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Gregory Zinman

The Joshua Light Show

Concrete Practices and Ephemeral Effects
Writing for the New York Times in 1969, Barbara Bell reported on her sojourn to the Fillmore
East rock club on freaky Second Avenue, where she saw the Joshua Light Show produce
Mondrianesque checkerboards, strawberry fields, orchards of lime, antique jewels, galaxies of
light over a pure black void and, often, abstract, erotic, totally absorbing shapes and colors for
the joy of iteach a vision of an instant, wrapped in and around great waves of sound. . . .
[F]irst-nighters stagger out dazzled, muttering to themselves about amoebas in colored water.
Such associative attempts at articulating the simultaneous, shifting character of the psychedelic light show point to the difficulty in determining its meaning. While the light show
enjoyed a huge swell of popularity in the mid-to-late 1960sit is said that during that
time there were more than one hundred light-show outfits in San Francisco aloneits
relationship to cinema remains largely unconsidered.1 How can we best understand this
underdocumented and ephemeral filmic art that, for the most part, can only be analyzed
via photographic fragments and impressionistic written accounts?
The proliferation of mixed-media art in the mid-to-late 1960s signaled a more elastic definition of the notion of medium, a shift away from a Greenbergian conception of medium
specificity grounded in an artworks physical support and putative essential properties.
Because the light show involves the projection of images and/or the play of focused light on
a screen or surface, it shares certain characteristics with cinema and is often discussed as a
subgenre of expanded cinema or intermedia art. Furthermore, the few attempts at historicizing the light show have stressed its relationship to visual music, a synesthetic project dedicated to the investigation of combined and interpenetrating musical and visual phenomena
that can be mapped across various artistic mediums including painting, music, and film.2
The Joshua Light Show (JLS) can also be understood in terms of Lszl Moholy-Nagys
experimental light compositions at the Bauhaus, which were explicitly yoked to film.
Moholys embrace of techn as the motor wheel of cinematic innovation was an approach
adopted by the group. Additionally, the Joshua Light Show can be understood as paracinema, a term coined by film artist Ken Jacobs and adopted by theorist Jonathan Walley
to describe experimental films that reject one or all of the material elements of the film
medium but that nevertheless are meant to retain their identity and meaning as films.
Walley writes that this idea of a nonfilmic cinema can, in turn, help make sense of art that
engages in specifically cinematic conventions while exploring areas of aesthetic overlap
with other art forms. An account of the light show that looks back to the Bauhaus and
mines affinities with paracinemas ongoing investigations of the medium reveals a longstanding desire for a cinema that, in William Moritzs words, is a living art work.3
Whats more, such an account allows for a conceptualization of the Joshua Light Show
that extends beyond the groups brief historical moment to consider the light show as part
of a continuum describing an adventurous and joyful present-tense cinema.
The members of the Joshua Light Show were resident artists at the Fillmore East, a
seated rock theater on Second Avenue in New York City. From March 8, 1968, until
the venue closed on June 27, 1971, the group (which fluctuated between six and eight
members) performed multiple shows every weekend for up to ten thousand people,
receiving nearly equal billing with such acts as the Who, the Doors, the Grateful Dead,
Janis Joplin, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Albert King, Chuck Berry, and Iron Butterfly.

