pages are more extreme, harder-edged than McLuhan’s, more like jumping between browser tabs than flicking across TV channels.
Transposing “digital matter” onto a print publication can be a fraught move and one that doesn’t immediately appear aligned with McLuhan’s over-quoted maxim that the “medium is the message”. Yet for Basar and Daly, this displacement is crucial to communicate the book’s central ideas. “When you take material or content that you’re so used to seeing on a screen, then you re-format it, put it onto paper and put it on a white background, it’s as though you see it for the very first time,” argues Basar. The effect is akin to writing down a dream after you’ve woken up: the accepted reality of a dream quickly shatters into surreality the moment morphing faces and levitating bodies make it onto the page (or is that just me?).
That said, The Extreme Self is far from a rejection of digital life: “There’s no point being horrified that the online world has replaced the real world,” reads one page. “It’s just a fact of life.” If anything, the book’s anxious mood is an expression of a certain awe at human technological capabilities, which spans everything from facial-recognition technology to the humble book. “With Age of Earthquakes, Shumon and I latched onto the idea of the book as a device, a piece of technology – maybe still the ultimate piece of technology,” says Daly. “It’s hand-size, not too dissimilar from a mobile phone in terms of its relationship to the human body, it’s a 3D object you rotate, you can look at it in different sequences.”
McLuhan and Fiore recognized this as well. In one of the most celebrated opening spreads from The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan writes: “All media are extensions of some human faculty – psychic or physical.” He continues: “The wheel is an extension of the foot, book is an extension of the eye, clothing, an extension of the skin…” And yet in a vastly different context —McLuhan unfortunately passed away in 1980, before the internet was born —a context of “doomscrolling, doomscreaming, doomshopping, doomsitting, doomeating, doomtexting etc.” as laid out in The Extreme Self, the book endures as a technology to help us see; to help us make sense of our mediatized lives in anxious times.