In the 1970s, the basement between the Art Institute of Chicago and its associated art school came to be known as the “Ozone:” a dimly lit, tightly packed labyrinth of studio spaces aglow with electric buzz, crowned by twenty-foot ceilings, and populated by a growing cavalcade of tech-loving misfits in the latest experimental art departments. Among other programs, the Ozone housed the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s audio-video labs, DIY electronics, and, in the air conditioning room next door to the photo labs, the amorphous conglomerate of young artists that made up the Generative Systems Program.
Generative Systems, or GS, was the brainchild of Sonia Landy Sheridan (b. 1925-), a printmaker and former public school teacher. It was a decade-long experiment in art education, from 1970–1980, which repurposed information-communication technologies for art as a response to the rapid-fire developments of the Electronic Age. What began as a single course to explore the aesthetic potential of business tools of late capitalist America, morphed, by mid-decade, into a fully-fledged undergraduate and graduate program, where students capitalized on the image-making potential of xerox machines, thermo-fax, early computer graphic systems, and various copiers, though none as coveted as the Color-in-Color machine, the first of its kind.
GS was run like an open laboratory: there was no strict curriculum. There were few to no formal assignments. Grad students taught undergrads. It grew and evolved based on whatever technologies were available. The medium was the message.
In a single 1200-square-foot space, one student was building a computer, another generated images from sound, a third developed three-dimensional photography, a fourth scanned their semi-naked body on a copy machine. Video, photo, and performance also found their way into the classroom. Sheridan, never seen without her white lab coat, insisted that despite using tools for reproduction, her students were not reproducing anything, but generating entirely new kinds of pictures.
A program that existed for-, and was sponsored and partially taught by- the very corporations whose machines they were using with near fetishistic mesmerization — a program disinterested in the art world, with a focus on process over product — attests to a few things. First, the erosion of any distinction between high art and commercial culture. Second, the effects of what is, at various times, called postindustrial, multinational capitalist, consumerist, or media society on artistic experimentation. Third, a renegotiated relationship between humans, machines, and labor.
Let’s focus on the latter.
In Layering, Stretching and Compressing Sonia in Time, we witness two figures intimately pressed against both one another and the glass plate of the copier. Their flesh and hair dissolve into black pigment as the figures slowly fuse into one another and the machine. It is fitting for a program so intimately tied to tech corporations that one of its more interesting works features Sheridan literally morphing into the pioneer of the Color-in-Color machine, the very instrument that earned her key exhibitions in the 1960s and catalyzed the creation of Generative Systems.
Generative Systems probed the growing presence of technology in every day life and its increasingly intertwined relationship with the functions of the body. Jean Baudrillard observed that the screen in contemporary society no longer made us actors independent of the machine, but the final terminus of its networks. Early experiments to illustrate the extension of the body through the machine were obvious and intuitive, where students produced hundreds of copies of their hands and faces distorted on the scanner bed. If you were passing through the GS classroom, chances were your likeness would number among the prints.
More sophisticated experiments can be seen here. For an exhibition at MoMA, Sheridan scanned a male nude over thirty times on the Color-in-Color machine and heat transfered the prints onto fabric. The subject’s body is extended both in its upward-reaching position, and in its superhuman scale, suggesting the larger-than-life presence of technology, its power to aid and accelerate human labor, and the machine’s ability to fragment, reproduce, and transmit the body as information and image.
Greg Gundlach’s Body Print offers us a postmodern Vitruvian man of the 1970s, whose body is not of pencil, but a contact print of xerox and body lotion on paper.
Others take Baudrillard’s assessment that the world was experiencing a “pornography of information and communication” more literally. Genitals, breasts, and naked bodies feature prominently, and Sheridan herself would make images fully nude after students had left for the day. Here, an art duo that went by COSMO reproduced their faces on records, inserted their genitals through the openings, scanned them, developed screen prints, and ultimately exhibited them as a self-published bound volume titled Libretto. The work is a tongue-in-cheek reflection of the sort of playful, saturated and sophomoric imagery of Generative Systems, as well as the endless loop of media generating even more media.