American Art

Volume 22, Number 2 2008 Smithsonian Institution

The groups appeal was broad and extended across a variety of cultural strata. In addition
to its work at the Fillmore, JLS produced a light show for the premiere of the New York
Symphony at Carnegie Hall, provided light effects for a Lincoln Center production of
King Lear, collaborated with Yayoi Kusama in the staging of her political performance
piece Self-Obliteration of the Feast (1968), held a happening in Bryant Park, and designed
a party sequence for John Schlesingers 1969 film Midnight Cowboy. JLS member Thomas
Shoesmith also contributed light sequences to accompany pianist Hilde Somers recital of
music by Russian composer Aleksandr Scriabin at Alice Tully Hall.4
The Joshua Light Show employed a veritable arsenal of image-making apparatuses to
achieve diverse visual effects: three film projectors, two banks of four-carousel slide projectors, three overhead projectors, hundreds of color wheels, motorized reflectors made of
such materials as aluminum foil, Mylar, and broken mirrors, two hair dryers, watercolors,
oil colors, alcohol and glycerin, two crystal ashtrays, and dozens of clear glass clock faces.
Joshua White and his cohort designed a rear-projection system, situated roughly twenty
feet behind the Fillmore stage, where several tons of equipment were arrayed on two
elevated platforms.5
The conventional seated theater setup of the Fillmore meant the group focused its
efforts on a single screen, rather than attempting to establish a West Coast or discothequestyle overall light environment. Using eight 1,200-watt airplane landing-strip lights to
project imagery onto a 20-by-30-foot vinyl screen, the members of the JLS built their
shows from four elements. The first involved the projection of pure colored light through
various handmade and modified devices. The second element was concrete imagery, which
included film footage shot by the group, hand-etched film loops, segments from commercial cinema such as old black-and-white cartoons, King Kong (1933), and 2001: A Space
Odyssey (1968), and, eventually, closed-circuit video, which was used to project enlarged
images of the musicians performing onstage in real time. The groups collection of concrete
imagery also included hand-painted slides, art-historical slides featuring paintings by
Francisco de Goya and op art designs, and slides consisting of text such as Andy Warhols
quote Art is anything you can get away with, or the more self-reflexive and audience-ingratiating The Joshua Light Show: A Product of Stoned Age Technology.6
The third element was what the group dubbed its wet show, or colored oil and water
dyes that were combined in the glass clock faces and displayed via overhead projectors
without any photographic mediation. Group members Cecily Hoyt and Bill Schwarzbach
produced wispy, smokelike trails of intertwining color or shape-shifting blobs (likely the
amoebas in colored water referenced by Bell) by pressing a smaller clock face against a
larger one, which sent the oil and water mixture to the edges of the container in a manner
that could be precisely matched to the rhythms being played on the Fillmores stage.
The fourth element was dubbed lumia and was a technique unique to the Joshua Light
Show. The name comes from Thomas Wilfreds color organ experiments of the 1920s. Lumia
was Shoesmiths domain. He occupied the top platform behind the Fillmore screen by
himself, where he manipulated reflected and refracted light via a series of mirrors, reflective
Mylar sheets, hand-built motorized wheels covered with mirror fragments, and projectors.
The Joshua Light Show techniques and elements were refined by hundreds of hours
of experimentation and rehearsal, and would be added to, subtracted from, updated,
and combined in an improvisatory fashion as light-show members communicated with
one another via headset microphones. The group was able to follow the action onstage
via closed-circuit television while White conducted the show, using a mixing board to
fade in Joshua Light soloists when they were ready to present their creations. As White
explains, Every week we had new ideas, which became part of the whole palette of ideas,
and it was my job to mix those ideas together.7

Summer 2008

Montage of images from the

Joshua Light Show and its successor, Joes Lights, 196971. Photos
Amalie R. Rothschild

Curator Christoph Grunenberg has written that the light shows emphasis on abstraction
and perceptual effects allowed viewers to enter a place where reality becomes the result of
the direct interaction with the perceptual apparatus of the perceiver. Often accompanied
and amplified by the use of psychedelic drugs, the perceptual circuit enacted by projection
performance thus closes the distance between viewer and the art object, so that the cinema
becomes, in the words of paracinema practitioner Bradley Eros, a flicker of a breathing
moment, a living, changing cinema. The result, argues Eros, is a cinema that recognizes the
transitory nature of human existence by expressing and experiencing joy in the time of its

American Art

The Joshua Light Show at Fillmore

East, with four tons of rearprojection equipment on two
platforms suspended from the
theaters back wall, December 1969.
Photo Amalie R. Rothschild

Taken in total, the Joshua Light Shows craftbased ephemeral cinema resulted in a staging
that detailed and commingled nearly the entire
history of the projected image. Its use of projected and reflected light is a practice, as Sheldon
Renan reminds us, that extends back to religious
ritual in ancient Egypt and Greece. The groups
magic lantern techniques date back to the midseventeenth century. The display of artisanal
film loops alongside examples culled from the
entire history of industrial cinema illustrates the
heterogeneity of moving-image conventions.
Taken together, the Joshua Light Show epitomizes what curator Kerry Brougher has cited as
the maximalist trajectory in 1960s filmmaking,
wherein artists saturated the information in the
frame, pushing the image to such a complex and
multi-level state that film was shoved up against
its boundary lines of possibility. The opening up of perceptual possibilities afforded by the
Joshua Light Shows ability to play a cinematically captured history against an improvised
present also brings to mind what Jorge Luis Borges, writing in The Garden of Forking
Paths, describes as
an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.
The fabric of times that approach one another, fork, are snipped off, or are simply unknown for
centuries, contains all possibilities.9
And that is the Joshua Light Showa reservoir of cinemas memory, unmoored in an
ephemeral celebration of cinemas possibilities.


