this blog is the platform for publishing the research conducted by the students of the "Prehystories of New Media" class at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Fall 2008, instructor: Nina Wenhart


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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Robin Juan: Glenn McKay

Glenn McKay is a San Francisco based light artist. He is one of the founding artists of the light shows of the 1960’s. I first encountered Glenn McKay at the SFMOMA in 1999 where a curated exhibition of his work entitled Altered States: Light Projections 1966—1999 was shown. Rediscovering his work with a critical eye and examining it within the idea new media work was an informative and reflective process. There is a long history between the light shows of San Francisco and New York, the technology behind the performance, and the progression of Glenn McKay’s work through music of the decades– Jefferson Airplane, Knox Bronson, Dean Evenson and Greg Jalbert.
In 1936 Glenn McKay was born in Kansas City to a minister’s household. He studied at the Kansas City Art Institute, and in the 1960’s Glenn moved to New Mexico to pursue painting.1 He first experienced the San Francisco light shows at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1965. He soon started doing light paintings with the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Jefferson Airplane.2 In 1967 he joined forces with Joshua White’s New York light show group, the Joshua Light Show. Their relationship brought San Francisco’s musical philanthropist Bill Graham to New York, which lead to the founding of Fillmore East.3 In 1968 New York's Whitney Museum presented McKay's Head Lights Company in performance with Jefferson Airplane and classical pianist Raymond Leventhal. In 1970, McKay moved to Humboldt County, California after touring with Jefferson Airplane. He then went on to travel to Katmandu, New Delhi, India; Ibiza, Spain; and London studying light and taking photographs.4
In San Francisco the light show began as a beat culture experience and progressed toward rock and roll. The use of the light show combined with poetry, was the first use of the projector in a performance. The light shows we know now were born with modern jazz and hot oils on transparencies. Bill Ham was a painter who started creating light paintings. Ham would literally plug in his painting to an electrical source. These light show landscapes were dubbed the Light Sound Dimension.5

“Light and sound fusion can be found in the earliest inventions of technological media. Machines were engineered as a means to represent perception, to structure and articulate cognitive relationships between sight and sound. Renaissance court festivals, magic lantern displays, and forms of opera, as well as the clumsy machinery of Victorian-era zoetrope’s and other moving light amusements are each antecedents to McKay's projected image. Electricity introduced the new possibilities of automation, powerfully bright lamps, and the illuminated screens and computer programs of this information age.”6

The technology of the light show was developed through experimentation with light, liquids, and projection technology. “McKay's art-making practice embraces the live-action gesture and expression of traditional abstract and color-field painting with a discipline reminiscent of Gutai, a Japanese avant-garde movement of the 1950s and 1960s that expanded modernist visual research to include the representation of time, process, and movement in mixed-media experiments.”7 Light show artists combined the usage of “post-war industrial display” such as, various overhead projectors; slide projectors, homemade color wheels, and screens, with colored water and oils. Everything was usually set up behind a screen or sheet of fabric, as the backdrop to the stage. There would be bleachers behind this screen where light show artists and several assistants would have the projectors set up. There could be dozens of different kinds of projectors. The element of spontaneity is highly valued in the art. Much like in free jazz, the artists improvised the light show while the musicians played. The Joshua Light Show and McKay would sometimes take clippings from newspapers and print them onto transparencies or have super 8mm loops to project during shows. In McKay’s Altered States video footage was included, that directly referenced the importance and high usage of drugs in the psychedelic scene of the 1960’s. In an interview, Joshua White claimed that due to the high drug usage by the artists, as well as the audience, the San Francisco light show was technically flawed.8 There was no need for perfection if the audience was far more interested in their LSD experience. McKay has been quoted saying that his use of psychoactive drugs was his influence and inspiration for his pursuit in the art of the light show.

“The San Francisco Light show, called Headlights, was run by Jerry Abrams and Glen McKay, they were one of Bill Graham’s favourite light shows and considered to be one of the best in San Francisco…Abrams was a gruff mean guy and McKay was this dope crazed hippie with a big laugh who was totally open about the whole scene. What we didn’t know at the time was that Glenn and Jerry hated each other and were constantly at each other’s throats.”9- Joshua White

While LSD and the 1960’s birthed the light show within the context of the psychedelic music scene, music itself advanced and so did McKay. Altered States chronicles McKay’s work through the decades of different musical artists. The first 10 minutes documents Jefferson Airplane, who McKay went on tour with before settling down in Humboldt County. While the footage from this time period clearly reflects the psychedelic and drugs, the light and colors move in amoeba like patterns to the music while images of peace signs, marijuana leaves, and Andy Warhol coca-cola bottles mix into the forms. The 70’s work with Knox Bronson shows a more sophisticated version of the 1960’s with darker colors and devilish imagery. The 1980’s show McKay’s work in a very clean minimalist approach to line and color. The music is spacey and the images shift between spheres and squares, lines and dots. The jump between the psychedelic and this is visually unseen but McKay is playing with the optical illusion and even more the mind. Greg Jalbert’s 1990’s piece, McKay jumps back towards the psychedelic, but it is much more subtle. The screen is filled with color, while the color palate and use of light are very similar to his earlier work in the 60’s. The blending of washed out color pools with slow music, shows a grown and sensitive McKay. This piece is a well-considered collaboration that incorporates all the best aspects of McKay’s previous work. As a whole Altered States, definitely relies upon the audience’s journey through the decades of music, whether or not they are familiar with the musicians or have lived through those decades.
First experience with this work was in 1999, when I was 12, at the SFMOMA. My mother had taken me specifically to see this show. Born in 1950 she was a second generation born and raised San Franciscan. She remembers going to see the light shows at the Fillmore Theatre as a young adult in the late 60’s. I remember seeing some drug references especially in the film footage that is combined with the Jefferson Airplane collaboration, but did not remember the elaborate use of marijuana leaves as images within the light show. I was somewhat disturbed, when I started my researched and watched the whole show over again, that my mother would expose me to this at the age of 12. Then again, I was also born and raised in San Francisco, and would sooner or later adopt the same attitude towards psychoactive drugs that the rest of the city had. I am not so fond of McKay’s 1980’s work, the minimalist approach was too bland for me, and I remember it being so even as a kid. The 1990’s are the most fascinating and enchanting, for me, and as a child as well. I definitely understand the light show now as a production and performance, more so than I did. As a child the exhibition was much more of a visceral experience.
Amid the digital age, research of the beginnings of projection performance is essential to understanding the art. The art of the light show depicts the usage of analog technology before the time of flash art. In our modern day, the effects light show artists, like McKay, can be produced through the computer but the result not rooted within the history the production of the light show. The light show is so heavily dependent on the natural elements used, as well as the artist’s hand and mind in the improvisation with the music that cannot be reproduced through the computer.

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