Circle to Sphere: Origins of the Laser Light Show
Friday, May 31, 2019
Location: Redstone Theater
With physicist Elsa Garmire, filmmaker Joshua White, and collector AJ Epstein in conversation, with special laser and liquid light demonstrations.
Science on Screen presents a rare showcase of films connected to the origins of the popular laser light show that began at the Griffith Observatory in 1973. Spanning 1921 to 2015, this program presents visuals made with paint, kinetic sculpture, animation, and lasers. The film screening will be followed by a conversation between physicist and co-founder of Laser Images Inc. Elsa Garmire, founder of the Joshua Light Show Joshua White, and producer and Lumia collector AJ Epstein. It will include live demonstrations of laser and liquid light techniques.
Walter Ruttmann, Opus I, 1921, 11 mins, 35mm
Thomas Wilfred’s Clavilux Jr. Unit #86, 1930, filmed by AJ Epstein, 7 mins, digital projection
Ivan Dryer and Elsa Garmire, Laserimage, 1972, 10 mins, restored 16mm print
Jordan Belson with Stephen Beck, Cycles, 1974, 10 mins, digital projection
Jordan Belson, Apollo, 1982, 10 mins, digital projection
Joshua White, selected concert projections created for “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution” at the Skirball Center, 2015, 12 mins, digital projection
The origins of the popular laser light show began not with Jimi Hendrix and psychedelics, but with a physicist named Elsa Garmire and the symphonic musical work “Fanfare to the Common Man.” Garmire was interested in the aesthetics of laser light, which has a property called “coherence”—in effect a sparkle, because of the way that the particles of light are stimulated. She had studied with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Charles Townes, inventor of the laser (“Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”), and applied her expertise in optics to laser light, developing a technique to create unique forms. Although Garmire eventually shifted her focus back to science—having an incredibly successful career in the field of optics—her laser images inspired a young filmmaker named Ivan Dryer. Dryer registered them on celluloid and presented them to the Griffith Observatory and Planetarium in Los Angeles. This original, proof-of-concept video, Laserimage (1972), spawned LASERIUM (“House of Laser”). LASERIUM became the longest-running theatrical attraction in Los Angeles. East Coast light shows that developed around the same time include the Joshua Light Show, which used not lasers but mechanical cinema techniques with colored oil and water dyes.
The creation of LASERIUM synthesized scientific experimentation with artistic practice. Elsa Garmire was actively involved in the West-coast branch of the legendary organization Experiments in Art and Technology, and even visited with avant-garde cinema pioneer and painter Jordan Belson—all while completing her post-doctoral scientific work. Belson’s Vortex series at San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium in the 1950s staged multiple projectors and dozens of speakers for multi-directional sound to create a spectacle that was the first abstract visual performance to bring audiences into a planetarium—a precursor to LASERIUM. Belson collaborated with Experiments in Art and Technology video artist and engineer Stephen Beck, who invented one of the first video synthesizers in 1969 (the Direct Video Synthesizer) that they used to create visuals for the 1974 film Cycles.
Jordan Belson and Elsa Garmire shared an appreciation for the hallucinatory light forms called Lumia that were created by Danish light art pioneer Thomas Wilfred beginning in 1921. Wilfred deemed light a new artistic medium. He built kinetic sculptures called Clavilux that manipulated light and color at variable tempos, sometimes giving viewers a remote control, and generated transcendent, floating forms; Wilfred said that he wanted to evoke the experience of looking out of the window of a spaceship, watching the universe flow by. He corresponded with astronomer Eugene Epstein for the last eight years of his life. Because Wilfred built just over three dozen Lumia works in his lifetime and each one has to be experienced in person, he is not as widely known as his influence might suggest; Jordan Belson, Joshua White, as well as artists such as James Turrell and Terrence Malick cite Wilfred.
The abstract, light-based, predominantly manually operated cinematic experiences which made art from light departed the rectangular screen to invite viewers to see space anew. They brought people into alternative, even scientific spaces; because of LASERIUM, planetariums appealed to mass audiences.
Special thanks to Raymond Foye, Cathy Heinrich, Kathleen Maguire, Joshua White, Stephen Beck, AJ Epstein, and Eugene Epstein. This program coincides with an exhibition of Jordan Belson’s paintings at Matthew Marks Gallery.
About the speakers:
Elsa Garmire is the Sydney E. Junkins Professor of Engineering Emerita and former Thayer School of Engineering dean at Dartmouth College. She is the former President of The Optical Society. Dr. Garmire received an A.B. at Harvard and Ph.D. at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), both in physics. After post-doctoral work at Caltech, she spent 20 years at the University of Southern California, where she was named William Hogue Professor of Electrical Engineering and Director of the Center for Laser Studies, and then went to Dartmouth in 1995. In her technical field of quantum electronics, lasers, and optics, she has authored over 250 journal papers, obtained nine patents, and been on the editorial board of five technical journals. She has supervised 30 PhD and 14 M.S. theses. Dr. Garmire has held leadership positions in the National Academy of Engineering, the Society of Women Engineers, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the American Physical Society, and the Optical Society of America, and served as a representative to the International Commission for Optics. Dr. Garmire received the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award, has been a Fulbright Scholar, and is an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Joshua White is founder of the Joshua Light Show, a group of artists improvising with projections in live concert venues. The Joshua Light Show were resident artists at Fillmore East from 1968 to ’71 and performed behind major musical artists such as Frank Zappa, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. White has also had a prolific career in television. He directed a range of television shows including Seinfeld, Club MTV, Inside the Actors Studio, and Max Headroom. He received an Emmy nomination for an ABC special on Cat Stevens. In addition, White has continued to work with artists, directing Laurie Anderson’s video to “O Superman,” and staging the first rock concert at Radio City Music Hall. Over the last 15 years he has collaborated with the artist Gary Panter with whom he also regenerated Joshua Light Show. The light show is still performing.
AJ Epstein is an artist and producer working in the medium of light, photography, film, and live theatrical performance. He is the Artistic Director of West of Lenin in Seattle, and has been producing plays and films in Seattle for over two decades. Epstein runs Clavilux.org, a foundation dedicated to the rescue and preservation of Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia and Clavilux works. Epstein is a mechanical expert in the workings of the Clavilux, and has restored numerous works by Thomas Wilfred. He is on the board of the Northwest Film Forum.