It is said that the ’60s got to Chicago in the ’70s, and with them came Systems Thinking. Fundamentally, Systems artists likened technology, industry, and education to biological systems— a complex whole governed by separate organs working together. With Abstract Expressionism all but dead, and contemporary technology too ubiquitous to ignore, Systems artists saw themselves as part of the greater American socioeconomic and cultural system, not independent of it. “In a mechanistically functional world the making of art in the traditional senses appears to have little relation to cultural reality,” wrote Sheridan’s former colleague Jack Burnham, “it seems more logical for artists to take up the challenge of the phenomenon of technology itself…to view nature and the man-made environment as a single conceptual framework.”
That is why in the world of Generative Systems, thermo-fax prints resemble early images of the human genome, and self-portraits eliminate the original human “referent” through Rube Goldberg-like feedback loops between camera, monitor, copier, print, and ultimately the screens you are all gazing at right now.
Reflecting on a rapidly growing university culture, Jean-François Lyotard speculated that “knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold,” and universities will be key to producing specialties they can sell on the world market — specialities like computer science. Central to the operation were industries producing the most valuable commodity of all: information, and therefore, its associated technology. The urgency of producing new waves of fresh technology at increasingly faster turnover rates informs the creative output of Generative Systems, best described, to borrow a phrase, as “corporate poetry.”
In Generative Systems, industrial labor and artistic production became interrelated systems. Sheridan developed a symbiotic relationship with the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing corporation, or 3M, the makers of the Color-in-Color copier. Scientific researchers, engineers, and company executives, whose corporate boardrooms were now lined with artwork, frequented the classroom, acted as guest lecturers, advisers, and mentors, and commissioned artistic experiments with novel products. For 3M, this was essentially free advertising, as the recognition of Sheridan and her program in the art world largely came from her using corporate equipment. There were overlaps with the art community, a notable exception being Harold Edgerton, who pioneered electronic flash techniques in photography.
For Generative Systems, relationships with tech companies ensured access to new technology with which to make images. However conceptually disinteresting much of the work was, lacking the cleverness and self-awareness of Cindy Sherman or Sherrie Levine, the seriousness with which the artists took the technology itself ensured that the images were certifiably, and safely new: if not in subject matter, then certainly in color and sheer technological innovation.
Time is central to questions of labor and technology, and is at the heart of the conceptual and practical interests of Generative Systems. The pictures were quick, cheap, and easy to make. They were made on American time, that is to say, as fast as possible, where the moment of conception of an idea or feeling became the moment of realization with unprecedented instantaneity. This was the era of live television and early video conferencing, the era of anti-Vietnam protests led by students who demanded change, and wanted it now. Round-the-clock news in real time changed the perception of historical time, where the first televised Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 seemed to have taken place a century ago. In the end, of course, it was a xerox machine that brought about Nixon’s resignation.
Time is key to the production and experience of images made on a copier. In each of these works, we witness the length of a single scan lasting several seconds. As the machine’s cameras generate an image, Sheridan moves from one side of the scanner bed to the other, existing in multiple time frames at once. In another print, she holds up a previous print to stand in for her current self, already an artifact of the past. In the third image, Sheridan’s duplicated face is reduced to chemicals, thermodynamics, technological spill — to pure signifier, code, and copy. These black and white prints reflect the compression of space and time enacted by the new relationships between bodies mediated through machines.
Like the dinosaurs, GS did not go away, it evolved into birds. After the program ended, Systems gave way to experiments in new media, video, photography, and performance, while her students fanned out in different directions. A number continued their art practices, taking up traditional lens-based media or digital art. Some ended up in corporate communications, others pursued careers in marketing. A few ended up working for television. The program was doomed to end when the School of the Art Institute of Chicago slashed funding for the program and Sonia resigned, though not before laying her letter of resignation on a copy machine.