Q&A: The Joshua Light Show’s Digital Flashbacks
If you were in New York City in the ’60s, there’s a good chance you’ll remember the wild psychedelic light shows that painted the walls of the Fillmore East. On second thought, maybe you won’t. Allow us to take you back…
It’s 1968. Bill Graham, the legendary promoter behind the bi-coastal Fillmore music venues, invites a young multimedia artist named Joshua White and his team, The Joshua Light Show, to perform their liquid light shows on stage with the likes of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. A legend is born.
Those shows — improvised projections of swirling oil, water and glycerine — continue to define the collective visual memory of the 1960s in all its psychedelic glory.
MetroFocus recently spoke with Joshua White about his creative process.
Q: You’re the name most widely associated with the psychedelic light show. How did you get your start?
A: It was a combination of things. I was very young and I didn’t really have a career, yet. I was trained in theater and films but in ’65 none of those forms were particularly interesting to me. So instead I began to do lighting for industrial shows. In doing those shows it was a lot about flashing lights. Very quickly, within a year or two, it moved to the music. It was not uncommon to go to Hunter College auditorium and watch The Doors perform against a black background with flashing black lights. It was beginning to live up to a certain level.
Q: And then you started doing light shows for The Fillmore…
A: At The Fillmore it was very important for us artistically that the light show was a rear projection. In New York, The Fillmore was a real theater so you had to look at us. At the Fillmore West [in San Francisco] they were projecting from the front so you couldn’t see them. We were right in front of the band and you could see what we were doing as artists and we took that very seriously. Up to that point light shows had been essentially hip extensions of the music.
The Joshua Light Show performing at the Whitney Museum. Video courtesy of Joshua Light Show.
Q: Who were your favorite musicians to perform with at the Fillmore?
A: For us it was all about the musicians going to the most interesting places. Obviously, Jimmi Hendrix. We very much liked the blues. The skinny English boys who picked up all the blues styles and just sped them up. But we also liked long, trancey sets. Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. The groups we liked least took themselves too seriously, like Crosby Stills Nash and Young who thought it was all about the music, whereas we thought it was about the experience. Some of the blues musicians—I won’t say — well, actually I will — The Ike and Tina Turner Revue, they were just very rude.
But 90 percent of the bands were very happy to be there and we had good luck that the man who opened the Fillmore East, although he had his demons, most of them were good demons. To do a light show with Miles Davis was incredible because we had such good control that we could listen and react to the sounds, so it looked like we had rehearsed. We never rehearsed. Improvisation was our God. But we liked the people best who were reasonable, because these were not reasonable times. It was not a peace, love, and flowers time. It was a paranoid time. Our generation was being killed in Vietnam. But we were apolitical and we felt our job was to provide visual stimulation, and we never made it into a more pretentious thing.
Q: What’s your feeling about the 60s drug culture and its relationship to your work?
A: At the time there were two drug cultures. Everyone smoked weed. Everyone was stoned, though I wasn’t. Which was not the case with other light shows. We saw some very funny things. The light guys would think the visual was moving when it wasn’t. In the late ’60s the dope became cocaine and nobody knew that cocaine was so evil.
When Woodstock happened, even though it was one of the most horrific, badly staged productions it was still Woodstock. Our screen looked like a postage stamp from the audience so it didn’t make any difference. And the business world took notice that 400,000 kids sat on a mountaintop for four days. After that, no band was going to go to The Fillmore and do four shows for $25,000 when they could go to Madison Garden…As I stood on that stage at 26 years old I could see it was over. I moved on to a very obvious place. I was now in California and I was taking traditional jobs. A few years ago I retired with a small pension and I was able to give full attention to my light shows.
Q: You released your Liquid Loops DVD in 2006, which featured remastered 35 mm footage of your original light show visuals from 1969. Why are you creating Liquid Loops II?
A: Liquid Loops is the kind of thing we performed on a very large screen live in the ’60s. We knew what we were doing. We didn’t take a lot of drugs. We were just our own people. The Liquid Loops footage was shot specially on a very small screen to bring out the full color. What happened is the light show loops — the things I made and had sewn together using analog editing processes — they suddenly became the only beautiful document of how stunning the liquid light effects were, so they began to show up in museum exhibits like The Hirschorn and the Summer of Love show at the Tate Liverpool and Whitney. We realized we could now make new material using the highest-end digital equipment.
Q: How does your current practice differ from what you were doing in the ’60s?
A: The process is actually the same. We go into a studio and make abstract light with the liquid and reflective materials in the style of Thomas Wilfred — who informed me a great deal. Using older techniques and new techniques we now have a larger palette. By putting it on DVD everyone can share it. If they use it as part of other works, that’s what I would like.
Q: What do you think explains the renewed interest in light shows?
A: In the case of the Hirschorn and The Whitney and The Tate it was retro. It was all about remembering the flower children, but I was okay with that. What impressed me was that the art we made was very powerful, but in its day it was dismissed as a hippy affectation. Now we don’t need words. Our dream is a beautiful emotional statement.
MetroFocus Multimedia Editor John Farley conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.