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Kathryn Farley, Generative Systems

Core Curriculum

Generative System’s unique curriculum, promoting hands-on exploration of diverse high-speed communication tools, aligned engineers, scientists, industry representatives and arts practitioners with a unique body of undergraduate and graduate students. Primarily, Generative Systems classes sought to provide participants with collaborative art-making opportunities and access to a vast array of industrial equipment, personnel and techniques that had traditionally remained off limits to academic inquiry. The commercial equipment that Professor Sheridan elected to employ in her courses ranged from a Thermo-Fax machine (a prototype of the modern copier) to the more complex Color-in-Color copy system, Haloid Xerox technology, video imaging and, eventually, computer graphics software. (1) Functioning as an experimental learning lab, Professor Sheridan’s classroom balanced the needs and interests of students with the skills and expertise offered by visiting scientists, industry executives and engineers, an approach to instruction that Professor Sheridan describes in this excerpt of a recent interview. (a) Ultimately, interactions between students and guest lecturers gave rise to innovative ideas about the relationship between scientific inquiry and technological advancement on art production, as well as the discovery of hybrid mediums of expression that blended traditional elements of photography, drawing and textile design together with cutting-edge advancements in image processing. (2)

Like many other aspects of the program, the core curriculum of Generative Systems evolved incrementally over time. Expanding from a single class centering on “reproduction” technologies to a formal program of study focusing on complex imaging processes, the content of individual courses was shaped in large part by the availability of technical instrumentation. For example, an integral component of early Generative Systems classes was the Color-in-Color copy machine, an instrument produced by, and made available to, students of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M). As an instructional tool, the photocopier provided an accessible way to examine the inner-workings of mechanical apparatuses and to gain practical experience mastering art/science integration techniques. Exploring the creative functions of machinery allowed students to discover non-traditional uses of technology, meaning the ways in which technical devices could be utilized for purposes other than those for which they were intended. How might a Color-in-Color copy machine, for instance, be used as a sophisticated imaging device, not just an instrument for basic reproduction? In this interview excerpt, Sonia Landy Sheridan comments on the role of technology in early Generative Systems courses. (b)

By the seventh year of the program, Professor Sheridan had designed certain Generative Systems classes to “give the student a range of experience, from the artist’s vantage point, in re-examining energy for imaging manually, mechanically, electronically and photonically… and to pull apart and examine dozens of communications machines.“ (3) The courses, titled “Process I and Process II,” introduced students to the interactive properties of high-speed imaging systems using a practice-based mode of inquiry. These exercises, part of a “Process I” class, for instance, granted participants the opportunity to understand electrostatic image transfer without the assistance of mechanical instrumentation. (c) In-class activities and take-home assignments, such as lessons involving magnetic production techniques, allowed participants to grapple with complex scientific principles within a practical and participatory context. (d)

Towards the end of the 1970s, a course called “Homography” was added to the Generative Systems curriculum. The class, analyzing the relationship between two objects or subjects, emphasized art-making using both traditional and emergent instruments and production techniques. Students worked with a wide array of technologies in the course, beginning with pens and paintbrushes and progressing to video cameras, photocopiers and computers. As Professor Sheridan explained, “It was an attempt to find the aesthetics and meaning underlying the shift from tools of one kind to tools of another kind of time.” (4) “Homography” aimed to build upon the practical exercises, activities and assignments presented in Process I and II classes.

Kathryn Farley © 2007 FDL

(1) To learn more about the equipment used by students and Professor Sheridan in the Generative Systems classroom, please visit the “Process” section of the interface.

(2) The “Processes” section of the site offers details about hybrid art making techniques in relation to classroom activities.

(3) Sonia Landy Sheridan, “Mind/Senses/Hand: The Generative Systems Program at the Art Institute of Chicago 1970-1980,” Leonardo: Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology, vol. 23, no. 2/3 (December 1990) p. 176.

(4) Ibid., p. 178.