Light Shows/Multimedia Shows

2 San Francisco and the Vortex Concerts

The main postwar traditions of intermedia performances of light and music developed in San Francisco, beginning with the Art in Cinema screenings from 1946 to 1954 at the San Francisco Museum of Art and the Vortex concerts in the spherical interior dome of the Morrison Planetarium from 1957 to 1960. Art in Cinema brought together both prewar European and postwar U.S. experimental projects, including the abstract animations of Los Angeles-based filmmakers Oskar Fischinger and the brothers John and James Whitney. The film series had a great impact on such local artists as Jordan Belson, who subsequently shifted from painting to making abstract films.

At Vortex, Belson and electronic music composer Henry Jacobs utilized 38 loudspeakers and almost as many projection devices, including the planetarium’s custom-built Starfield projector, to create three-dimensional audiovisual spectacles combining electronic music and both abstract and cosmic imagery which dissolved the boundaries between music, light, and space. These immersive multimedia concerts, around 35 in all, stimulated further experiments with visual music by Belson himself and other filmmakers in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, including Harry Smith and the Whitney brothers, and also provided a point of reference for experiments with projected light in coffee shops, bars, and even strip clubs that continued in the Bay Area as the Beat era gave way to the hippie counterculture.

These new multimedia projects germinated in a cultural gestalt formed by popularizations of the ideas of Norbert Wiener, Buckminster Fuller, and Marshall McLuhan in systems theory, cybernetics, synergetics, and new communications and media technologies, as they intersected and cross-fertilized with the sensual and social utopianism of the various 1960s countercultures. De-privileging the modernist drive to medium specificity, they authorized forms of intermedia (a concept developed in the mid-1960s by Dick Higgins, an artist associated with Fluxus) and multimedia: visual poetry, happenings, chance music, computer art, and especially the innovative reconstructions of the projection protocols of orthodox cinema that became known as expanded cinema.