By VITTORIA BENZINE May, 2022
Art and science make a radical pair so well-loved—and publicized—in contemporary art that we forget a relationship requires equal give and take. STEAM projects have dominated the landscape lately, especially with the advent of so many new technologies, but Chicago-based artist, director, and collector Ellen Sandor has never cared much for buzzwords. She’s enamored of the process, finding the next big thing before it happens.
An ardent proponent of experimental art throughout her 40 year career, Sandor and her team at (art)n have spearheaded new possibilities driven by tech, setting foundations with notable inventions like the PHSColograms—which Sandor likens to the daguerreotypes of virtual reality.
Developed by Sandor and her team in the early 80's PHSColograms are named after their makeup–photography, holography, sculpture and computer graphics all digitally interleave numerous views to render a virtual scene, iridescent and multidimensional. Creating PHSColograms is necessarily a collaborative endeavor. “It’s about the artist as director and producer,” Sandor told me. “Another way we were pioneers."
“Give me the outsider—period,” she continued. “I honestly believe all innovation happens with people who think differently, outside the box, from the tech revolution to scientists.“
April 28th opened “Brain+ Love+” at ilon Art Gallery, an innovative new space for outsider art in Harlem. (art)n’s latest exhibition there presents PHSCologram sculptures in varying forms and dimensions, a VR experience, and pieces inspired by legends like Victor Vasarely and Man Ray. Artwork dates range from 2001 to 2020, and credits can top ten entities–consistent collaborators like Diana Torres and Azadeh Gholizadeh, and institutions like Fermilab and The Stanley Center at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard–a testament to the teamwork required for art and science to truly unite.
Sandor started as a school teacher in NYC. She and her husband graduated from city schools and wed by 21. “I'd already taught two years, went to Minnesota and taught about three years there, and taught a couple years in Berkeley from 1966 to 1968,” Sandor recalled. After having kids, their family moved to Chicago, where Sandor earned her MFA in Sculpture from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1975.
Her earliest works experimented with neon light. When Sandor completed a commission for the first-ever large-scale 3D postcard, the medium began to usurp more of her artistic energy, which brought her in closer contact with collaborators in the sciences. “It just made sense,” she noted. “The people we could collaborate with were scientists. They were interested in this new technology.”
“A personal story evolved after that,” she said. Watching close friends suffer from cancer, the AIDs epidemic, and other crises forged an understanding of the critical pathos that makes science relevant to everyday life. “Then, one of my grandsons developed nonverbal autism,” she continued, which limits Cal’s ability to communicate and control his body. “He became my muse.”
“There was a new way of learning to communicate where you have a board that has letters,” Sandor recounted. The following was captured on film: “Cal said, ‘Grandma, study CRISPR,’ and he spells it out. I almost fainted.” The rest has become history—Sandor got in touch with now-Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist and (art)n supporter who pioneered CRISPR’s gene editing technology.
The show’s title work is a PHSCologram produced in 2010 by 13 teammates depicting the brain map of Raun Kaufman, “one of the first people to fully recover from autism,” according to a catalog accompanying the exhibition. Loni Efron, director at ilon Art Gallery, has served as archivist to Keith Richards and Annie Leibovitz. Efron is also Kaufman’s first cousin, which she and Sandor figured out after they started working together.
“Sandor used several scans of [Kaufman’s] brain taken while performing certain activities, each firing near paths captured as light on film,” Jessica Krinke wrote for Medill Reports: Chicago. “The result is a three-dimensional, transparent brain filled with colorful clusters as if everything were active at once. The model of Kaufman’s brain should serve as not only a beautiful artistic representation of the work done at the center, but also a valuable study of the brain.”
Autism isn’t a monolithic term–the word denotes an entire array of conditions. For many individuals on the spectrum, Sandor clarified, it’s entirely likely to live a full and happy life. Cal, however, faces limitations that have driven Sandor as a grandmother, artist, and person to help scientists seek new solutions. “This is not about everyone,” she says. “This is personal.”
A VR headset invites viewers to enter their own inner worlds, simulating two works from (art)n’s “Neuronal Forest” series, which incorporates photographs by Eliott Porter from the esteemed Sandor Family Collection. In a forest of synapses and microglia–the primary immune cells of our central nervous system responsible for pruning synapses–viewers’ hands regulate the environment. Too much pruning causes the scene to go dark, evoking conditions like Alzheimers. Not enough causes a frenzy of light like conditions on the spectrum.
A series of smaller PHSColograms look like NFTs, but are actually some of the earliest works in the show, from Sandor’s collaborations with the late, great outsider artist Mr. Imagination and Chicago Imagist painters Ed Paschke and Karl Wirsum, developing new characters from scratch. Eventually, all the works in this show will be released on the blockchain in fiat currency at ilon Art Gallery’s NFT shop.
Many projects around art and science force the latter to serve the former. Tech advancements are assessed in terms of what they can do for the art world, not vice versa. Through (art)n, Sandor also affects science, working with researchers to catalyze new ways of thinking. A true marriage of art and science opens exploration so their child, society, can grow. Right now, art is intimidated by science, the smart friend who speaks in jargon and makes people feel small. Science, however, is intimidated by art for the same reason—its jargon is just artspeak. When both parties stop trying to prove themselves, then they can work together.
“Has the art world caught up with Ellen Sandor?” the catalog asks. Sandor refuses to be caught up with. She thought that by this point in history we’d all be living in a virtual world, not through 2D screens or an Oculus. “To you, this has all happened,” she said. “To me, it still hasn’t quite happened.”
Society stays stuck overturning old legislation as opposed to solving income disparity or race relations or inadequate healthcare or inefficient public transportation. Until we start talking about this, it cannot be solved. Until it is solved, we’ll always move a little too slow for Ellen Sandor. “Brain+ Love+” does its part by starting the conversation, starting from our own minds. Words cannot do a PHSCologram justice–see this visually educational exhibition in ilon Art Gallery’s brownstone abode through June 25th. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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