Media Archeology Festival
Aurora Picture Show, Houston
April 17 & 18, 2009
by Jason Jay Stevens & Leslie Raymond
The Joshua Light Show and The Sliver Apples
In a brave move, this year’s Media Archaeology Festival curator Bree Edwards brought the 1960’s light show from its traditional home in the dance hall into the esteemed setting of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. The move transgressed the typical boundaries of the museum and worked to canonize these shows within the history of art. However, the validation offered by the museum, though necessary to place the light show in the canon, also neutered the potency of the medium.
The featured performance group, the Joshua Light Show, occupies a branch of visual performance art that is thoroughly and indisputably an "expanded cinema," as defined by Gene Youngblood, a new cinema for a new consciousness. Within this expanded cinema, the audience exists as an integral component in the synthesis of sound and light. Robin Oppenheimer, in a lecture given in conjunction with the festival, pointed to the fundamental role of audience participation in another way: dancing was inherent to the first light show events. The resulting feedback loop between audience and performers was and is essential to launch this art form from novel eye candy to psychedelic spectacle.
Museums are often sites that decontextualize cultural objects, removing things from their natural environments. The light show is objectified, divorced from the tribal activities of rock 'n' roll, dance and the myriad bacchanal for which it was born into service. So the question lingers heavy: in the context of the museum, is the JLS still a "psychedelic" light show?
The Media Archaeology event sold out, and with the room packed tight, the JLS began their performance, accompanying the influential electronic music "group," the Silver Apples ("group" in quotes because there is only one surviving member). A symmetrical, five-projector array displayed a single channel of video that merged the imagery of the four visualists together into one large projection on the back wall of the stage flanked by two skewed duplicate projections on each of the side walls of the auditorium. A sixth and circular screen, utilized only during a couple of the songs, was used to present projections of reflected light generated behind it with a cascade of hand-manipulated mylar. Curiously, this freestanding structure was placed center stage in such a way as to crop a significant portion of the central screen for the spectators, diminishing the visual presentation.
This incarnation of the Joshua Light Show was bolstered by the additional use of present-day technologies for live improvisation with the moving image. The original JLS was one of many groups that created lighting and visual environments for bands such as the Who, Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Jefferson Airplane. They operated at the Filmore East in New York City from 1968 to 1970 using a combination of "wet" and "dry" elements, such as oil and water on overhead projectors and slides and film, respectively. The entire light show genre went dormant at the end of that era, only resurfacing, fittingly, with the rise of rave culture and the expanding potential of digital tools. More than three decades after the last JLS performance, founder Joshua White met VJ Honeygun (aka Bec Stupak), and together they formed a contemporary incarnation of the group, debuting at the Kitchen in 2007. Consisting of White, Stupack, and a roster of other visualists, the group has been active ever since.
Live cinema as an art form is traceable throughout cinema history, arguably beginning with the magic lantern shows that preceded the motion picture by centuries. As such, the placement of a Joshua Light Show performance at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston provides long overdue institutional recognition to one part of this history. The potential for exhibition forms is wide open, and the future is bright and dripping in candy colors.
Silver Apples and the Joshua Light Show performed together once before, in January of 2008 at the Netmage 08 in Bologna. A video of that performance is available on YouTube.
Jason Jay Stevens and Leslie Raymond are Potter-Belmar Labs.