Light Shows/Multimedia Shows

by David E. James

1 Color Light Instruments

2 San Francisco and the Vortex Concerts

3 Expanded Cinema

4 Rock ’n’ Roll Light Shows

5 Contemporary Light Shows


Multimedia shows entailed the simultaneous mobilization of several media, especially music, light, and forms of dance, challenging the modernist drive toward medium specificity in the arts. Light shows, a form of cinema that involved the spontaneous real-time composition of light and film in concert with music, were culturally the most significant of such multimedia spectacles. Though light shows were anticipated by attempts, dating from the eighteenth century, to create color organs, and by early pioneers of cinematic multimedia, including Charles and Ray Eames, Stan VanDerBeek, and USCO, in the mid-1960s they gained new importance in their accompaniment of live rock 'n' roll performances. The most important light-show artists originated in San Francisco — among them Chet Helms, Glenn McKay, Jerry Abrams, and Ben Van Meter — but almost immediately similar light shows were created in Los Angeles (the Single Wing Turquoise Bird), in New York (Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable and the Joshua Light Show), and in London (Boyle Family, Electric Light Garden). Light shows declined in the 1970s, but developments in electronic dance music in the mid-1980s led to their revival in rave culture.


1 Color Light Instruments

Among the first visionaries to anticipate that light could be created and manipulated in the way that organized sound is produced on a musical instrument was the French Jesuit mathematician Louis-Bertrand Castel, who in the mid-1720s drafted a Clavecin oculaire. Castel’s concepts were modified and applied by inventors and theorists such as Johann Gottlob Krüger in the following century. From the mid-nineteenth century, the possibilities of such mechanical color organs were radically expanded through technical innovations and the advent of electrically produced and projected light. Alexander Wallace Rimington was the first to implement electric light in his color organ from 1893.

Whereas these earlier color organs were mostly based on assumptions about correspondences between colors and musical tones, in the decades before World War II more and more artists advocated an independent art of light. Among these was Thomas Wilfred, who developed ideas for an abstract and silent art of light, which he called lumia. Starting in 1919, he constructed different versions of his Clavilux and gave concerts of his compositions for this instrument in both Europe and the United States, inspiring several important abstract filmmakers. Beginning in the late 1930s, Charles Dockum built his Mobilcolor Projector, giving many concerts on it in which both abstract color and imagery were projected in space in counterpoint with music. Dockum was working on his MobilColor VI, with plans for its computerization, when he died in 1977.

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.

3 Expanded Cinema

Early pioneers of expanded cinema included Charles and Ray Eames, whose Sample Lesson (1951) and Glimpses of the U.S.A. (1959) used multiple screens (seventeen for the latter); Stan VanDerBeek, an experimental film animator who began screening multiple projections of random images in his especially constructed Movie-Drome in Stony Point, New York, which he began in 1963; and the art troupe the US Company (USCO), or The Company of US. USCO was formed by Gerd Stern, a poet from San Francisco who around 1962 had begun collaborating with a painter, Stephen Durkee, and then with a technician, Michael Callahan, on multimedia performances. They moved into a disused church in upstate New York and developed multimedia events heavily influenced by LSD that united the cults of mysticism and technology as a basis for introspection and communication,[1] supposedly effecting psychic transformation in their audiences. Touring and proselytizing widely, and frequently visiting Timothy Leary’s estate in Millbrook, New York, the troupe received considerable mass-media publicity. Also associated with USCO were the video artist Jud Yalkut and Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalog. These and similar innovations were brought together at the symposium Expanded Cinema, held at the New York Film Festival in 1966, and explored in a special issue of the avant-garde journal Film Culture, entitled Expanded Arts.

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.

5 Contemporary Light Shows

By 1968, when Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel about the Trips Festival, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was published, light shows had become a feature of many rock concerts and discotheques, and hence part of the mainstream culture. The decay of the countercultures in the 1970s and the emergence of repressive right-wing cultural initiatives coincided with a hiatus in the popularity of light shows. However, by the mid-1980s, house, techno, and other electronic dance music, along with Ecstasy and other new drugs, the radically expanded possibilities of digital technology, and the extensive use of lasers, led to the revival of light shows as an essential component of rave culture, often taking the form of audiovisual live performances known as VJing or Live Visuals.

