“Painting is directed by the heart through the eye. Photography is directed by the mind through the eye. . . . Someday heart and mind will become one, that is, an all-embracing and economical medium will enable us to realize all our desires instantly.” –Man Ray, 1950
The sign in the Wishnick Hall stairwell at the Illinois Institute of Technology says “Restricted Area: Authorized Personnel Only.” It could add, “Caution: Intersection of Art, Science, and Technology Ahead.” At the top of the stairs, a former chemistry lab–its walls and floor painted a dark institutional blue, a few of its old fixtures still protruding–serves as the headquarters for the collaborative group (Art)n. Here Ellen Sandor, the group’s founder/producer/director/financier/moth- er figure/mastermind, shows off its products: full-color, three-dimensional “phscolograms” (the first two letters are silent).
The blinds are drawn and the lab is dim, the better to show off dozens of backlighted glass cases, each containing a phscologram. At first they seem like color photographs, but they aren’t. They lose their flatness, jump out, and change perspective as I walk past. “Tilting your head this way and that,” writes Ken Johnson in Art in America, “you seem to be able to see side views of the depicted object, which hovers uncannily, a brightly lit, richly hued hallucination within the dark, indefinite space of the light-box interior.”
Some of the images are easily recognizable: a white-suited astronaut hanging in space above a reddish-brown planetoid; a black-and-white Dorothea Lange picture of a dust-bowl woman overlaid with a stock-market graph; a beetle-browed J.P. Morgan staring out from the middle of a piece of machinery, superimposed on a map of the west coast with a hoard of gold bars spread out beneath. Some of the images are modified familiar objects: a space shuttle viewed head-on, with its trademark cylinders wreathed in alternating red, green, blue, and white; an airplane that’s white, with varicolored airflows over its wings. And some images are completely unfamiliar: a sinuous golden shape (the offspring of a cylinder and a cube? no, a 3-D projection of a 4-D figure) set in a landscape; a sphere made up of green, blue, red, and yellow tubes and knobs, with its front panel removed to show the inside of the surface; and an intricate, baroque, vaguely floral pattern based on equations from fractal mathematics. In some of the glass cases the illusion of depth is obvious; in others it’s perceptible but not obtrusive.
In the center of the floor is a two-faced pillar, three phscolograms high, of alternating images of nudes and complex spiky polyhedrons–herpes, papilloma, and AIDS viruses. The nudes, which one would think should be appealing, are distant and almost clinical; the viruses, which should be gruesome, are bright and lively. (In two images–the male nude with its moving penis and the AIDS virus with its depths within depths–the three-dimensionality is so pronounced that it approaches animation.) The piece was originally titled Robert Mapplethorpe/The Nineties; now it’s The Politics of Pleasure/The Nineties. Either way, the pleasure is disturbingly qualified.
In its eight years of existence, (Art)n has made hundreds of phscolograms. They have been seen on Channel 11’s Wild Chicago, at Fermilab, at the Museum of Science and Industry, at the Bronx Museum, at Feature gallery in New York City, at the Computer Museum in Boston. The IIT lab itself was a stop on a recent “Art on the Move Tour” run by Joan Arenberg for Art Institute members. The Politics of Pleasure and other images even went to Park West for a one-night stand on April 23 in “Welcome to My Living Room,” a riveting video/music/phscologram show that included master’s-thesis works by Margaret Rawlings and (Art)n associate director Stephan Meyers.
“Phscolograms are a spectacular medium,” says (Art)n member Dan Sandin, who in normal life is codirector of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “They can create audible gasps in audiences, which is a personal joy. It’s not all that often you get that in the art world.”
But if many influential people in the art world had their way, phscolograms would stay in Wishnick Hall. Critic Ken Johnson acknowledged the “captivating format” of the (Art)n scientific images displayed at Feature–only to dismiss them in his Art in America review as “too much like the kind of routine airbrush illustrations you see in science magazines . . . [lacking] any compelling overall vision.” In his view, (Art)n is having fun playing with new technologies, not using them to make artistic statements.