For the quote, see Barbara Bell, You Dont Have to Be High, New York Times, December 28, 1969.
Edwin Pouncy, Laboratories of Light: Psychedelic Light Shows, in Summer of Love: Psychedelic Art, Social
Crisis and Counterculture in the 1960s, ed. Christoph Grunenberg and Jonathan Harris (Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 2005), 156.

See Gene Youngblood, Part Six: Intermedia, in Expanded Cinema (Vancouver: Clarke, Irwin & Company,
1970), 34598; Sheldon Renan, An Introduction to the American Underground Film (New York: E. P. Dutton
& Co., 1967), 24850; and Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 19591971
(New York: Macmillan Company, 1972), 242. Kerry Brougher, Visual-Music Culture, in Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music since 1900 (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2005), 88177; Christoph Grunenberg,
The Politics of Ecstasy: Art for the Mind and Body, and Chrissie Illes, Liquid Dreams, in Summer of Love:
Art of the Psychedelic Era, ed. Christoph Grunenberg (London: Tate Publishing, 2005), 1160 and 6784.

See, for example, Lszl Moholy-Nagy, Lighta Medium of Plastic Expression, in Krisztina Passuth,
Moholy-Nagy (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985), 292. Jonathan Walley, An Interview with Anthony
McCall, Velvet Light Trap, no. 54 (Fall 2004): 66. JLS founder Joshua White, interview with the author,
February 9, 2007. William Moritz, Weekend in Los Angeles, Weekly Planet, January 24, 1969, 45.

A full performance history of the group is available in Amalie Rothschild with Ruth Ellen Gruber, Live at the
Fillmore East: A Photographic Memoir (New York: Thunders Mouth Press, 1999). When Joshua White left
the group in 1970, it continued on as Joes Lights. Grunenberg, The Politics of Ecstasy, 26. Joshua White,
interview, February 9, 2007.


Summer 2008

Margaret Morse

YouTube page with Douglas

Gordon Installations Video

Rothschild, Live at the Fillmore East, 2333.

The modern-day light show can be traced to the projection of liquid-filled slides at beat poetry recitals and
jazz concerts in the early 1950s in San Francisco. For a more complete history, see Brougher, Visual-Music
Culture. Rothschild, Live at the Fillmore East, 2333. Joshua White, interview, February 4, 2007.

Rothschild, Live at the Fillmore East, 25.

Grunenberg, The Politics of Ecstasy, 21. For the distance between, see Illes, Liquid Dreams, 158.
Bradley Eros, There Will Be Projections in All Dimensions . . . Millennium Film Journal, nos. 4344
(Summer 2005): 98.

Renan, An Introduction to the American Underground Film, 24849. Kerry Brougher, Hall of Mirrors, in
Art and Film since 1945: Hall of Mirrors, ed. Russell Ferguson (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art,
1996), 88. Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1999), 182.

From Medium to Metaphor

What qualities determine whether an audiovisual production, viewed at the theater or on
TV, computer, cell phone, or MP3 screen, is film or video? The material substrates of
celluloid film and videotape are obsolescent and vanishing, yet each remains as a figure of
speech, a metonym that stands for a mediumthat is to say, a set of technological and
cultural practices that have changed over time. In the age of digital inscription, editing, and
distribution, an aesthetic of purity based on strong distinctions between media is difficult
to retain. While it is commonplace to distinguish between film and video, these shifting
categories are based on varied historical reference points and metaphors. The terms film
and video stand for a family of conceptual and formal expectations inflected by venues.
Similarly, the distinction between new and
digital media and other audiovisual media will
gradually become moot once most electronic media
are digitally based.1 That does not mean, however,
that all media categories should be recast into an
entirely digital mold (database, interface, algorithm,
etc.). New media, according to Mark Tribe and
Reena Jana, may end as a movement and live
on as a tendencya set of ideas, sensibilities and
methods that appear unpredictably and in multiple
forms.2 This brief essay explores a succession of
medial shiftsfilm/video/video installation/video/
YouTube video on the webin the retrospective
installation of Glasgow artist Douglas Gordon entitled Pretty Much Every Film and Video Work from
About 1992 until Now (hereafter Pretty Much).
In January 2008, while I was searching for Pierre
Huyghe on YouTube, a one-minute, forty-eightsecond document or trailer for a Douglas Gordon
installation came up. It was a copy uploaded by
Mekas28 as Douglas Gordon, Installation Video, Itali

American Art

Volume 22, Number 2 2008 Smithsonian Institution