WAVEFRONT Issue Spring 1986
SOWDON ON ART AND EXPO
Michael Sowdon is undoubtedly one of the founding members of the
Canadian holographic movement. He co- founded Fringe Research
Holographics Inc. in Toronto (1974) and Interference Hologram Gallery
(1983) and has participated in numerous holographic exhibitions dating
back to the mid- 70s.
"In spite of, or perhaps because of his love for fast motorcycles
and good scotch, Mr. Sowdon has become an accomplished holographer."
"Sowdon 's work is a distillation of all that is senseless,
meaningless, and ugly about mankind."
Christopher Dewdney Vanguard Magazine, 1982
David Hylnsky Image Nation Magazine #22,1980
For the past year, Sowdon has been producing large-format holograms
for the Michael Snow exhibition, to take place at Expo 86 in Vancouver,
Canada. This gave him a rare chance to work in a variety of formats,
including pulsed transmission plates. He has similarly refined his work
in two-color, rainbow white-light transmissions as well as white-light
Sowdon is an impassioned speaker for aesthetic integrity in
holography. At the recent Chicago symposium on art and
holography he said much of art holography is a sham and that
most exhibitions feature redundant and unimaginative work which serves
only to advance the careers of marginal talent and unqualified curators.
Sowdon maintains that it is imperative now, more than ever, to directly
address questions concerning the arts and criticism of holography in a
manner that does not equivocate or patronize.
I met with Sowdon in Vancouver, where he was installing the Expo
exhibit. What follows is a discussion that is wide ranging:from his
criticism of the McGowan exhibition, to art, to a discussion of the Snow
Expo exhibit, to the behind-the-scenes decision-making that proved a
hindrance to his continuation in the Expo project. At the time of our
meeting, he had just resigned.
- Al Razutis
AL RAZUTIS: You said at the Chicago conference that you were not
interested in exhibiting in any group shows. Is your position still the
MICHAEL SOWDON: That depends on the group. And the circumstances.
But by and large I would say I wouldn't be that interested, unless' . .
Everything's situational. It depends on who's doing the show, where it
What will be your connection to the McGowan exhibition, if any?
I can't see myself getting involved.
If they asked you for some work for the exhibition, would you
Yeah, I'm not favorably disposed to providing things for those
kinds of shows. If they were going to buy something outright, I suppose
I'd think twice about it.
Strictly pecuniary ?
I'm getting more and more mercenary by the day. I really don't
see the show happening, to tell you the truth. I don't think they're
going to get it together. They'd have to change their over- all policy a
good deal for me to support it.
What about the curating issue ?
Well, I don't think it's a very good situation. The Canadian people
are involved mainly as a support group to help the international people
liaise with the locals. And no contracts have been signed.
So the show may end up being strictly a technical show, with
some art holograms that they've been able to find.
I think if they do come up with a workable budget, (British curator
Eve) Ritscher will be able to put together a show that will probably
look all right, and that will do all right in
the context of science museum shows. I think any holographer
who's been around the block a few times is going to think twice about
being involved in an exhibition like that. I'm not the only one with
misgivings about big shows.
Who 's curating good shows ?
In holography? I suppose it would be a natural preference to Syd
(Sydney Dinsmore, director of Interference Gallery). I like the shows we
do in Toronto. Some of them - quite a lot - are modest in scale, but
usually fairly nicely lit. And we don't repeat ourselves.
What about the U. S. ?
Well, I'm not familiar with what's going on in the U.S. other
than the group shows. I think the group in England called Light
Fantastic, the show they brought over from Russia, was pretty good.
What about Eve Ritscher?
Well, I don't think she has a real background in fine art and
therefore they all tend to feature a lot of hype, trying to show a
little bit of everything. I don't see her as a fine art curator. I see
her as an entrepreneur who presents big exhibitions for a very general
What about the New York people ? Is the Museum of Holography
Well, I don't know about their internal politics and I haven't
seen that many of their recent exhibitions. My general impression, from
visiting there a few times in the last year is that it is slipping. Just
overall presentation - it looks tired, frayed at the edges. There
doesn't seem to be the same kind of vitality that it had in the 70s,
when Rosemary Jackson was director. And I think if they want it to
compete in the New York market, given the neighborhood they are in -
SoHo - they want to make it look hightech and modern...
Is part of their demise due to Jackson s departure ?
It may just be a casualty of Reaganomics. They had a lot more
funding in the 70s than they're getting now. And I think it has
something to do with Rosemary leaving. She had a lot of dynamic energy
and was quite creative in the way she handled the program. It was very
exciting to be involved with, for the first few years anyway.
