Light Art

Light shows at rock concerts can be as entertaining as the band, if not even more

Light as art. Credit: John Rensten/Getty

For several months, I've been trying to piece together some comments on the topic of light art. I must have been waiting for something to show up that I could get genuinely excited about. This finally happened last month when I went to a theater production at the Straight Theater. It happened to be a new play, "Room Beyond the Closet and Other Voices in the Same Room," by John Fisher, but its extremely effective integration of light and sound called to mind other theatrical happenings scattered over the past year in which lights have been incorporated in an entirely new way, as an integral part of the total dramatic texture.

While the limitations of light art, at least in the sense of light shows spread over the walls of the big dance halls, are becoming increasingly obvious, its potential as an exciting new element in theater, dance and other forms of more "total" artistic experience are just beginning to be seriously explored.

It is doubtful if lights have ever been, or even can exist as an independent art form. Various people have been trying various things: Don Flavin's geometric construction of fluorescent tubes, Joseph Riccio's boxes of changing light and color, Steve Waldeck's lightening-like electrone "events." These are basically extensions of sculpture and painting, working with various properties of light but neglecting others, such as its existence as an energy force involving the dimension of time, or its ability to transform the remotest corners of an environment. Like a painting or sculpture, even though they are programmed with all kinds of changes, you look until you get tired of looking, with Riccio's "Kolectra" boxes probably taking honors for making you want to look the longest.

The big light shows, as they first grew up in the rock dance halls, were inseparable from the music, the dancing, the vibrations of the crowd, not to mention one's own particular state of consciousness before entering the auditorium. They were, in a sense, an extension of the art of scenic stage design, projecting it onto an environmental scale which involved everybody as actors in an event that obliterated the line between theater and reality. One might say the same was even true of the sound; whatever musical qualities distinguished one group from another, or came across clearly over recordings and FM, the emphasis was on the sound as sound, amplified into a physical, absorbing presence.

This was back in the days when everybody danced, or did Some Thing. Now, with everyone sitting around on the floor, the lights become more independent, more of a spectator art, but in doing so, they also lose much of the old impact; they are a little like mobile murals, a kinetic scenic backdrop around a stage where nothing is happening. This sometimes even becomes true of the sound, which resembles a musical overture for an event that doesn't follow.

The logical extension of light and sound as spectator events is the Light Sound Dimension, which follows the basic concept of Cinerama, if not mere cinema. Using rear projection to flood a wide screen with essentially liquid images, and large speakers to project highly amplified jazz-electronic improvisations, the L.S.D. is an intensely dedicated, highly gifted group of light artists and musicians who carry abstract lightsound art to perhaps its ultimate in purity and concentration. But it does not really involve the viewer in an environmental way, and for all the flashes of beauty in its use of visuals and sound, it has not fully solved the problem of structure extended in time, or, in more traditional terms, plot.

If it is true that light art, in its most absorbing terms, has essentially been a new form of stage design, its increasing use in theater means that playwrights and directors are at last becoming aware of a natural, but revolutionary, device. The light-show artists who have pioneered new techniques, created new forms and invented entire new machines for projecting and controling light, have come up with the best solution yet to the old Brechtian problem of involving the theater audience in an environmental, total experience, of wrenching it by its emotional and psychological balls.

At the same time, its impact on theater may well be as shattering as that of the motion picture and television. To the degree that the camera must be considered on an equal level with the dramatic protagonists by any screen-writer or director concerned with TV or movie production, he will now also have to think in terms of lights.

The most striking use of lights in the performing arts so far has involved strobes. The most effective integration of lights with everything else that I can recall was an event put on last summer at the U.F.O. gallery on Haight street. The second time you sat through (or more precisely, inside) the program, it began to fall apart into a sum of its techniques, but the first time was a truly shattering experience, it was particularly effective in its combination of flickering overhead lights with crackling sound and of rapid-fire strobes on dancers who circled around the audience seated in the center of the room; the effect was like an apparition of frozen, flying statuary.

Strobes were used in a similar manner in John Alioto's play, "High Mass," creating an electronic finale that almost made you overlook how weak the script was. This, like the overemphasis on purely visual effects in many underground films, can be one of the big bugaboos of lights in theater: a play for example. A review in "Variety" of a recent Straight Theater production by Monty Pike concluded that while Pike's direction of lights, live rock and other forces had the impact of arousing some 50 spectators to take off all their clothes and start dancing, this might not have happened if the play itself had been more interesting. On the other hand, John Fisher's play used strobes in a brief, but highly effective, scene of nightmarish expressionism integrated into a script that had some weaknesses, but was equally rich in meaningful, audience-involving content.

The use of lights in the performing arts has by no means been confined to "underground" productions. Various combinations of strobes and projections have been used with great effect in recent performances by the San Francisco and the Robert Joffrey ballets, the latter including multiple-projection "instant replays" of its own choreography. A strobe turned into the audience created the most electrically theatrical scene in the San Francisco Opera company's production last winter of Gunther Schuller's "The Visitation," which was probably better theater than opera. Lights and projections were being used in the opera house before the Fillmore auditorium, but they took on a more sweeping dimension than ever before in last season's "Das Rheingold," making it the best operatic production of the year.

This appropriation of "psychedelic" light techniques by "establishment" performing groups has been a highly honest matter, not like the ten minutes of psychedelic light effects that has come at the end of every Hollywood B-movie about hippies. The pioneers of light art, and the incredible success they achieved in audience involvement, have been in the forefront of forces which have made everybody begin looking at things in more directly visual terms; dance is no longer primarily an extension of music, theater no longer merely an extension of literature. Innovations in lights–and also in amplified, environmental sound – can infinitely extend the range of possibilities available to more traditional, "spectator" performing arts. On the other hand, playwrights, directors and choreographers can make sure that when the stage is set by light and sound, something is going to be happening on it.