Sandor says Johnson and his ilk miss the point. She takes my arm and plants me in front of Chromium Chloride Density Difference Contours. Against a dark background, two asymmetrical green hemispheres surround blue solids, themselves connected by a red mitten shape. From reading a catalog, I already know the colors represent different changes in electron density around the forming chromium chloride ion. “Pure science is art,” Sandor insists. “But I shouldn’t articulate it. Look for yourself–just look.”
Sandor started out in sculpture–she got her MFA from the School of the Art Institute in 1975. But ever since, her work has been moving slowly away from physical sculpture to what she calls “virtual sculpture.”
Looking back, you can see elements of (Art)n in Sandor’s first public work, the 1976 The Money House, commissioned for the lobby of Citizen’s Savings and Loan Association in San Francisco. During her School of the Art Institute days, she and her adviser Jim Zanzi had collected old neon signs and speculated on their artistic possibilities. To symbolize the S and L, she made a simple neon outline of a house with dollar and cent signs inside. Three-dimensional and ethereal, colorful and cheeky, it raised a fuss but stayed in the lobby–and paved the way for her to do more neon work on the art-business frontier.
“In the late 70s, the most decadent period of American history,” says Sandor, “I was living in Lake Point Tower, that sensual masterpiece by one of Mies’s students, and I was hanging out with Charlie Finley. Someone gave him a book of Picasso’s erotic etchings. He came in and said, half jokingly, “Only you would like this,’ and then he threw this luscious book at me. . . . It gave me three years of work!” She enlarged the etchings (sometimes to six by eight feet), outlined them in neon, and encased them in Plexiglas; they sold rather well to the young commodity traders in her building. More importantly, wrote Michel Segard in the now defunct Nit & Wit (May-June 1983), “In these works Sandor began seriously to explore the relationship between technology and art. . . . In these works the image doesn’t exist until the piece is literally plugged into our technological network just like a television set. Furthermore, Sandor only set down the specifications for the construction of the work. She did not actually build them. Anyone with a sufficiently sophisticated neon sign workshop could produce any of these works exactly and they would not be fakes. They would still be Sandor’s images.” Segard, whose background in both science and art often makes him a waspish critic of the art establishment, works in desktop publishing for a Big Eight accounting firm, teaches desktop publishing at the School of the Art Institute, and is a contributing editor of the New Art Examiner.
In 1981, when the erotic-neon theme began to play out, Sandor heard from an old college friend. “He had a Wall Street office, and he wanted something like a big 3-D postcard to put on the wall.” What he got was the first phscologram, although neither the term nor the (Art)n team existed yet.
Sandor had a nodding acquaintance with pop-culture 3-D postcards from her Art Institute days. For this commission, she knew she wanted to do a tribute to the Chicago markets: “No one had been doing images about economics,” she says. (Her husband, Richard–inventor of financial futures and a major collector of historic photographs–is a long-standing influence.) Sandor also wanted more depth and richer colors than 3-D postcards could deliver. With this in mind, she hired two young men and began learning about one technique of creating the appearance of three dimensions in two–a technique that, by the way, has absolutely nothing in common with holography except its ultimate goal. (Holograms are made using lasers rather than ordinary light photographs; they tend to be less colorful than phscolograms, and if you move too far left or right the holographic image disappears altogether.)
The first and simplest form of this technique was the use of the old-time stereopticon, which employed two photographs of the same scene taken from slightly different points of view set side by side in a viewer, so that each eye would see its own version and the brain would put them together into a seemingly three-dimensional view.
But of course you can’t move around such views and inspect them from different angles as you can a real object or scene. Seeking to improve the illusion, innovators early in this century came up with the barrier-strip autostereogram. This was the stereopticon idea, only more so: a scene, usually a planned diorama, was photographed several times (usually nine), each time from a different angle. The film being exposed was covered with a “barrier screen”–a black film with thin, transparent vertical lines–so that each image reached it only from a particular angle. The developed film was overlaid with the same barrier screen, which allows your eye to see only one of the original nine images at a time as you move past them. The brain interprets the resulting image as three-dimensional.