Is your own funding position precarious now with regards to the
continuation of the gallery, the continuation of the lab?
We seem to have levelled off in terms of the amount we're being
From Ontario and the Canada Council ?
Various levels - municipal, provincial and federal. And I don't
see any vast new sums of money becoming available in the near future.
They're having a hard enough time just maintaining the status quo at
this point. But I think our challenge in the next little while is to
continue to expand operations, doing things that generate revenues -
custom work, sales, commissions.
When you say custom work, do you mean commercial product?
Yeah. I'm not interested in mass production, but I am quite
interested in doing masters that would eventually be embossed for
clients. I want to see more creative projects get off the ground. There
seems to be an increased demand for our services.
Getting back to this business that's down the road - Expo.
Oh yes. Mega-site.
What is the show?
I don't know of any other installation that's been done to this
scale. It's not that the holography is especially advanced technically.
We didn't have a budget to say, work in computergenerated stereograms,
which now seems to be the leading edge of the technology. Because
Michael had not had any previous direct experience in holography, he
seemed reluctant to pursue any really complicated stuff.
He was more interested in dealing on a straight-forward image basis.
So we concentrated primarily on reflection and transmission work.
But that's his strength - conceptual work in images.
Yeah, exactly. And within that, he's done some very nice-looking
What's the scale of the show? What was the budget for production
and installation? How many pieces are there and what are they ?
Well, there are 45 holograms. I never saw the final budget for
the exhibition, so I don't know what his commission was or the total
budget costs. I think it's in the ballpark of $200,000 to $300,000 spent
on all aspects of the exhibition.
What's the content?
The title of the exhibition is Spectral Image. The initial piece, as
you go into the exhibition, is a long ramp, 60 feet in length, its color
changing from yellow-green to deep blue as the viewer progresses. There
are single color, white-light transmission holograms mounted at eye level
every six feet or so. This piece was designed with the younger audience
in mind and in a very whimsical way, it deals with the history and
development of transportation. The first hologram is of a baby taking
its first steps and the second one shows horses. They're 8x10 inch and
30x40 centimeter. The first six are 8x lOs and the last four are 30x40s.
They're mounted in plexiglass that changes the angle of the hologram as
you go along the ramp. So if you were a child, the first one would be
almost at your eye level. If you were an adult, you'd be looking down at
the floor at it. Then gradually the angles change and the holograms get
higher. The glass boxes increase the height of the ramp, so it gradually
takes you up, and of course, the last hologram is of a rocket, a
spaceship, taking off, ending the progression. We've got a jumbo jet
flying through clouds and a helicopter in sort of a Miami Vice scenario.
These are models ?
We used children's toys, primarily, for the subjects and built
little tableaus with them.
These were done in your studio ?
Yeah, these were the first holograms we worked on, starting a
year ago January. Generally speaking. the exhibition is broken down into
several thematic areas. The second one we were involved in producing is
a very large sculpture called Redifice. It's a giant red wall made of
arborite and designed to be viewed from both sides. It's eight to 10
feet high, about 30 feet long. by about three feet deep.
There are three rows of openings, like pigeonholes, about 12 by
16 inches. These were all reflection holograms. In some of the openings
are holograms and in others are sculptural tableaus. A lot of them are
figurative and some of them are very funny. Some of the constructions
are reminiscent of Joseph Cornell's assemblages from objects. I think
Michael's done that before. He's built little sets which he's used in
his photographs. In some cases, the hologram appears on one side of the
wall, and when you go around it. you see the actual objects, only
they've been transformed.
The third large series of holograms is a series of eight. called
Still Life, that all hang in a row. They're single color, white- light
transmission holograms produced by Holographic North in Vermont.
How large are they ?
They're about two by two feet. It's a sculptural installation in
that the holographic image in each is of a tabletop, and there's a
life-size, small end table. The installation starts off with
conventional tabletop objects on it - a telephone, a lamp, a coffee cup,
a pair of sunglasses, some keys and a pencil. In the first hologram, you
see that very realistic still- life composition. It's hanging down and
on the floor there's a square carpet and a chair and four wooden legs
that are in position with the hologram. The legs all fit into the
corners of the illusion of the tabletop
There are eight of those carpets, eight chairs and eight sets of
legs and the holograms hang vertically between the real table legs.
They're hung very low - so that it's like looking at a table at the
normal height. But as you progress from one table to the next, it's kind
of a lesson in art theory. He does variations - a cubist rendering, a
futurist rendering, and there's one where the whole subject has
exploded. with shards of all the objects
which are still recognizable. It's just disintegrated and there's
this cloud over the table. We did it with a series of templates and
jigs. The final hologram was, I believe, transferred from three masters
and sandwiched together. When you get to the last hologram' everything
has returned to its original state, except that the lighting on the last
one is totally different from the lighting on the first one.
