The Steve Hollinger experience can be described most simply as multimedia. For one thing, it includes olfactory surprises. My apartment was right above Steve’s for several years, and on a regular basis he would call to warn me about odors that might waft their way from the second floor, where he lived, to my apartment on the third. Once in a while, the warning was about something he’d be cooking, but often it was more unexpected; he would call to say that he was going to be using turpentine, or linseed oil, or exotic solvents, or some kind of stinky paint, and wanted to make sure that the smell wouldn’t drive me crazy. Other calls were about surprising noises: “I’m going to be using a table saw to cut up some ammunition boxes, so I hope it’s not too loud,” or “I’m drilling through some chunks of cement, so let me know if it bothers you.”
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One day last year, Hollinger walked around his neighborhood carrying another one of his surprises. The neighborhood is Fort Point Channel, a cluster of decommissioned factory buildings in downtown Boston which now house hundreds of artists, so it is commonplace to see residents kitted out in attire not sold at Talbots, carrying objects that appear extraterrestrial. Even so, Hollinger attracted attention. He had spent the previous month mostly locked in his apartment, furiously teaching himself the principles of aerodynamics, the physics of hydrology, and the basics of how to operate a Singer sewing machine, and he was at last testing what he had been working on—a reimagined, reinvented umbrella, with gutters and airfoils and the elegant drift of a bird’s wing. “I knew I was on to something,” he says now. “I was hardly outside for five minutes before someone stopped me and said, ‘Where can I get one of those?’ ”
Hollinger is not, per se, an umbrella man; he is a sculptor who makes assemblages out of found materials. They are often kinetic and frequently reference other media: a solar-powered flip-book movie of Hollinger doing a war dance, which you view through a prism in a large cement block, or perhaps a series of photo emulsions peeled off Polaroids showing trees being immolated in a nuclear test in the nineteen-sixties, or twenty-five atom-shaped spheres made of photo-sensitive tape, suspended between sheets of plate glass and a frame of barn wood. His sculpture has been displayed widely and is well respected, but it is his work as an inventor that pays most of his bills. He grew up in suburban Connecticut, but both his parents are artists, and bohemian enough to have found his unusual interests—breaking thermometers in order to add to his collection of mercury, for instance—the sign of a lively mind. He went on to study computer programming at suny Albany. When he graduated, in 1984, he worked first at Telex, a computer company in North Carolina, and then at Wang Laboratories, in Massachusetts, developing imaging-technology software. In 1989, he decided to become an inventor.
His first product was a program called PosterWorks, which allows images as large as five hundred feet by five hundred feet to be produced, in sections, on an ordinary printer. In other words, if you had PosterWorks and enough paper and tape, you could enlarge a snapshot to about the size of a cruise ship. Hollinger’s invention was released at a time when most billboards were still painted by hand, so it was genuinely revolutionary and wildly successful, especially among commercial users: many movie posters, including the original “Terminator” poster, on Hollywood Boulevard, were printed using PosterWorks. In short order, Hollinger invented a light pen for drawing on computer screens; software for turning videos into thumb-operated flip books; perforated paper to print flip books; and programs that could turn any photograph into either a paint-by-number or a connect-the-dots image. The inventions—and, in particular, PosterWorks—covered the down payment on his Boston loft, helped him publish a book about his father, the painter Morton Hollinger, and gave him fifteen years of steady income that he lived on while working on art, writing, community projects, and more inventions, including the umbrella.
He loved all his inventions equally, although some were more practical than others. A few years after PosterWorks, Hollinger invented a system for animating three-dimensional objects using nothing but mirrors and lights. The prototype animated a human head, making it appear to talk and roll its eyes by using a spotlight to illuminate, in succession, one of ten little clay heads mounted in a box and having each image bounce off mirrors set at precise distances. He got it to work, as he says, “like a charm,” and was so excited about it that when he finished the prototype he invited his friends over to celebrate. At the party, someone pointed out that there was no actual use for the invention, a consideration that had flitted through Hollinger’s mind while he was working on the device but hadn’t hovered long enough to discourage him. Around the same time, he developed a program for microprinting—that is, shrinking text and images to a nearly atomic level, so that you could have, say, a business card with all your information printed so small that the card would appear to be blank except for a little black dot. Hollinger micro-printed some business cards for himself, and when I visited him recently he fished one out of his wallet for me. Since it looked like a plain card with an almost indiscernible freckle in one corner, I asked him to explain what the value of such a card would be. He studied it for a moment and said, “The only people who would be able to read your card would be people who owned microscopes.” Then he grinned and added, “I guess it would be a very selective thing.”