The light shows of the '60s were a short-lived but intense confluence of art, technology, and pharmacology. Growing out of the psychedelic movement in San Francisco in the mid-'60s, the rock inspired kinetic projections were at first wonderfully naive and primitive experiments in abstraction that owed very little to previous art movements or contemporary trends in the fine arts. Visual interpretation of music was not new; it was implied (in reverse) in the scores for popular movies and occupied the theoretical interests of Goethe, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin and MC Escher, all of whom wrote about the relationship of light and music. There were isolated "Lumia" performances as early as the eighteenth century, but it was 85 years after the invention of the light bulb and 70 years after the first projected movies that light shows became a popular attraction.
The classic light shows of the '60s were really extended group improvisations performed by from three to six artists working in close collaboration-a comparison to jazz is appropriate. The equipment and techniques were largely homegrown and in the work of the more sophisticated shows this might include 30 to 40 projectors and numerous customized theatrical lighting instruments. On tour, The Joshua Light Show traveled with up to two tons of equipment. There were numerous practitioners but only less than a half-dozen were accomplished groups such as Glen McKay's Headlights, The Joshua Light Show, The Pablo Light Show, and The Brotherhood of Light. It was the work of this small collection of artists that we see today on album covers, documentaries and coffee table books on "the Sixties," forever represented by the signature liquid projections.
Rock and roll was the hook that launched the kinetic light movement, but light artists also accompanied dance companies, theatrical performances, and symphony orchestras. At their peak in the late '60s, many of the light artists formed a New York-based group, the Alliance of Light Artists. Convened monthly, the ALA was a floating forum held in studios, museums, and theaters attracting filmmakers, musicians, sculptors, graphic artists, set designers, technologists, gallery owners and performers.
It ended abruptly in the early '70s. As Nixon bid us farewell, a change had already taken place in the rock scene. Tours were becoming overwhelmingly expensive and light shows were the first thing to be cut from the budget. Without gallery affiliations or theatrical representation and because of their association with recreational drugs, the majority of light artists were unable to fund their shows and turned to film, theater, and other forms of expression.
In recent years, light show techniques have been productized by the theatrical lighting companies (who arrived with note pads at ALA meetings) and mechanical laser shows have inherited the mantle of the visual trip experience. Still, there are a handful of isolated artists and performers continuing to experiment. Glen McKay, one of light art's pioneers, was exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in '99 and there are other signs of interest in this overlooked art. The purity of the medium, the absence of irony and its inherent optimism-unfashionable notions today-belonged to an era. Today, light and light shows remain unexplored terrain, an increasingly rare situation in these derivative and artist-saturated times.