Joshua Light Show – “For me perfection equals a kind of death”

July, 2019
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7.5 mins
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Image © Marc Sethi

Joshua White sheds some light on the Joshua Light Show

This week, Creative Chair is in New York for a special interview with Joshua White, of the eponymous Joshua Light Show.

The Joshua Light Show rose to prominence in the late ’60s for producing colourful, organic, ‘liquid lights’ that accompanied musical performances.

Joshua and his team worked with big names like Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and Janis Joplin. The visual style of the performances has become synonymous with that era of the sixties and sowed the seeds for contemporary VJs.

In more recent years, Joshua has teamed up with illustrator Gary Panter to bring the Joshua Light Show back for audiences old and new.

You can find out more about the Joshua Light Show on their website.

Transmediale 2012 Berlin
Transmediale, 2012, Berlin. photo © Martin Genz, Tanja Lindner 2012

You’ve cited Woodstock and the dawning of the 70’s stadium rock era as the causing the decline of the light show. It makes sense that such a visceral experience would be much more effective when the audience is up close and personal, not only with the projections but with the performers.

Bringing back The Joshua Light Show, was this a case of adapting the method to fit with the kind of music that still gets played at more intimate venues?

Yes and no. It depends on what you mean by intimate venues. The light show, as originally performed had no effect on large audiences. I was lured back in 2004 because Gary Panter was so interested in the classic light show and I was fascinated with Gary. I always enjoyed his comics and the design of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, which appeared on the surface, not unlike the light show, to be loose, hand made and improvised. Neither of us wanted anything to do with oldies, and we never have.

Inherent Vice, Ace Hotel, London

Fortunately, over the years, many great artists were not able to expand to money-making stadium shows and wanted to work with us. Musicians have wanted to perform in the dark just to enjoy a true 100% multi-media collaboration. Occasionally we work with music composed by people in our expanded group such as composer Nick Hallett. The light show today is an informal collaborative. We get together in different incarnations when there’s a performance.

“My early work was totally analog because there was no technology to support anything else”

Your methods have remained largely unchanged since the late 60’s – it’s still organic – it’s still improvisational; but has the audience, and what they get from the experience changed?

Not really. When we began, there was, with some exceptions, no such thing as a visual for the audience eye. This was 50% of the experience. As the importance and quality of the music ramped up in the late sixties, that need became more and more apparent. Now, some sort of visual experience is always required. The effect of the Internet and file-sharing changed the music business to the degree that artist profits came from touring. With that came the need to perform in larger and larger venues which often required spectacle to offset enormous ticket prices. My early work was totally analog because there was no technology to support anything else.

AMNH Hayden Planetarium
AMNH Hayden Planetarium, 2011, New York. Photo © Derek Brad

Fifty years later, the same hand made artistic process goes into my work. However, the delivery systems have changed. The only ideas that worked were ones that could be projected optically. Today, when artists and institutions look for traditional analog light shows, we are able to deliver. I personally have no objection to the nature of today’s visual experience. For me, the most important part is having good control of what goes in. Peel away the layers of visual patois and see what’s at the core. What comes out is really a function of sophisticated processing and evolved projection.

“At Every Performance – ‘The Joshua Light Show’ was printed on posters, tickets, ads and the program. I’m very proud of that.”

The psychedelic style of The Joshua Light Show became synonymous with that era of the ’60s. The subsequent influence has been huge. Vice refers to you as one of the grandfathers of VJing. How do you feel about these less organic, algorithm-oriented experiences?

I get bored looking at them because they are too perfect. For me, perfection equals a kind of death. I’m always friendly and open with anybody who projects light. There are no secrets. It’s all about taste and timing. Light artists are beginning to understand this.

Joshua White of Joshua Light Show

Whatever genre of music you’re working with, to me it feels like jazz – you’re reacting to the sound and riffing off the musicians as well as your team members.

It’s a performance in its own right, so I can envision scenarios where a big name, like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, might feel that your performance was taking some of the spotlight away from them. But by all accounts, that wasn’t the case. What was it that made most musicians so receptive to working with your light show, and why weren’t Ike and Tina Turner among them?

That’s really a question about The Fillmore and Bill Graham. He wanted the best for the artists he presented. The best circa 1968 meant good sound, good lighting and a light show. He provided us with a fair fee, space to work in and support. From the opening in March of ’68 until I moved on in March of 1970, “At Every Performance – The Joshua Light Show” was printed on posters, tickets, ads and the program. I’m very proud of that.

Jimi Hendrix Experience with Joshua Light Show
Jefferson Airplane with Joshua Light Show

As to your questions about the very few exceptions, yes, The Ike and Tina Revue were among them. The word “revue” is key to why. Ike didn’t care about anything except performing and getting paid. Tina was from the first a goddess and still is. Ike was more of a hoodlum, and his crew feared him. As part of their tight bubble, they carried with them someone who tried to call the lights and set off a tiny strobe when a great artist made an exit, Fillmore style was to make a ballyhoo with our own giant strobes and artist name up on the screen. Their lighting man wanted his toy strobe to be seen and kept telling us to get that crap off the screen. We mostly ignored him. Nothing came of it, but I remember.

The 157th 366 Award goes to Joshua White for his outstanding creative work.

Joshua Light Show The Mothers

And finally, if you died and got reincarnated as a song, what would that song be?

Ah, we’ve been reading Proust lately.

My Buddy (1922 – music by Walter Donaldson,  lyrics by Gus Kahn)

I guess I’m just a sentimental kind of guy.

My Buddy"
My Buddy (1922)
Walter Donaldson, Gus Kahn
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What began as a fun question to end an interview, has now become a wonderfully eclectic collaborative playlist by 161 people (and counting).
Joshua White
Our Forest