Light Shows/Multimedia Shows

4 Rock ’n’ Roll Light Shows

But the form of expanded cinema with the most extensive cultural influence was the multimedia psychedelic spectaculars of projected light at rock ’n’ roll concerts, particularly as these developed in the San Francisco Bay Area. One of the key elements in the rock ’n’ roll light show was liquid projection, a process that had been devised in 1952 by an art professor, Seymour Locks, in which he passed light through a glass dish containing variously colored oils, inks, and other immiscible liquids to accompany live jazz. Elias Romero, one of Locks’s students, took the technique to Los Angeles; then, in 1962 and back in San Francisco, he began to collaborate with Bill Ham and Anthony Martin, working in a former church. More than any other single technique, liquid projection produced the swirling interplay of otherwise autonomous colors that provided a visual correlative to the extended and similarly unrepeatable improvisations that came to characterize the jams of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and other Bay Area rock ’n’ roll bands.

Other devices and effects used include the projection of slides and short films, strobe lights, and color wheels. Usually the light artists composed in response to the music, though occasionally their work reciprocally influenced the musicians’ improvisations so that the concert became a spontaneously improvised audiovisual event.

In January 1966, the Grateful Dead performed at the epochal three-day Trips Festival, the culmination of Ken Kesey’s LSD parties, or acid tests, held at Longshoremen’s Hall, San Francisco, and also featuring the Living Theater, and lights by Stewart Brand and Roger Hilyard (who had been Martin’s assistant). Other promoters rented large halls for the dance parties where the members of this psychedelic musical counterculture congregated, and light shows became integral to it, so much so that illustrations of them often appeared on album covers of the bands that sustained them. The assorted and multiple forms of film and slide projection and strobes and other forms of light synesthetically united with the music to create a totalized immersive environment, dissolving the boundaries between audience and performers, between mind and body, between the different senses, and between individual and communal identity. As in the rave cultures a quarter of a century later, the use of drugs facilitated the phenomenological synesthetic experience of light and sound.

In April 1966, Chet Helms opened the Avalon Ballroom with Ham as the resident light-show artist. By that time, there were many light shows in the Bay Area, including the Headlights (Glenn McKay and Jerry Abrams), the North American Ibis Alchemical Company (founded by Ben Van Meter), and the Holy See. Similar light shows were created in other American cities, particularly Los Angeles and New York. In Los Angeles, the most notable was the Single Wing Turquoise Bird, which drew on strong local traditions of avant-garde film and visual music, and eventually evolved into an autonomous multimedia unit that innovated the collectively improvised, real-time composition of projected light. In New York, the most notable shows were Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a multimedia performance unit comprised of projectors showing his films, strobe and other miscellaneous lights, and dancers, accompanied by live music performances by the Velvet Underground and Nico, as well as recorded pop music; and the Joshua Light Show, which used film projectors, many liquid and slide projectors, and fragments of films accompanying rock ’n’ roll shows at the Fillmore East.

Light shows were not limited to the United States, and several important ones flourished in Europe. Two Americans, Joel and Toni Brown, initiated the movement by projecting slides as an accompaniment to a Pink Floyd concert at London Free School’s Sound/Light Workshop in 1966. Shortly after that show, Pink Floyd started to work with Peter Wynne-Wilson’s liquid projections; and Joan Hills and Mark Boyle, who had been experimenting with film and slide projections since 1963, accompanied Soft Machine at the opening of the UFO club’s series of concerts in 1966 and afterwards staged the official light show of their tour. In context of their Sensual Laboratory, Hills and Boyle developed a show, Son et Lumière for Earth, Air, Fire, and Water (1966), in which their materials and processes were supposed to correspond to the four elements; and for Son et Lumière for Bodily Fluids and Functions (1966) they used blood, sweat, urine and sperm. Another important innovator was Gustav Metzger, who had been experimenting for several years before he presented his first Liquid Crystal projection in 1965. A mystic who believed in the therapeutic power of crystals, Metzger was not particularly interested in pop music, and he gave only a few performances at rock concerts—with for example Cream and the Who—at the Roundhouse in London in 1966. After the UFO closed in 1967, light shows were continued by groups like Electric Light Garden (which used a twenty-channel dimmer for three film projectors, twelve automatic projectors with normal slides, two projectors for slides with liquids, and two overhead projectors) and other artists, including Five Acre Lights, Amoeba Lightshow, Krishna Lights, and the Crystalleum Lightshow. The highlight of the British light-show movement may well have been the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream in April 1967 at Alexandra Palace, an event whose 70 attending bands and artists made it a rival to the Trips Festival.

Though the light-show movement started in the United States and the United Kingdom, there were similar developments in continental Europe, including the experiments of the group ZERO in Germany, particularly those of Otto Piene, who had been exploring the possibilities of light since the 1950s. The most important location in Germany, the club Creamcheese, was opened in 1967 in Düsseldorf by Hans-Joachim and Bim Reinert, Günther Uecker, Ferdinand Kriwet, and Lutz Mommartz; here the light show was integrated with slides featuring Kriwet’s concrete poetry, various film projections, a video wall with 24 monitors, and closed-circuit video feedback.