And that takes you into the pulsed work. There's a definite
thing that happens when people look at holograms. If you watch at
exhibitions, they all go through the same little maneuver where
everybody is bending over and craning their necks and checking out the
hologram from all the different angles, kind of bobbing and weaving. And
that's exactly what the subject, which in this case is me, is doing in
the pose. It's a series of four holograms. They're checking out and
looking back at the viewer in the same way, checking them out from
Which of the holograms do you feel are the most conceptually
sophisticated - dealing with holography and its relationship to
sculpture and installation ?
I think probably Still Life, although I'm personally very fond
of Redifice. I think that for reflection holograms, some of them are
really quite spectacular and they're really nice ideas. But they're all
over the place in terms of their subjects, and not so structured a
development of an idea as the Still Life series.
The exhibition is in the original railway roundhouse, which has
been divided into two pavilions - one for Spectral Image, which will be
a permanent art gallery after the fair is over, the other for the Czech
pavilion. The initial impact of going into Michael's show is that of a
Well, that would have been the assumption, that Michael 's work
would have tended towards sculpting and perhaps even the whole
Yes. there are some references to photography, but it's mostly
Potentially, millions of viewers will he seeing this. That obviously
must have had something to do with how the show was installed. You
obviously must have back-up plates, concerns for the viewing conditions
- how large is the space to accommodate the mass audience ?
It's 1 2,OOO square feet. I believe they're projecting 2 000 to
3,000 people an hour. In terms of traffic flow, there's going to be a
path that's defined by different-colored floor tiles, to suggest how to
follow through the show. But you'll be free to walk around. And it
doesn't look that futuristic, either. I would expect there'll be
holography in other pavilions, from other countries, and chances are
they'll look much more futuristic. Michael's show looks like an art
exhibit, not like a show dealing with futurism and technology.
Getting to the background to the show . have you been fired or have resigned? / or
What was the context ? The Luke
Rombout School of Management ? (Rombout, former director of the
Vancouver Art Gallery, curated the Snow exhibition. )
Yeah, I don't think I would ever get involved in another project
that he had anything to do with. He's pretty manipulative, but there's
probably a lot of arts people like that.
What's the payoff for him? l mean, manipulation can be just a
Well, I think he thinks the show is going to be a landmark show.
He's billing it as the first "serious" exhibition of holography.
Everybody that checks into this game - like McGowan - they all think
they're the first to really do anything with it. How long can that go
on? There have been an awful lot of shows over the years.
That's the whole historical oneupmanship that goes down. ls that
why he picked Snow?
I'm sure it is. Michael is one of the more high-proflle artists
in the country and he's known for his experimentation in different
Part of that profile comes from the fact that people like Rombout
have been supporting him.
Oh yeah, you don't get to be a major artist in a contemporary
sense without institutional support. It's just not possible. The critics
don't write about you; curators don't use your work;you're not officially sanctioned.
What is Rombout's interest in holography ?
I think he was interested in the medium because it's new and fresh.
He falls into the role of independent curator extraordinaire. He brought
the Ramses exhibit into Expo too. These two exhibitions are the only two
that Expo actually commissioned and officially sponsored. Neither of
them go out on a limb, really. The Ramses is a totally conservative
thing to do. With Spectral Image it's fifty-fifty. Maybe he took a
chance on a new medium, but he certainly went for a
very established artist as opposed to going out and commissioning
work from artists who had actually worked in holography. That was
entirely his personal decision, I guess.
What about Snow s involvement? Is he taking a risk with a new medium ?
I can't see the show getting panned, because I think it's pretty
good. It's probably good for him, because people will say: "Mike's still
doing new stuff; he's never done this before; he's not static." It's
been great working with him. I've learned a lot. It's a fabulous
experience just to see how an artist handles a really major commission,
and to see how he's dealt with it over the course of a year.
What input did you have as consultant and co-producer?
Well, he came to me and wanted to know about holography. So I
told him in very general terms what was available, what the different
kinds of holograms were, the pros and cons of, say, reflection over
transmission, potential sources for production. I gave him a rough cost
estimate and suggested he go to a few other places for more information.
So he went down to New York and spoke to some of the people at
the Museum of Holography and went to Boston and talked to Steve Benton.