Barrier-strip autostereograms never really caught on, because they seemed to be more work than they were worth. The camera required is enormous; it takes about 45 minutes for enough light to get through the barrier screen to complete each exposure; and since all nine exposures are made on the same piece of film, one mistake at the end could waste a day’s work. The use of live subjects was impractical. “I knew this medium had faults,” reflects Sandor now. “I didn’t realize all of its potential.”
Sandor’s friend got his wall-size postcard, her first barrier-strip autostereogram. Called Free Markets I, it was an exuberant triptych–a golden-red outline of the U.S. on a blue field, filled with grains, dollar bills, gold bars, and an admonitory quote from Adam Smith. (Only a third of the piece, the part that incorporates the J.P. Morgan picture, now survives in Sandor’s IIT lab.)
Even after disagreements broke up the original crew, Sandor was still intrigued with the medium. It was labor- intensive, and it was expertise-intensive. Sandor felt she lacked all the technical knowledge it called for, and in any case she was not one for solitary contemplation in a garret. “I think art is a richer experience when it’s collaborative. It’s natural for me to work that way, to build a family that works together in its own wacky way.”
By early 1983 Sandor had assembled the first (Art)n team, and they had begun work on what was called Phscologram 1983 (later called Phscologram I). This 20-foot-tall installation was so named because it included photography, holography, sculpture, and computer graphics. This was the first use of the word; only later did “phscologram” come to be used for the separate colorful 3-D images themselves.
According to Jim Zanzi, who was also instrumental in the installation’s design, Phscologram 1983 resembled a communications tower. “I saw it as a kind of 21st-century electronic frieze,” complete with beeping sound track like a space probe. He also likens it to Vladimir Tatlin’s unbuilt Memorial to the Third International (“really the beginning of modern sculpture as we know it”), then remarks wryly, “Both were destined to vanish into the junk heap of history.” (Phscologram 1983 was subsequently dismantled.) On one side the structure had three holograms and a video terminal; on the other were five 3-D “homages” to 20th-century artists the group felt a forgetful future time should be reminded of: Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Louise Nevelson, Georgia O’Keeffe, and “the naive artist.”
These five pieces have since been separated, retitled, and displayed individually. They differ from 1991 phscolograms in size (the early pieces are larger and taller than today’s standard 20 by 24 inches), in production technique (more recent phscolograms are at least partly computer generated), and in subject matter (the early works are more specifically art historical in their images and references). For instance, in the O’Keeffe tribute, her trademark bleached cattle skull has been replaced by a clear plastic oval containing electronic components and a digital display. The Man Ray tribute includes his famous Lips looming over a busy landscape of photographs, a tripod, and a chessboard with red and black profiles of people as pawns. (This chess-and-power motif appears in the other tributes as well.) The only thing these first phscolograms don’t have that the current ones do is science as subject matter. There are no chemical reactions, no viruses, no mathematical visualizations.
To Zanzi, Phscologram 1983’s size and variety were critical. “I saw it as a means of reintroducing embellishment into architecture,” he says. Fittingly, it was first unveiled in the “big, dismal lobby” of Helmut Jahn’s One South Wacker. “I’m sure it made it [the lobby] look like a circus to him,” Zanzi says.
The collaborators on this first piece also included Gary Justis and Randy Johnson (sculpture), Mark Resch (video), Gina Uhlmann and Jerry August (photography), and Tom Cvetkovich and Steven Smith (holography). “We were determined that summer  to get it done by fall,” recalls Zanzi. “It was one of the most intense, spectacular things I was ever involved with.” Uhlmann agrees: “A lot of that time is just a blur of exposing film and sleeping at the loft. It was over on Desplaines Avenue–a great big raw-as-they-come loft. In the summer, when it was 110 degrees outside, it was 180 degrees inside the big camera.” (August had supervised the camera’s construction.) Every hour or so, when one exposure had been finished and the next was ready to start, “Somebody had to be there to move things and adjust the exposure” so that the correct perspectives would be photographed through the barrier screen. “It was exciting, doing something no one had done before. We were literally making history.”
