Analog Dreamscape: Video & Computer Art in Chicago
The Q&A

Q&A with video art pioneer Daniel J. Sandin and new media historian Jon Cates after Analog Dreamscape: Video & Computer Art in Chicago at the UIC Institute for Humanities on June 13, 2014.

Watch a video of this discussion on YouTube.

Audience Member: Is there more of this work available?

Daniel J. Sandin (DJS): Well some of it is up on the web. I have a little bit of it on my website, and you’ve been working on a major archive, of especially Phil Morton’s work, but also other people.

Jon Cates (JC): Yes, so Dan is continuing to transcode and digitize the work and put it up online. And then, of course, I am as well. That’s part of the reason why I’m here, because there is a major effort on my part for Phil Morton, who is someone who you saw in some of these videos. So I’m the archivist who is responsible for taking care of his work, maintaining it, and keeping some of his ideas alive in his work by making it publicly available, free, for sharing and remix and exchange. So that work continues as well. And to answer your question very simply, there’s a lot more. Dan and I were talking about another room of tapes that exists, and I myself am organizing a room of tapes. So yes, there’s certainly more.

DJS: And there’s a large body that has been preserved, and I have on DV tape, and a large section of that in files. I do have a two volume DVD set, and I’d be happy to send it to anybody that wants..

JC: I believe he has some copies here.

DJS: I have some copies here, and some of them have already been called, have already been marked, but there should be a few extras. They actually are quite inexpensive to produce, and if you want to email me, I’ll send you copies.

Audience Member: How much interaction was there with other artists doing similar work around the country?

DJS: Well, of course getting around wasn’t quite as easy in the ’60s and ’70s. It was still very expensive to travel, and took a long time. So things were a little more isolated geographically than I think they feel now. But in actuality, there was really a shared set of goals and a cooperation with these different groups on the East and West Coasts. Chicago had a very large community – maybe fifty or so artists – that were working in this area together. So you had a lot of friends. And we certainly knew about what those other people were doing, and met them at various times at a couple conferences and stuff. In the ’60s it actually was a bigger deal [to get to] the West Coast or the East Coast than it is now, you know. I do it every few weeks by air.

JC: If I could add to that, Dan is an incredibly generous person and creator of systems, and also generous when describing these histories. So I think there are some realities to the fact that Chicago was a space in which people experimented and shared based on ethics and philosophies that were developed by Dan and others to encourage sharing and open exchange. And that was different than other communities. So in the East Coast, for instance, at the same time, there were some major – there was NYSCA, a New York state granting agency that was very well funded, had a huge outpouring of funding. That funding went to some individuals and groups, and it got very contentious about where that money was flowing. And then there’s a different kind of thing happening on the West Coast. So there’s definitely a character to the place that made certain situations possible and different. And also ethics and philosophies that were built into the systems. But, for instance, Steina and Woody Vasulka, who were on the East Coast in NYC, were coming to Chicago.

DJS: Yeah, we worked very closely with Woody and Steina. And they also built their own instruments and documented them. There were different distribution ethics. My idea was to basically make them – and Phil’s idea. Phil [Morton] is very important here, and it would never have happened without him organizing. We spent a year of Friday afternoons developing the documentation and training materials to allow people to copy this stuff, and then gave it away. I think other people also had the same goal, of getting this stuff out to the people who would do wonderful things with it. Their models were to try to build these things and sell them. There were more IP’s, for instance, for the Rutt/Etra video synthesizer. But there are more copies of the IP than there are actual video synthesizers, so I declare I won. (Laughter)

Audience Member: How did this work get funded?

DJS: Well, from the EVL [Electronic Visualization Laboratory] or the University of Illinois at Chicago side, it was funded largely by the utility of this technology to science and engineering. That $150,000 gadget there – roughly a million dollars in today’s dollars – was put here for, essentially, chemical engineering, and we were supported by our ability to be a short order media house for scientific education at the University. So on our side, it came because of our utility to science and education. There also was the Illinois Arts Council, which did fund video work, and gave out small grants to people in the city, and that was a source. You get a group of people together and it’s much more reasonable. You can get a complete video production system together, with editing, and an IP, and cameras, and stuff like that, if you share. And Chicago Editing Center, which became the Center for New Television at one point, was that collective, and it got grants from the Illinois Arts Council and others. So a lot of it had to do with everybody having a piece of the puzzle and sharing as a way to make it happen. We’re just less used to having resources in Chicago, I think, so fighting for them didn’t seem to be the best strategy.

JC: Also the fact that the people who are really central to this moment – Dan, obviously – are educators. And so they’re utilizing these positions as educators to help to facilitate and build community in this way.

Audience Member: Did you think of yourself as an experimental filmmaker, or was the art just a byproduct of the machines you were making?

