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Finally, Psychedelic Art History
by Karl Cohen
Jim Morrison does Fillmore East with The Doors AND the Joshua Light Show circa 1970. photo: courtesy Joshua Light
SAN FRANCISCO'S EXPLORATORIUM
excels at showcasing advanced forms of expanded cinema and nowhere was this more true than in two recent nights with the Joshua Light Show, an enchanting experience. They created abstract visualizations to music performed live by Linda Perhaps and Julia Halter and their group.
The light show is not a new concept, but relatively few people have mastered it as a fine art, which requires technical and aesthetic abilities rarely seen. Discos with computerized laser light shows and the stage lighting and video projections used by touring bands can be fun for a few minutes, but do not hold your interest for very long.
Similarly, architectural mapping spectacles, like the one held recently on the exterior walls of San Francisco’s City Hall, are truly wonderful and quite impressive experiences, but they are usually short events for good reason. They too will exhaust the audience’s attention if they go on for too long.
The Joshua Light Show is different. They began their career in the late 1960s as the in-house light show at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in New York City. Instead of being spaced-out hippies doing whatever they felt was cool for a stoned-out audience, they choreographed visuals to fit the pieces of music being performed on stage.
The Grateful Dead, at Berkeley Community Theater in 1971 with light show by George Holden and the Abercrombie Liquid Lightshow. photo: Bob Marks
I still have wonderful memories of an exceptional evening at the Fillmore East with a performance by the Grateful Dead (1968 or ’69) and visuals by Joshua. I can still recall some of the images, they were that memorable!
Today they can create dozens of distinct abstract visual effects, giving enough variety for a full evening performance.
At the Exploratorium’s recent event, Joshua White told his audience that he grew tired of the rock scene, disbanded his group and gave up making his living performing light shows.
Although he began a career as a TV producer and director, he studied theatrical lighting at Carnegie Tech, as well as film at University of Southern California, and his love for the art form never diminished. Then early in this century, he reorganized and restarted his light show company, creating visual for music he really enjoys working with.
The live music for the two San Francisco performances was by Linda Perhaps and Julia Halter’s whose “ethereal blend of psych-folk, alt-classical, and inflected art pop achieves a deeply synthetic experience,” according to announcement for the event.
I’m not sure what that means but it was very mellow, melodic and harmonious music.
Jimi Hendrix poster from 1969 actually headline Joshua. photo: courtesy Joshua Light Show
As for the visuals, Joshua’s shows are improvisations that can change rapidly or slowly so the visuals seem to flow with the music. While they avoid figurative images, there is still a great deal of variety of abstract forms available.
Part of the reason such rich imagery can be created at a moment’s notice is they keep a wide rage of projection techniques on hand, ready to be switched on or off. The devices include video projectors, overhead projectors that create flowing or pulsating liquids, slide projectors, and "lumina" effects.
Lumina can create fascinating, wonderful-to-watch wisps of light by bouncing projections of light off of Mylar and other reflective surfaces. Those images are seen by the audience on a rear projection screen with the lumina artists working behind screen.
Other images were projected in back of the audience. Some of the bright overhead projectors had large color wheels, fitted with motors, mounted near them so they could be swung in front of the projector being used.
The Joshua Light Show sets up. photo: Katja Avant-Hard
To coordinate what each of the ten members of group should do, they communicate using headsets with one member acting as the show’s visual designer. That allows everybody to work together to create the best visualizations possible.
Of course, Joshua has added plenty of technologies that didn’t exist in the ‘60s. He now uses two or three small micro set-ups, a video camera pointing down at a small, colorful set. In addition to liquids in trays and other colorful combinations, there was also a laser that projected its beam through different layers of glass/lenses to create unusually textured images.
Creating visuals that relate to the music is tricky, but their end results can be wonderful and evoke a wide variety of moods. The images ranged from simple to complex and the movements of the colored shapes forms on the screen can be slow or fast, depending on the tempo of the music. Watching them morph or dissolve from one to another is fascinating.
Rather than try to discuss something totally abstract any further, go to your computer and look up the Joshua Light Show. Their website and several others feature videos of some of their complete performances.
Relax and enjoy their work, or support their KickStarter Project:
Liquid Loops II
Frank Zappa let himself get Joshua-ed, despite his disdain for Northern Californian hippies and their 'Mendocino Beanos'. photo: courtesy F. Zappa Estate
The Joshua Light Show’s concept of a performance is for the music and visuals to be equally important. Several pop and rock bands today uses visual gimmicks to make their shows more flashy, but the band is always the star. At the show at the Exploratorium there was a magical blend between the visuals and music and I loved it.
Karl Cohen is an animator, educator and director of the local chapter of the International Animation Society and can be reached
Posted on Jul 21, 2015 - 06:29 PM