Friday, May 22 2020

Bob Kollar

This week on Pilot Hole we have work from CMU art alum and beloved School of Art Technical Manager, Bob Kollar. We are lucky to have Bob as an advocate for The Frame.  Currently, Bob is overseeing gallery renovations at The Frame for the upcoming school year. Today, we are showing some of his work made as an undergraduate at CMU.

Can you tell us a bit about this work? What were you thinking about and what inspired you at the time?

I was always on the lookout for discarded equipment to disassemble and use the parts as functional or aesthetic components in my work. I did a lot of dumpster diving behind Wean and Doherty, and salvaged a bunch of burned out fluorescent tubes when FMS relamped the sculpture shops. They would still flicker and glow when connected to the high voltage transformers from old photocopiers and TV sets, so I built some sculptures around them that had a kind-of ghostly, supernatural aura when viewed in a dark room. I liked using high voltage for its visual and auditory effects, and fortunately none of my work ever caught on fire or electrocuted anyone. Even if those works still existed today, I couldn't plug them in or they would mess up the wi-fi signal and maybe fry your phone if it got too close. You can see the electromagnetic interference as sparkles in parts of the video documentation.
I was (and still am) really into red LED displays, probably because I watched too much Knight Rider and Battlestar Galactica when I was a kid. I made a little dancing man animation out of red LEDs, way before arduinos were a thing, so I hand wired the circuit using TTL logic chips to generate his random arm and leg movement. Getting randomness out of chips designed for determinate logical operations is actually quite a challenge, but the geeky details are probably a little more technical than I can get into here. But this is still an interest of mine, and I've been putting together a little electronic workshop at home to beat the quarantine blues, and I'm cooking up some new projects that might eventually qualify as actual artwork!
Other things I was interested in included antique electronics - radios and vacuum tubes, etc., reappropriating found objects, and the art deco aesthetic. A lot of that comes from playing with the things my dad collected - he had an interest in amateur radio and was a bit of an antique himself by the time I was born, so my parents' attic was a treasure trove of old electronics and obscure parts. I'm glad they never yelled at me for taking apart pretty much every toy they ever bought me, because that's how I started figuring out how stuff works and eventually how to fix it and put it back together again.

You run the media equipment center and spend a lot of time troubleshooting technical needs with students. How have you seen the use of technology change in art over the years?

Well, I used a VHS camcorder to record the video documentation of my undergraduate work. As you can see, High Definition was not really a thing back then. We had a video editing station with playback and recording decks, an editing controller, an effects controller, and some very heavy CRT monitors, along with a mess of cables connecting everything together. Editing was linear and real-time, so you'd have to set an in and out point on the source, and the editing controller would sync up the decks and transfer the clip to the recording deck. It could take hours to create even a short video, and there were all kinds of ways to mess up your footage, from accidentally recording over a previous edit to the deck eating your tape, requiring painstaking efforts to remove it. Anyway, that's why my video documentation isn't edited - it was too much trouble!
Whereas now you can write, record in HD, edit, and broadcast your screenplay on the same device, that you have in your pocket, which is also always connected to the internet.

What was the technical capacity at the School of Art like before Bob Kollar?

The faculty didn't even have email until my sophomore year, around 1989-90. I think they all got Mac IIci's and dial up modems. Memory was measured in megabytes, CPU speed in megahertz, and it took a few minutes just to connect to the network through your telephone line.
If you wanted to borrow equipment, you would have to visit Instructional Technology (now Media Services) in Cyert Hall, and they didn't have much to offer beyond the aforementioned VHS camcorders, and TV carts with VHS decks that they would deliver to classrooms to watch your tapes.
We were still documenting work on 35mm slides, and faculty would have to lug a slide projector into the classroom when they wanted to do a presentation. There were always a few slides that were upside down or backwards, and it wasn't uncommon for one to get stuck in the projector, interrupting the class while the professor struggled to remove it.
The only classroom with a video projector was CFA 303, and it was a 3-CRT behemoth that constantly needed to be adjusted so the red, green, and blue were aligned to produce a sharp image. I really enjoyed taking that thing apart when we upgraded the room, but lowering it from its ceiling mount was quite an ordeal.
Honestly though, I don't miss or feel nostalgic about any of that stuff. We can produce better work now IN QUARANTINE than we were ever able to do with all the technical resources available to us on campus when I was a student.