Calit2 Gallery Show

Flying under the Radar: Rediscovering Dan Sandin

by Bruce Jenkins, Professor of Film, Video and New Media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

The early history of the cinema is littered with visionary, influential, but largely forgotten projects: miscarried inventions (Émilie Reynaud’s Praxinoscope, destroyed by its distraught maker), failed ventures (the cumbersome Bioscop by the Skladanowsky brothers from Berlin), and even ominous disappearances (the Frenchman Augustin Le Prince at work in England, who vanished along with his patent application for a camera that used paper-roll film). The successful inventors—Edison in America, the Lumière brothers in France—were the ones with a ready infrastructure of material resources, equipment, and personnel. Inventiveness, it turns out, is not enough. While far more recent, the medium of video, too, has had its share of pioneering cul-de-sacs and lost works, ranging from Nam June Paik’s “Wobbulator” and Shirley Clarke’s Tee Pee Videospace Troupe to Andy Warhol’s unplayable series of tapes made on Norelco’s slant-scan video recorder. Included in this select company I would place the live video jams known as EVE (Electronic Video Events) that were staged episodically beginning in 1975, in Chicago. Featuring “artist-technologist” Dan Sandin, graphics software designer Tom DeFanti, video maker Phil Morton, sound artist Bob Snyder, as well as a shifting cast of visiting artists and students, these were resolutely live performances in which video was deployed, as media historian Gene Youngblood has noted, “as a tool for the production of commodities (programs, artworks) and . . . an instrument of personal transformation.”i While Sandin’s Image Processor (IP), a key component of these events, did enter into the history of the medium, these influential multimedia programs have remained hiding in plain sight for more than three decades, as has much of the pioneering work of Dan Sandin.

Trained as a physicist, the Illinois-born Sandin had already begun making his own Super-8mm films and collaborating on light shows prior to his involvement with video. A major influence was the celebrated avant-garde film OFFON (1967), by West Coast artist Scott Bartlett, a pioneering work in a form that Youngblood called “videographic cinema.”ii At the time Sandin was completing his graduate degree at the University of Wisconsin and actively involved in color photography, working on slides and visual transparencies for light shows, and even venturing into kinetic installation. Bartlett’s film, which mixed optical printing with video effects—what the filmmaker presciently described as “crossbreeding information”iii —vividly demonstrated the new medium’s potential for visual abstraction. For Sandin it represented the leading edge of the visual music movement pioneered by John and James Whitney a decade and a half earlier and suggested a new production method. “I was involved in using optical and chemical processes to create images that I found interesting, and it occurred to me that I could do it electronically.”iv

Equally significant for Sandin was his first hands-on experience with video, which came in 1970 during the student unrest following the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State. By this time he had relocated to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) to work on integrating computers into the arts curriculum. When the campus shut down in the face of student protests, the art department remained open. Sandin was able to deploy the school’s cache of video equipment to serve as information kiosks for daily rallies and meetings as well as to service overflow crowds with live closed-circuit feeds of speeches and discussions. As Sandin recalled, “There was something about the black-and-white image that I found very attractive and tactile.” This encounter with video, combined with the hybrid forms that he called “false color still photography” and “stillies” (essentially, video grabs of the water rippling on Lake Michigan)v, would lead Sandin to develop his own image-processing technology.

The device itself was modeled on the Moog 2 audio synthesizer, a patch-programmable instrument with which Sandin had become acquainted in his experience with light shows. Like the Moog, the video synthesizer would be capable of processing an array of electronic input in real time, and additionally transform live feeds into abstract imagery. While the idea was entirely developed, the construction of the device—essentially an analogue computer optimized for processing television signals—would consume nearly three years, requiring this nuclear physicist to relearn the fundamentals of circuit design and assembly. The finished instrument was a modular device arrayed most often on a tabletop and consisting of ten discrete analog modules connected to a sync generator and encoder. As Christine Tamblyn has noted, the Image Processor “emulates photographic darkroom techniques: colorization, solarization, superimposition, burning and dodging” as well as “many electronic functions for which there are no darkroom counterparts.”vi

