Please wait a few moments while we process your request
Please wait...

Kathryn Farley, Generative Systems

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 n 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.