DJS: Well, I was an art professor. For thirty years I was a professor in the School of Art and Design. And Tom DeFanti was actually originally hired in the chemistry department, but was a computer scientist – in information engineering, later called computer science. I never thought much of the distinction. It all seemed like the same activity to me. Artists do this historically. I just think the description of the arts somehow misses the point that many artists in many periods of time were involved in developing the technology for their art. Developing the paints, developing the methods, developing the concepts of perspective. All of these things were activities of artists. And during the period of the Renaissance, these people were less specialized. People were mixed up, and it didn’t seem so strange at that time. And I just feel like I’m part of that kind of activity. What I like about it, and the reason I became an art professor when I had a degree in physics, was that it was an area that I could involve more of my being. I love mathematics, I can build electronics. I was a physicist, I built experimental chambers, we built parts of particle accelerators. Just that ethic in experimental physics that you just build the stuff and then you do stuff with it. Building it isn’t any less physics than writing the papers and stuff. It’s all one necessary activity. So I never thought of it as being a separate activity. It seems all very much the same to me.

JC: Now we would call that DIY, or DIT, or open-source. But these are all the same ethics and principles. Bob Snider, for instance, who was playing the synthesizer in the EVE piece, refers to this ideology as an American Jeffersonian folk approach to technology. In other words, that we could craft our own systems, and then we could modify them, change them, modulate them, and that this would be in some cases desirable, preferable. This would be a better choice about how to have a relationship with technology.

DJS: This was produced like music, the way you prepared. The machinery wasn’t sophisticated enough to have memory and be able to reproduce things. So it was a process of rehearsal, and interacting with the instrument, and jamming with other people with the instrument. And then when you reproduce one of these pieces – like “Spiral 5” is a public performance of this piece – it was because you had spent hundreds of hours developing and modifying these pieces, jamming with these pieces, and then you would perform it. And we had the tape recorder running, that’s what you saw. In “Spiral 5,” for instance, there was one technical edit that covered a glitch, but otherwise it was a live performance before a studio audience in that case. Phil had a different methodology, but it was largely because he – that piece “Colorful Colorado” does have many edits. But by modern standards, it has very long runs of performance. So it is a different way of producing work.

JC: I think something else to keep in mind, and just to be very clear about, is that before you created the image processor, before the GRASS [Graphics Symbiosis System] language was developed, or Datamax, these kinds of aesthetics or images weren’t possible. They didn’t exist. And so what you see is a kind of coming into being of a certain approach that simply wasn’t possible until these systems were developed. There might have been other approaches that were similar, like next-door neighbors. But what you were able to do with these systems was really only possible once you had created them.

DJS: Yeah, there were certainly things like the Whitney Brothers, who did the special first analog computers. Exquisite work, and work that inspired me to do the kind of work that I did. But what we were creating here were more general purpose instruments that could create a large range of visual work and different people would take them in different directions. So there’s this concept of generality of the instrument which was important. There were a lot of people doing it in parallel at the same time, and developing video synthesizers. People on the West Coast, and people on the East Coast, the instruments are different. We actually all knew each other and did share a lot. At least among the instrument makers, you certainly lent a hand in any way you could to their activity, because it was a shared goal, and a magical time. And we used to talk about this work just being the exhaust. Really the fun part was just exploring these ideas and creating these kinds of activities, and then every once in a while it would get locked down onto a tape, and that became the work. That wasn’t largely the point of it. Largely the point of it was just to immerse yourself with these activities and change the way we look at the world because of the way you immersed yourself in these activities.

Audience Member: You developed the first data glove. Did you ever use it in a performance?

DJS: The data glove was never used in any performance. It was demonstrative, made to work. And I kind of liked knobs and sliders better. (Laughter) I developed the data glove, produced the first one, we called it Sayre glove, because the idea was created by a gentleman at UIC called Rick Sarye. And then I implemented his ideas and we tested it, and it was part of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and we published it. But I always had, and still do have, the opinion that we’re very good with instrumentalities. I don’t want to control the world with gestures. Sorry. (Laughter) I want to control the world with instruments, as mechanical extensions that I know how to use.

Audience Member: Do you think the DIY, open-source ethos Dan and colleagues championed is still part of video art culture in Chicago today?

JC: Not simply to look back nostalgically, although it produces warm feelings. But also to say there is such a rich history here, that it is existing in the present that’s directly informed – you know, I feel super fortunate. Dan and I began these conversations in 2003 or something like that, so I feel super fortunate to have been able to be directly in conversation, and then to implement those ideas specifically in new media, digital arts, and to try to reconnect and activate that. So yes, absolutely.

Audience Member: What’s with all the hats in the videos, Dan?

Another Audience Member: He still has them.