In what would become perhaps Dan Sandin’s most widely shown work, Five Minute Romp Through the IP (1973), the artist-technologist—wearing something resembling an ancient Viking helmet—demonstrates the inner workings of the apparatus module-by-module, emphasizing the simplicity of control while illustrating the myriad possibilities it held for combining visual effects. Taped in the winter (registered by a brief image of snow falling outside an adjacent window), the video shows Sandin working in real time to transform the closed-circuit feed of the image, which is documenting the demonstration, by turning knobs, moving slider controls, and rerouting cables. Starting with simple black-and-white effects, he patches the live camera signal into the comparator module and then adjusts a knob on the output module to transform the image into something resembling a high-contrast photographic Kodalith, which in turn can be varied along the gray scale. More complex effects are shown by ganging together several of the modules, and then, near the end of the tape, there is a “eureka” moment as the color modules that Sandin had completed in the summer are unveiled. As striking of some of the prior imagery was, we enter a very different realm with the addition of color, which connects directly to the spectral shifts and cyber-psychedelic imagery of Bartlett’s film. Countering the mildly hallucinatory quality of the color abstraction, the tape ends on a humorous note as the artist—in hues of acid lime and ultramarine blue—turns toward the camera and queries the viewer, “Complex enough?”

As the tape made abundantly clear, Sandin had attained his goal of building a device with a real-time capacity to process imagery. This capability led to other applications that went beyond the IP’s role as a post-production tool, and, as Lucinda Furlong has noted, it soon became “a performance instrument” that could be “patched together with an audio synthesizer and ‘played.’”vii In April 1975, the first Interactive Electronic Visualization Event was presented as a live performance on the UIC campus. Shortened to the acronym EVE, which eloquently captured the sense of both the genesis of a new medium and an edenic arena for artistic exploration, the program concluded with the premiere of a new multimedia piece titled Spiral. This work placed the IP in the center of an electronic audio-visual jam in which images generated by his UIC colleague Tom DeFanti’s computer-graphics system were played through and processed live by the IP in tandem with an electronic score performed by the sound artist Bob Snyder. Reminiscent of the metamorphic visual forms, perceptual play, and spiritual exploration encountered in the films of the Whitney brothers, Spiral equally embraced the dynamics of real-time processing and trans-medial improvisation. Like a jazz performance, EVE provided the context for a unique work of art to be produced by a group of artists and experienced by an audience simultaneously.

The collective, communal nature of the EVE performances was as significant as the emphasis on image processing and became the hallmark of a “Chicago School” of video art. The IP had been developed with an Illinois Arts Council grant, and Sandin himself was working full-time at a state university, where his position involved working creatively with computer technology. One of his goals in constructing the IP was to create an affordable tool for artists and students rather than a device for the commercial market. As Sandin has noted, “In the forefront of my mind when designing the AIP [the first, analog version of the IP] was its use as an educational instrument (learning machine).”viii So when he was approached by Phil Morton, who had started a pioneering video program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, about obtaining an IP for his work, Sandin made a simple decision with enormous implications for the field. “The Image Processor may be copied by individuals and not-for-profit institutions without charge.”ix In making the plans for his device available to anyone who requested them, Sandin confirmed the dominance of a DIY aesthetic within his community while taking a position that anticipated the broad-based emergence of shareware and open-source programming in the digital era.

Together with Morton, Sandin began documenting his invention. The ensuing dossier, which they titled Distribution Religion, comprised more than a hundred pages crammed with parts lists, descriptions and definitions, wiring diagrams, and practical advice and tips. For the cost of postage anyone could have the plans, and over the next several years some two dozen or so Sandin Image Processors were built. Sandin began work on a digital version of the IP, taking the lessons learned from his experience building and “playing” the instrument into both performances and the production of single-channel tapes. While as Tamblyn has noted, his videotapes “functioned primarily as ongoing research reports,”x his work retained a strong connection to its roots in visual music. Sandin’s Wandawega Waters (1979), one of the first works created with the digital image colorizer (the DIC), transformed imagery taken over the course of a day and night in the environs of his lakeside house in Wisconsin into an almost Blakean meditation on the cosmos that shifts from geological fractals of waterscape to the neural pathways of inner space.

