Medium as Message: Generative and Experimental Works from the Chicago School

It was an era of new and exciting technological advances in the world of image transfer and creation. From the late 1960s to the 1980s newly developed electronic information and communication systems were at the forefront of these advances and not yet a part of everyday life.  The fax machine, copier machine, both in-color and black-and-white had been developed and the possibilities for utilization had only been touched upon by this point. The Brands that created them knew they would be valuable to commercial enterprise, however, many sought out artists, knowing that they could propel product’s usefulness experimenting with them in ways unimagined.

Generative Systems, was a program founded in 1969 at the Art Institute of Chicago and headed by the pioneering artist and educator Sonya Landy Sheridan. At this laboratory she and her team which included faculty and students alike, delved into the possibilities of electronic image production, well before the digital age.  They researched the prospects of the machine as art generator. It was all trough close contact and sponsorships of companies like Xerox and 3M that enabled this group to produce and advance the medium so quickly and efficiently.

“It is obvious that this work process becomes another kind of time for the artist as the distance from conception to conception is reduced to minutes, and objects change as rapidly as thinking allows.”

–Sonia Landy Sheridan

Chicago’s Columbia College also offered a Generative Systems program, and hired Peter Thompson to spearhead it in 1978.  They made use of many similar technologies.  Given the accelerated feedback loop – each new technique as they were discovered could be carried out and thoroughly investigated.  In both Columbia’s and the AIC programs there was a certain emphasis on semi-regular periodical (Yony at AIC), zines, and one-of-a-kind book making. Imagery itself included that of noise, and instant image production such as direct photo copier art (often faces or body parts), and collage, influenced no doubt by Word Art of the 1960s and earlier Dada works.

Other experimenters at the time, many of whom were graduates of the Institute of Design, pushed the boundaries within more-traditional techniques, though presenting in new and often amusing fashions.  Two artists that employed their understanding of off-set photo-lithography to create multiple copies, as well as new and unique processes were Charles Swedlund and Robert Heinecken.  Others, including Swedlund and Barbara Blondeau, refined photo-processes such as fiber-based color printing, and the Kwik Print by Light Impressions, created vivid, graphic works of art. And when access to new platforms became more widely available many obtained equipment, like William Larson, who got a DEX-1 Teleprinter enabling him to produce his incredible Facsimile Transmissions.

The Nude and self-portrait as subjects were a mainstay for the artists, who were often working in controlled or studio environments. This may have been part reason for the choice, but also access, and the additional reason—simply a product of the free-spirited times. Unaware that each were doing the same, Blondeau and Larson developed mechanized means to make their panoramic “in-camera” multiple imagery of the nude, and Heinecken and Swedlund, made silver printed 3d puzzles. And at-times working in tandem, Sonia Sheridan and Keith Smith (who was a graduate of AIC and ID, and later a colleague of Sheridan) photo-copied, and re-copied or re-presented their nudes. Both utilized image on fabric, and Smith’s further exploitations included stitching and collaging to textiles.

Polaroid instant film was also gaining notoriety during this time.  Polaroid, as a company often distributed its film lines among artists both as a word of mouth promotional tool, but also to find out more about their own technology.  Kenneth Josephson and Barbara Crane both had enduring relationships with the instant film in multiple formats.

On view in this exhibition are over forty examples of exploratory and process-oriented works of art. Each piece is unique in its objectivity toward the subject, and in recognition of the medium—touching upon the myriad of ways art production was manipulated, multiplied, and electro-mechanized—highlighting a slice of the artists who were key to the beginning of the electronic age of photography.