Sculpture was central to the process, since whatever objects were to appear in the image–an astronaut, a humanoid pawn, a robotic skull–had to be built first. Randy Johnson recalls that he built “pretty much all the objects we shot. In the beginning I just made them the way I would normally do things. After a while, though, I would build them in perspective so that I could accentuate certain aspects.” The checkerboards prominent in the tributes to Man Ray and the naive artist were constructed so they would seem to stick out farther in the final image.
Johnson remembers working at his day job from 9 to 5 or later, going to the loft before and after work to help set things up, and building more objects for the next shoot once he got home. “It was great. I did a lot, I learned a lot that went into my own work, I worked with a lot of really great people. I didn’t sleep for a few years–but Ellen gets a lot done, whether it wants to be done or not.” (Sandor adds, “I can’t imagine being able to do this in another town–this weird mix of garage art and high technology. This is a city that still allows you to invent. Saul Bellow said something like this: You invent in Chicago; you show in New York.”)
The long hours, the uncomfortable loft, the new ideas all fit the romantic stereotypes of visual “art.” Working as a group was something else again. “I had never worked on a collaborative piece before,” says Uhlmann, “and I don’t know many people who had. It’s a very 20th-century thing to do–Ellen was the producer, and the artists were the executors, craftspeople who had some say in the work.” Writing in the New Art Examiner, Michel Segard noted that “the extensive use of high technology requires collaboration,” in the 20th century just as in the 12th. The great cathedrals of Europe, “products of their time’s high technology,” had no single artist behind them. Segard described (Art)n as “a hybrid between a theater company and the research-and-development division of a corporation.” Says Sandor, “We bounce ideas off each other. It’s not art by committee. It’s radical empiricism–seeing what works.”
Phscologram 1983 put (Art)n on the map. When Dan Sandin saw it at 666 N. Lake Shore Drive early in 1984, he was particularly struck by the 3-D images. “I’d done holograms before and enjoyed it,” he says, “but these phscolograms had so much better color and contrast and sharpness. I spent a lot of time thinking about how they might tie into my work.” Sandin works as codirector of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at UIC. Founded under another name in 1973, it’s a joint facility of the School of Art and Design (where Sandin is a professor) and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (where codirector Tom De Fanti hails from). It can claim many pioneering efforts in video and computing, and it was the first place in the U.S., probably in the world, to offer an art-and-science MFA to students from both of the “two cultures.”
Phscologram 1983 alluded to high technology but didn’t use it much. Once Sandin joined (Art)n in 1985, computers began to play a major role. Phscolograms, which had been created using photographs of real objects, instead began to be made using images of video displays (the “computer/camera technique”), and then computer-generated images that bypassed sculpture and photography altogether (the patented “Stealth Negative” technique; almost all phscolograms today are made using this technique). The group’s focus also began to shift–slowly and never completely–from the almost architectural constructions of Zanzi to the individual phscolograms themselves, and from “pure” art to an amalgam of art and science.
In the “computer/camera” technique, (Art)n members would photograph an image displayed on a computer monitor, and use the computer rather than muscle power to shift the angle of view so that the final image would appear three-dimensional. Using this technique and working with Donna Cox, director of the numerical laboratory at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Urbana, (Art)n began producing novel phscolograms such as Transparent Venus and Apollo at Sunset, three-dimensional projections of “the Rhomboy Homotopy, a four dimensional object.” The shimmering, curved surfaces of these images call to mind an ultramodern abstraction of traditional fertility-cult figures.
This technique was a major break with the stereogram tradition. “At no time,” wrote Segard, “did any of these images ever exist as objects in ‘real’ space. They are photographic records of pure conceptual thought expressed through mathematics and given ‘substance’ as a phscologram.” Unlike abstract artists who often take real objects and reduce them to ever-simpler outlines, Segard pointed out, these computer artists were starting with the simplest things of all–mathematical formulas–and using them to create visual universes.
