By VITTORIA BENZINE May 2022
Art and science form such a valued – and publicized – radical pair in contemporary art that we forget that a relationship requires an equal exchange. STEAM projects have dominated the landscape lately, especially with the advent of so many new technologies, but Chicago-based artist, filmmaker, and collector Ellen Sandor has never cared much about buzzwords. She’s in love with the process, finding the next big thing before it happens.
A fervent supporter of experimental art throughout her 40-year career, Sandor and her team of (art)not have spearheaded new possibilities driven by technology, laying the groundwork for notable inventions like PHSColograms, which Sandor compares to virtual reality daguerreotypes.
Developed by Sandor and his team in the early 80s, PHSColograms take their name from their make-up – photography, holography, sculpting and computer graphics digitally intertwine many views to render a virtual, iridescent and multi-dimensional scene. . The creation of PHSColograms is necessarily a collaborative enterprise. “It’s about the artist as director and producer,” Sandor told me. “Another way we were pioneers.”
“Give me the underdog—period,” she continued. “I sincerely believe that all innovation happens with people thinking outside the box, from the technological revolution to the scientists.”
April 28 opened “Brain+ Love+” at Ilon Art Gallery, an innovative new space for raw art in Harlem. (art)notThe latest PHSCologram exhibition there features PHSCologram sculptures of varying shapes and sizes, a virtual reality experience, and pieces inspired by legends like Victor Vasarely and Man Ray. The dates of the works range from 2001 to 2020, and the credits can be among the top ten entities – constant 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 out as a schoolteacher in New York. She and her husband graduated from city schools and married at 21. “I had already taught two years, went to Minnesota and taught about three years there, and taught for a few years at Berkeley from 1966 to 1968,” Sandor recalled. After having children, their family moved to Chicago, where Sandor earned his master’s degree in sculpture from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1975.
His early works experimented with neon light. When Sandor completed a commission for the first-ever large-scale 3D postcard, the medium began to further usurp her artistic energy, bringing her closer to scientific collaborators. “It 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 has forged an understanding of the critical pathos that makes science relevant to everyday life. “Then one of my grandsons developed non-verbal 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 with letters,” Sandor recounted. The sequel was filmed“Cal said, ‘Grandma, study CRISPR,’ and he spelled it. I nearly passed out. The rest is history – Sandor got in touch with now Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna , biochemist and (art)not supporter who pioneered the gene-editing technology of CRISPR.
The title work of the exhibition is a PHSCologram produced in 2010 by 13 teammates depicting the map of the brain of Raun Kaufman, “one of the first people to fully recover from autism”, according to a catalog accompanying the exposure. Loni Efron, director of ilon art gallery, served as archivist to Keith Richards and Annie Leibovitz. Efron is also Kaufman’s first cousin, which she and Sandor found out after they started working together.
“Sandor used several scans of [Kaufman’s] brain caught during certain activities, each shooting near paths captured as light on film,” Jessica Krinke wrote for Medill Reports: Chicago. “The result is a transparent three-dimensional brain filled with colorful clusters as if everything is active at once. Kaufman’s model of the brain should serve not only as a beautiful artistic representation of the work done at the center, but also as a valuable study of the brain.
Autism is not a monolithic term – the word refers to a whole range of conditions. For many people on the spectrum, Sandor clarified, living a full and happy life is entirely likely. Cal, however, faces limitations that have driven Sandor as a grandmother, an artist, and a person to help scientists search for new solutions. “It’s not about everyone,” she says. “It’s personal.”
A VR headset invites viewers into their own inner world, simulating two works of (art)notfrom the “Neuronal Forest” series, which incorporates photographs by Eliott Porter of the estimated Sandor Family Collection. In a forest of synapses and microglia – the primary immune cells of our central nervous system responsible for pruning synapses – the spectators’ hands regulate the environment. Too much pruning makes the scene gloomy, conjuring up conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Not enough causes light frenzy like conditions on the spectrum.
A series of smaller PHSColograms look like NFTs, but are actually some of the earliest works in the series, stemming 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 of this show will be broadcast on the blockchain in fiat currency at Ilon Art Gallery NFT Shop.
Many projects around art and science oblige the latter to serve the former. Technological advances are evaluated by what they can do for the art world, not the other way around. Through (art)not, Sandor also affects science, working with researchers to catalyze new ways of thinking. A true marriage of art and science opens up exploration so that their child, society, can grow. Right now, art is intimidated by science, the clever friend who speaks in jargon and makes you feel small. Science, however, is intimidated by art for the same reason – its jargon is just artistic language. When both parties stop trying to prove themselves, they can work together.
“Has the art world caught up with Ellen Sandor? ask for the catalog. Sandor refuses to be caught. She believed that at this point in history we would all be living in a virtual world, not through 2D screens or an Oculus. “For you, it all happened,” she said. “For me, it hasn’t quite happened yet.”
Society remains stuck overturning old legislation instead of solving income disparities or race relations, inadequate health care or inefficient public transport. Until we start talking about it, it can’t be solved. Until it is resolved, we will always move a little too slowly for Ellen Sandor. “Brain+ Love+” does its part by starting the conversation, from our own minds. Words can’t do justice to a PHSCologram – see this visually educational exhibit in the brownstone abode of ilon art gallery through June 25. WM