Sonia Sheridan & Generative Systems

[Image: Sonia Sheridan manipulating the Chromemco Z-2D system with EASEL software, 1982.] Sonia Landy Sheridan is a visual artist and professor Emerita of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where, after ten years of teaching the fine arts, she founded the program Generative Systems in 1970. With the cooperation of scientists, industry, artists and a unique body of graduate students, Sheridan was able to explore the implications of the communications revolution for the arts. As artist-in-residence at 3M’s Color Research and Central Research Labs, she was able to take back to her students up-to-date industrial experiences. Sheridan shaped her art and teaching on the premise that art, science and technology function as intertwining systems of thought.

In 2002 the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, accessioned into its permanent collection over 600 of Sheridan’s art works in 31 different mediums created between 1949 and 2002. Thus drawings, paintings, prints, and photographs from the earlier years are being kept together, along with dozens of new media material such as Telecopier, copier, and computer artwork produced from 1969 to 2002. This single body of work is available to scholars and students interested in the artistic development of an artist working during the communications revolution of the second half of the 20th century.

The Daniel Langlois Foundation of Montreal, Canada has accessioned Sheridan’s media work, correspondence, videos, history of Generative Systems, data and records from the 1940s through 2000s. Sheridan’s work is also in permanent collections such as, the Art Institute of Chicago; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the National Gallery of Canada; the Fundacion Telefonica, Madrid, Spain; the Museum of Science & Industry, Chicago, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Books and articles both by and about Sheridan have been published in many languages. For her work with Generative Systems she is a Guggenheim Fellow and three times National Endowment for the Arts grantee. At present Sheridan is still sending works to international exhibits such as the 2002 2nd Buenos Aires Biennale. She also produced an interactive art game “GenArt” for the handheld computer with software and production by her former student John Dunn via his Algorithmic Arts on-line company.

“Sonia Sheridan & Generative Systems” by Kathryn Farley, Daniel Langlois Foundation:

Founding Ideology

There was no single action, event or decision that triggered the sudden emergence of Generative Systems. Rather, the program evolved in an organic and spontaneous manner over a ten year period. The impetus for creating the first class introducing students to the inner-workings of high-speed communications instruments grew out of Professor Sheridan’s educational background and beliefs regarding the responsibilities of artists vis-à-vis society. Her upbringing and educational training had emphasized the importance of political participation and creative expression in combating social injustice and economic disparity. (1) Professor Sheridan’s life-long commitment to civic involvement and her experiences teaching in public schools reinforced the idea that creative production was inextricably linked to social activism: artists were responsible for redressing political imbalances and responding to the scientific and technological contexts of their time. When discussing the impact of the anti-Vietnam war movement and space exploration on the development of Generative Systems, for example, Professor Sheridan noted, “It originated in my personal quest for an art process appropriate to the technological and societal context of that era. It seemed to me that an awareness of genetics, time and motion had to be as crucial to art as it was to science.” (2) In light of her beliefs concerning artistic advocacy and the importance of scientific /technological investigation, the term “Generative Systems” that Professor Sheridan elected to use to identify the program beginning in its formative years (1970-73) was particularly meaningful. The phrase, suggested by Ian Roberston, director of the Good Lion Press, recognized a generative approach to art production and a mode of investigation closely associated with scientific discovery. Applying principles of biology, physics and chemistry to the examination of mechanical processes, Professor Sheridan’s classes offered new methods and tools for art making, as she asserts in this recent interview. (a)

Besides unifying different classes under a single name, the term served to underscore the process-oriented and experimental nature of classroom activities. “Generative Systems” also encapsulated the program’s multidisciplinary features and myriad operational objectives. In addition, the name pointed out the program’s diverse functions, its ability to serve as “a research center; a resource and energy-bank; a self-generating center where communication tools came and went while people remained.” (3) A strategic report prepared by Professor Sheridan in 1973 reveals the scope and range of early program activities. (c) Seeking a way to support student involvement in anti-war demonstrations, Professor Sheridan began to work with new communication instruments that had been designed primarily for commercial applications. Experimentation with diverse imaging systems led her to discover different commercial devices that afforded students the ability to generate protest banners and distribute signage in a timely manner. Ultimately, experimentation with emergent media tools in a classroom environment shaped Professor Sheridan’s view that “An approach to art education was required that would place modern communication tools in their proper place as an adjunct of the human mind and senses.” (4) Generative Systems offered a progressive alternative to the standard art school curriculum, a subject that Professor Sheridan discussed in a recent interview. (b)

From its inception, the program assumed an international flavor and composition. Participants in Generative Systems classes represented a wide array of origins, languages and creative traditions. Together, these students contributed a multicultural dimension to classroom dynamics and a variety of approaches to producing art within a global context.

Kathryn Farley © 2007 FDL

(1) Art historian Diane Kirkpatrick has written extensively on Professor Sheridan’s background, teaching career and artistic work. A recent paper, “Sonia Landy Sheridan and the Evolution of her Generative Systems Program,” appeared in Visual Resources: an International Journal of Documentation, vol. XXII, no. 4 (December 2006) p. 343-361. The article provided an overview of the influence of Professor Sheridan’s upbringing and education on her approach to teaching and philosophies regarding art instruction.

(2) Sonia Landy Sheridan, “Generative Systems at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1970-1980,” Ibid, p. 315.

(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. 175.

(4) Ibid., p. 317.

May 11, 17:18
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5 Responses

  1. Sonia Landy Sheridan:

    Thank you for putting relevant material about Generative Systems neatly together. At an age when there is too much scattered information out there for me to deal with, this succinct item it very helpful. I am placing it on Facebook.

  2. pete lekousis:

    indeed, a succinct review. thanks for the article, and thank you, sonia sheridan!

  3. leif BRUSH:

    Sonia’s commemorative frLeif and Gloria

  4. Martha Loving Orgain:

    As a Generative Systems student, then and now, I am ever grateful for Sonia’s artistry and leadership by example, and for her continual inclusive approach to life. There was never a competitive moment then or now, everyone was included, ideas coming quickly and freely shared. Our collaborative enthusiasm created many new ways of image-making. It is a gift to be able to continue to work with Sonia and for so many years. My life has ceratinly been enriched beyond measure from my association with Sonia and all the Gernerative Systems students, now colleagues. Thank you Sonia, and all of you G. S. folks! Llove, Martha Loving


    […] […]

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