A still bigger break came with the invention, in 1987 and ’88, of the Stealth Negative technique. This process allows a phscologram to be produced directly from computer data recorded on nine-track tape, entirely bypassing the laborious process of photographing actual objects or even monitor screens. This technique has allowed (Art)n to move into a new realm of images: some represent things you could at least conceive of seeing (viruses, chemical reactions, airflows over wings); others are pure visualizations of equations and data that could not be summarized as succinctly or colorfully in other ways (the “Julia sets” and “Mandelbrot sets” of fractal mathematics). “For someone who was not a technical person,” says Sandor, “I have fallen in love with visualizing the invisible.”
Increasingly, the technical side of (Art)n has become the province of Dan Sandin’s graduate student Stephan Meyers, who helped create the group’s first image of the AIDS virus (working from a Scientific American cover). During his senior year at UIC, 1988, he worked on perfecting the Stealth Negative process, “making the tapes and software, putting images together, finding out what format they had to be in. It was an integrated process of discovery in art and science–it really opened me up.”
Meyers, now 23, says his father was in computer software back in the 1950s. “I got my first computer at age 11 or 12 and became one of the first real hackers. I used to put my pseudonym on the programs I cracked.”
“He’s a real media baby,” says Segard, who served on Meyers’s graduate committee. “I was worried that, being a hacker and an 80s kid, he might be a little amoral. But he’s developed in the right direction. And he thinks with the speed of light.”
Being on the art-science borderline is no easier for Meyers than for (Art)n as a whole. “People criticize me and say, ‘You’re not a real artist.’ And I don’t really have a tactile sense–a sense of picking up a piece of clay or a brush. But once I develop a rapport with the computer, it’s like I don’t need hands or eyes. It’s just a continuous loop straight through.”
He points to the papilloma-virus phscologram, in which intertwined chains of blue and yellow beads float somewhere beneath the transparent surface of the papilloma virus. “I’m very proud of that DNA. It’s not touching anything. A lot of people don’t want to deal with art that comes straight from your head and isn’t held up by physical limitations like having things hold up other things.”
What’s the difference between studying math and studying art? “I haven’t given up anything,” Meyers replies. “It’s interesting how the distinction between science and art is fairly recent in human history. In Leonardo da Vinci’s time there was no distinction between people who figured things out and people who drew things. Then came calculations and instruments, and science came to be about numbers. Now we have so many numbers we’re back to looking. Scientists and artists think the same way. And some scientists feel a passion for their work more than some artists do.”
(Art)n people seem a bit schizophrenic about wanting acceptance (or at least notice) from the art community. Total acceptance, it seems, would be a drag: “Mainstream is no fun,” says Meyers. Adds Sandor, “We’re akin to the novelty 3-D postcards. . . . I want to be able to keep that whimsical, kitschy edge.” And Jim Zanzi has little interest in acceptance at all: “Most of the time you’d be better off reading Popular Mechanics than Art Forum. Those people never change.” Still, Meyers frets, “People aren’t coming up to us and criticizing. We haven’t even heard ‘Your [April 23] show sucked.’ We get fan letters from people interested in 3-D or technical aspects, but nothing from the art community.”
Maybe that’s because (Art)n often seems more interested in the 3-D or technical aspects than in the artistic ones. Ken Johnson made that call in Art in America: “Beyond its enthusiasm for the wonders of science and technology, (Art)n doesn’t project a very compelling overall vision; the members don’t seem concerned with or deeply aware of the metaphorical implications of their subjects and methods.” The art world’s tendency to technophobia is not at issue here: in theory, you could be obsessed with enthusiasm for the details of pencil-shading techniques at the expense of artistry. In Johnson’s view, there are plenty of things (Art)n could be saying in its science-based images but isn’t: “You could view the image of the herbicide molecule or the representation of a magnetic resonance image of a woman with a brain tumor as symbols of an infernal aspect of modernity. Or the computer itself, as a pervasive sociological shaper of consciousness, might be addressed from a paranoid perspective. A mystical approach might lead to a vision of molecular and mathematical configurations as Platonic archetypes. But such themes are not articulated in any consistent way by (Art)n’s imagery.”