Then he started planning the structure of the thing and we talked about
concepts and how they possibly would be produced and what would be more
applicable, given the way he wanted to do the final display - whether it
should be reflection or transmission. Then he started fabricating the
initial objects and there was a lot of running back and forth to say:
"Do it this way and this size, because otherwise you'll have something
stuck in the reference beam that you don't want." Or: "It's too deep,
too big not stable enough." Or: "Do it like this, because it'll look a
lot better!" I gave him a lot of advice on actual fabrication of the
subjects. Not on ideas and concepts, but on design and composition I had
a lot of input. I also had to research other suppliers and producers to
do some of the things we weren't able to do at Fringe - like large
I'm surprised the commission didn't result in a Canadian facility.
Expo didn't have the budget - and there wasn't time.
What about upgrading your facility ?
Well, we're sinking the money we made for the commissioned work
back into the studio, so in fact they have upgraded us.
What's the deadline for installing the show ?
It was all supposed to be done by the end of this week (Feb. 7).
Theoretically, there was to be two weeks for installation. If all the
systems and equipment that had been ordered had been in place and the
space had been finished... We have managed to position a lot of the
things and have a pretty good idea of where the lights have to go.
You were supposed to do all this in February, but your contract
expired in December.
Yeah. When I found out that my contract had expired and they
were still expecting me to do the installation for them - you see, I never actually
had a signed contract with anybody.
Rombout refused to sign a contract with me and said I had to do it with
Michael. Michael and I decided on a very cut-and-dried arrangement, that
I present him with an invoice at the end of the month for services
rendered. And he paid.
When they told me the contract had expired, I said: "We'll
renegotiate a price for the installation." And I came in high,
protecting my interests, then negotiated down to what I thought was an
At this point, Luke got his back up and said: "This is totally
unprofessional. You agreed to do this and that. You're changing the
price on us." And I said: "Well, if you were that concerned with nailing
everything down, why didn't you sign a contract with me?" So they said:
"Okay, we'll take you at your rate - for one week - and you're going to
have to get everything done." So I came out here on that understanding,
but also on the understanding that there was to be a per diem for
expenses as well. Then I found out that the per diem was only for five
days, even though they expected me to work seven! So I finally said:
"Look, I'm an independent businessman, and if you don't meet my
conditions, I'm walking." And Luke said: "Fine. Walk."
So you spend a week here doing nothing because the site isn't
ready and necessary equipment hasn't arrived on schedule; now you 've
walked and the show is yet to be installed. Who 's going to install it?
I don't know. What they'll probably end up doing is getting somebody
from California, who'll charge them four or five times what I am.
Don't people recognize these very basic, simple facts?
Well, the trouble is that Rombout is intractable. Once he
establishes a position on something, that's it. They're getting foolish.
They're going to end up compounding the* problems. It's difficult enough
getting anything done down there anyway. They'll end up spending a lot
more money. It won't be done as well as it would have by someone with a
lot of experience doing holography exhibitions. I like Michael enough
that I don't want to see the show not look good. I'd be prepared to step
in and try to salvage it.
It will be interesting to see who is contacted and on what pretenses
- probably some lighting designer from theatre.
That might be all right. By now Snow has a pretty good idea of
what you basically have to do.
In what direction is your own work going now?
I'd like to become more offensive, I think - start developing
some new themes that could be a little disturb*ng. And of course it'll
involve graph ics and holograms.
It sounds like you're still spread out in so many directions: you've
got R&D, tech, you've got your color project, which is separate; you're
running the artist-in-residence thing and the business component.
Yeah, I'm spread a little thin right now. But fortunately we've
got a really good staff in Toronto.
Who are the new holographers, Canadian or international, that
you feel are going to come out with some astounding work?
Well, I'll confine myself to people I see as being fine art
holographers, as opposed to more commercially oriented ones. I think
Wenyon and Gamble in England are doing very good work. We've spent some
time in Europe in the last few years and of everything I've seen over
there, Wenyon and Gamble's work to me is the most exciting. Pascal
Gauchet and John Collins really have a lot of promise. They're based in
They're doing some very nice art pieces and some very competent
commercial work - custom pieces - as well.
What about Canadians? Or Americans ?
North Americans! I've always liked Rudie Berkhout's work. It's
very beautiful, exploiting the medium's sensuousness. I like Melissa
Crenshaw's work wit~ reflections. In Quebec, Marie Andre Cossette has
done-some interesting things. And there's been some exciting work from
the graduates of the Ontario College of Art.
Where is Interference Gallery headed in terms of curating interests ?
I think it has to do two things. It has to move to a better location
at some point. And we have to keep trying to curate the best shows that
we can afford to put on. I don't want to get too big, though. I like
one- or two person exhibitions.