DJS: And I still do wear hats, but I don’t wear them all the time. I’m too proud of still having hair. (Laughter) But yeah, that was part of a costume and a performance. There’s kind of a musical and theatrical tradition. A lot of the stuff was performance, and a lot of what you see as videotape was really a recording of a performance, or perhaps a rehearsal of a performance. And so we share a lot with – musicians wear costumes, and so do people in the theater. And we felt very close to those live performance activities, because the way we operated – unlike modern animation, which is really a much different kind of activity, that’s very time intensive, and the playback of which is extremely sped up.

JC: Right, which underscores that it’s social, also, and that it’s being done in real time. This is something that for people attenuated to today’s technologies – you have to really take a minute and think about what that means. There’s no rendering, there’s no delay between your choices and their outcomes. But you’re making your choices and there’s this immediate feedback system where you’re seeing the results. And then you can make different choices and go in different directions. And that was true with the hardware, with the image processor, of course. But it was also true with the software, with the programming languages, which were able to be programmed and modified in real time as well.

DJS: I’ve been doing the same stuff forever. I now do virtual reality, and people in real time interact with an environment which I’ve created. And there’s a number of people still operating there. Our activity of developing new technology that had strong effects on both the science and art world didn’t stop in the early ’80s. It just got rolling. (Laughter)

Audience Member: Did you talk about how you wanted your live performances to be documented?

DJS: Video was a way of life. We used video for everything. The fact that your friends who were in the audience had video cameras and would record stuff seemed a completely natural process. And they would produce things. And video – we used it for so many things so much of the time that documentation became just part of what we did. And we didn’t think of it as documentation, we thought of it as work, educational work. It has been much harder since. I’ve changed less of video technology and moved onto other fields. Now the documentation of my work is lost. Most of my work is lost because of the way VR technology evolves. The work just can’t be reproduced now. The only thing I have is videotapes, and those works are not even enough of that. But this was all self-documented.

Audience Member: If we could talk a little bit about the “EVE Aura.” It’s here, on campus, right? And there’s an audience and performers, the boundary between which is very fluid and flexible. But everybody’s together. And the people who came out to see the performance, they’re with you, and you’re doing everything with Tom and Bob and Phil. The people that came out, they’re looking at the same screens that you’re looking at, right?

DJS: Right. And in one case, in the case of “EVE 3,” they were in an inflatable – because I was in this period where I did these inflatable sculptures – which had a video projector in it, so that when the piece started – and these things have warm-up times. It took a while to get started, and getting it all to work, and people would be hanging out and talking and stuff. And we’d get ready to do the work, and they’d disappear into the inflatable structure and watch it on a tele-beam projector. We just saw some pictures of them in there. And then they’d come out and applaud. And you can see [in] that group picture, all those people had a significant role in that evening, which had a whole series of performances by different people.

Audience Member: Who were your inspirations?

DJS: Well I think conceptually musicians were the most important, because they had this long relationship with instrumentality. Visual artists had a much more contentious relationship. They somehow keep denying it. It took fifty years, or a hundred years, for photography to be considered an art. When I started teaching here, that was still – you know, you didn’t exhibit photography at art museums. They had their own museums. So I think the visual artists had a much more contentious relationship with technology than musicians, [for whom] it was a very fluid thing. So at that conceptual level it was definitely musicians. But also, [Scott Bartlett’s film] OffOn, the Whitney brothers, there’s a whole series of these abstract movies. When I was at the University of Wisconsin and was still a physics student, the film class used to have a daytime showing and then also an evening showing. And the evening showing was – all the works that were associated with the course were open to the public. And so I used to go to those and watch them. They were a very great, free, and well-produced kind of visual activity. And I saw a bunch of that kind of stuff and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. And then it took a couple of years to figure out that it would be electronic instead of chemical.

JC: And you’ve said in the past – I’ll just throw a few names. Nam June Paik and Shuya Abe, their video art synthesizer. Bob Moog, the Moog synthesizer, in terms of audio. And one other reference point that – I’ll take this opportunity to ask a question. There has been a quote about the political necessity of real time video. Like your response, for instance, to the resistance to the Vietnam War. And the way in which on campuses like Kent State, real time video would be beneficial or needed by students and student movements.

DJS: During the Kent State crisis, the University here was closed, and we had these teach-ins, and the rooms would be filled over capacity. So I would set up these closed circuit TV systems. And then there was this activity going on in this room, and I was out of this room watching these things – this is now so common. Why would it be so magical? But it was just magical. I remember stroking the TV and saying, “It’s happening here the same time as it’s happening there, and I’m not in the same place.” All of this stuff. And I really finished the job saying, well, I’ve got to do this with video, I can’t do this with film. And the real time was necessary to me because it’s how I learned how to do this stuff. It’s so much faster when you have immediate feedback than when you have to wait for the results.