Light shows again became an integral component of popular music spectacles, but now in a massively expanded form. Madonna’s 2004 Re-Invention World Tour, grossing $125 million, featured lights, films, and digital imagery projected on multiple huge screens moving around the stage to the accompaniment of live and recorded music. For their two sold-out performances at 90,000-seat Wembley Stadium in London in June 2007, the British band Muse developed a light show comprised of a video wall with 40 million light diodes displaying a mixture of prepared video and live footage, and using software that allowed the sound of the music to manipulate the imagery in real time. At the same time, similar technologies have become a regular component of corporate and state spectacles of all kinds, and the most characteristic and symptomatic cultural events of the twenty-first century have been multimedia light shows.

all footnotes

[1] A promotional brochure for a 1968 USCO presentation at New York’s Whitney Museum of Art described the group this way. See Fred Turner, “Steward Brand meets the cybernetic counterculture,” Edge. The Third Counterculture, online at

List of books in this text

Steward Brand meets the cybernetic counterculture
2006, Author: Turner, Fred and Brand, Stewart Publisher: University of Chicago Press

see aswell

  • Jerry Abrams
  • Jordan Belson
  • Mark Boyle
  • Stewart Brand
  • Michael Callahan
  • Louis-Bertrand Castel
  • Charles Dockum
  • Stephen Durkee
  • Oskar Fischinger
  • Richard Buckminster Fuller
  • Bill Ham
  • Chet Helms
  • Dick Higgins
  • Joan Hills
  • Roger Hilyard
  • Henry Jacobs
  • Ken Kesey
  • Ferdinand Kriwet
  • Johann Gottlob Krüger
  • Timothy Leary
  • Seymour Locks
  • Madonna
  • Anthony Martin
  • Glenn McKay
  • Marshall McLuhan
  • Ben van Meter
  • Gustav Metzger
  • Lutz Mommartz
  • Otto Piene
  • Alexander Wallace Rimington
  • Elias Romero
  • Harry Smith
  • Gerd Stern
  • Günther Uecker
  • Stan Vanderbeek
  • Andy Warhol
  • Norbert Wiener
  • Thomas Wilfred
  • Tom Wolfe
  • Peter Wynne-Wilson
  • Jud Yalkut
  • Works
  • Clavilux
  • Color Organ
  • Colour(s) Piano
  • Expanded Arts
  • Exploding Plastic Inevitable
  • Glimpses of the U.S.A.
  • Joshua Light Show
  • Liquid Crystal projection
  • Mobilcolor Projector
  • MobilColor VI
  • Sample Lesson
  • Single Wing Turquoise Bird
  • Son et Lumière for Bodily Fluids and Functions
  • Son et Lumière for Earth, Air, Fire, and Water
  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
  • The Whole Earth Catalog
  • Vortex

  • Timelines
    1700 until today

    All Keywords
  • Bewußtseinserweiterung (Chap. 3)
  • Entgrenzung (Chap. 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Immersion (Chap. 2)
  • Intermedialität (Chap. 2)
  • Performativität (Chap. 4)
  • Polysensualität (Chap. 3, 4)
  • Verzeitlichung (Chap. 1)
  • club culture (Chap. 4, 5)
  • counterpoint (Chap. 1)
  • improvisation (Chap. 4)
  • universalism (Chap. 1, 2, 4)

  • Socialbodies
  • 14 Hour Technicolor Dream
  • Alexandra Palace
  • Amoeba Lightshow
  • Art in Cinema
  • Avalon Ballroom
  • Charles and Ray Eames
  • Cream
  • Creamcheese
  • Crystalleum Lightshow
  • Electric Light Garden
  • Expanded Cinema
  • Fillmore East
  • Film Culture
  • Five Acre Lights
  • Fluxus
  • Grateful Dead
  • Hans-Joachim and Bim Reinert
  • Headlights
  • Holy See
  • Jefferson Airplane
  • Joel and Toni Brown
  • John and James Whitney
  • Krishna Lights
  • Living Theater
  • London Free School’s Sound/Light Workshop
  • Longshoremen's Hall, San Francisco
  • Morrison Planetarium
  • Movie-Drome
  • Muse
  • New York Film Festival
  • North American Ibis Alchemical Company
  • Pink Floyd
  • Re-Invention World Tour
  • Roundhouse
  • San Francisco Museum of Art
  • Sensual Laboratory
  • Soft Machine
  • The Velvet Underground (Velvet Underground)
  • The Who
  • Trips Festival
  • UFO Club
  • USCO
  • Wembley Stadium
  • Whitney Museum of Art
  • ZERO
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