Hudson–proprietor of New York’s Feature, which represents (Art)n–questions whether it’s reasonable to expect a body of work to express such an ideological agenda. And he does find that formal properties in some phscolograms have meaning beyond their purely scientific significance. Chromium Chloride is one of his favorites: “I wish I could see a hard-edged abstract painting look that fantastic. Not very often.”
Does (Art)n get more respect on the scientific side? Phscolograms seem to work best in what Sandin calls “the presentation mode” of science–displaying, explaining, even popularizing results. Christine Gong, who works at NASA’s Ames Research Center, has worked with (Art)n making phscolograms representing complex three-dimensional airflows around flying craft. “We’ve had six made. They’re displayed in our graphics lab, where we get a lot of visitors, including VIPs”–such as congressmen who vote on NASA’s budget. “They help people see what our supercomputing facility is actually producing. The scientists always borrow them when they go out to give talks to students, and they’re always fighting to have their data sets picked [to be made into phscolograms]. But they aren’t really using them for feedback in research itself.”
For working over data and manipulating visualizations of it, phscolograms still take too long to make, cost too much, and aren’t interactive in the way that regular two-dimensional computer simulations can be. Alan Norton manages a research project in animation and image synthesis for IBM, and collaborated with (Art)n on a 1989 phscologram of a mathematical formula. “If I really wanted to understand the three-dimensional structure of something, I would just compute a series of perspectives and make a movie of it. Right now, that would probably be quicker than making a phscologram. But it is an exciting technology.” Both he and Sandor look forward to improved printer technologies that might eventually allow phscolograms to be created as easily as we make photocopies today.
(Art)n is just as ready to embrace commerce as it is science and art. “To me, commercials are art that more people see,” says Meyers. Nevertheless, here too phscolograms seem to be caught in limbo–too advanced for some, not advanced enough for others. Ron Neilsen, who does real-time photography for (Art)n and also runs his own photography and marketing studio, says the possible commercial uses are endless. “Right now we’re targeting point-of-purchase displays, vending machines, trade-show booths, video-game arcades, airport displays, and illuminated billboards.” He has shepherded phscolograms through all the necessary approval steps at the Leo Burnett advertising agency. But he says, “Selling a new technology doesn’t happen overnight.”
Probably the biggest commercial success for (Art)n came two years ago, when Nicole Chevalier, a sales representative at I.P.P. Lithocolor, sold an early camera-made image of an astronaut floating in space to the Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation to illustrate its trade-show theme “Exploring New Dimensions in Learning.” “It’s been very successful,” says Chevalier. “They’ve won several awards.” But phscolograms remain “pretty hard to sell.”
Selling them as art–at $4,500 and up–is no picnic either. But Hudson makes it clear that sales are not a determining factor for him. “I’ve worked with a number of artists I’ve shown for six years and never sold a thing. That’s been no influence on me as to deciding whether it’s good or should be seen. It’s important to keep those things separate.”
But who cares if they’re hard to sell now? The future belongs to 3-D. “One day,” says Sandor, “everything is going to be like this–virtual reality, all photographs and TV in three dimensions.” Although she sometimes describes the work (Art)n does as postmodern or post-postmodern, this confidence in the future and unending desire to experiment calls to mind Sandor’s favorite modernist, Man Ray (who also sold little in his own lifetime).
Phscolograms alone may not be enough for Meyers, who is fascinated by new materials he sees appearing. There’s the recently invented “antirubber,” which when squeezed in one dimension contracts in others as well. “Or what about biological art? A coat genetically engineered from dogs, like a living being?
“The first materials-engineering artworks by nerds have already been done,” he says, referring to a recent stunt in which company scientists inscribed the letters “IBM” submicroscopically. “Now doesn’t that remind you of the caveman paintings?” That was high tech then, according to Meyers; submicroscopic inscriptions are high tech now.
“Every generation of art is spurred on by technological innovation. Art has always been about technology. Anyone who says art is only done with brushes, or only with film, or only with TV cameras, is just not looking at it right.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.