Research aside, Sandin was still very much engaged by an experiential and experimental aesthetic that the film historian P. Adams Sitney described in a book-length study as “visionary.” According to Sitney, “the great unacknowledged aspiration of the American avant-garde film has been the cinematic reproduction of the human mind”—an ambition that blended a distinctly Romantic poetics with a McLuhanesque understanding of technology.xi Sandin, for his part, focused much of his attention on creating an apparatus that could achieve such lofty ends. But as work evolved in the 1980s and the field embraced digital technology, the artist was struck by “how badly matched our tools are to perceptual and effortor systems!”xii He was critical of the standard computer interface of mouse and keyboard, as well as the narrow angle of the visual field, the poor sound, and the absence of tactile and kinesthetic cues. He continued to work on the DIP and a tool that he called the “People’s Video Synthesizer,” which would cost $1,000, be as portable as a laptop, and work directly with consumer-grade videotape. He even branched out into computer-generated holography, all in search of that elusive medium that could match the complexity of consciousness and the immediacy and synaesthetic character of perception.

The medium that delivered this experience would come in the early years of the following decade, when Sandin’s position at a major research university meant the possibility of working with supercomputers and the availability of capital-intensive resources through National Science Foundation support for data visualization and display. Here Sandin’s light-show experience from the mid-1960s served to direct him away from the use of the standard head-mounted virtual reality goggles and instead toward utilizing projection and an immersive configuration of screens. Equally significant were those distinctive features of video that fueled his first engagement with the medium—interactivity, immediacy, and motion—that proved to be key components of the experience. Again working in close collaboration, Sandin and his UIC colleague Tom DeFanti devised a virtual reality theater that they called the “CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment” (or CAVE for short). With its acronym echoing Plato’s classical allegory about truth and illusion, the apparatus consisted of an immersive, ten-foot cube with large 3D projections shown on three walls and the floor, across which participants wearing 3D glasses equipped with a tracking device, could navigate and interact. Like the IP, the CAVE quickly became a tool for artists and students as well as a paradigm-shifting twenty-first-century medium capable of realizing the aspirations of earlier generations of artists.

If as the mythic reading of the field has it, Nam June Paik was the “George Washington of video,” then Dan Sandin may well have been its Benjamin Franklin. While Paik, trained in music composition, active in the Fluxus movement, and an acolyte of John Cage, was an artist who worked with electronic technology, Sandin was a scientist-turned-artist who viewed his technological innovations not as art but as instruments for artistic production. As such, Sandin focused much of his career within the practical domain of tool-building, enabling his community to create art with modest, sustainable resources. What has emerged from these efforts over the past four decades is a particularly American form of media—part DIY, part a populist form of modernist détournement that takes the technologies of the military-entertainment complex and repurposes them for perceptual play, aesthetic experience, and an open-ended mode of cultural communication. Sandin’s art works and his instruments will continue to engage new generations of his increasingly global community of artists, students, and colleagues.


iGene Youngblood quoted in Christine Tamblyn, “Image Processing in Chicago Video Art, 1970–1980,” in Leonardo 24, no. 3 (1991): 305.

iiGene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1970), 336–37.

iiiIbid., 318.

ivDan Sandin quoted in Lucinda Furlong, “Notes Toward a History of Image-Processed Video,” Afterimage 11, nos. 1 & 2 (Summer 1985): 37.

vJoyce Bolinger, “Ten Years of the Image Processor—Chicago’s Artist/Technologists,” Scan 6, no. 3 (Fall 1983): 3.

viTamblyn, “Image Processing in Chicago Video Art,” 304.

viiFurlong, “Notes Toward a History of Image-Processed Video,” 37.

viiiDan Sandin, “Narrative of Career,” typewritten document, c. 1980.

ixDan Sandin and Phil Morton, “Distribution Religion,” typewritten document, c. 1978, in Furlong, “Notes Toward a History of Image-Processed Video,” 38.

xTamblyn, “Image Processing in Chicago Video Art,” 305.

xiP. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 408.

xiiDaniel J. Sandin, “Digital Illusion, Virtual Reality, and Cinema,” in Clark Dodsworth, Jr., ed., Digital Illusion: Entertaining the Future with High Technology (New York: ACM Press, 1998), 8.

email dan