How to produce a psychedelic light show

The psychedelic light shows of the sixties involved several pieces of equipment to produce. Strobe lights, blacklights (long wave ultraviolet light), slide and film projectors were all used, but the central piece of equipment that was used in the 60s lightshows was the overhead projector. This is the type of projector that it is used in schools and businesses, usually to give some type of presentation. It uses transparencies the size of a normal sheet of paper, which can be drawn on with felt-tip markers and projected on a screen. In the early sixties (maybe even in the 50s), someone (Tom Wolf's book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, credits Gerd Stern of the USCO group, but I have no idea of what the USCO group was or what it stood for or how to research it) got the idea of putting a transparent container with colored liquids in it on the overhead projector and projecting that. A new type of art had been invented, but I'm not sure exactly when that happened or who did it first.

From what I understand, this new artform originated with the Beat Generation and was first set to jazz rather than rock and roll (there's a five minute film I've seen called Liquid Jazz, probably the first light show captured on film, although I think most of it was done with oil paints on conventional medium and frame by frame photography. Some of it looked very similar to the liquid projections, and I think some of it was in fact liquid projections, but it's been over 30 years since I've seen that film). William Burroughs may have been playing around with it and created another artform, later known as tie-dye, which is mentioned in the book, The Herbert Huncke Reader. I would guess that one of the liquid containers got spilled on a white t-shirt before it made it to the overhead projector (or maybe afterwards). At any rate, one person's mess seemed to become another person's art.

It was Roy Seburn (one of Kesey's Pranksters) who introduced this new artform to the younger bohemians through the Acid Tests. He had probably attended one of the Beat Generation lightshows (I don't think they called them lightshows at that point, maybe liquid art shows), thought it was a groove and figured out how to duplicate it. This type of lighting technique is known as liquid projection. A clear container (usually a glass clock face crystal) is placed on the overhead projector and a liquid consisting of water and colored oil is placed in the container. The container is rocked in time to whatever music happens to be playing. To keep the light show from becoming boring, different liquids are switched out during the show. It works best if you have several projectors and if you have two people on each projector, one to operate it and one to make up the mixtures to project.

Another useful item to have on hand are stage lighting gels. These can be used to produce a background color, or food coloring added to the water has the same effect. There is an art to doing good light shows and you have to practice to get the technique down so you can produce an interesting show. The liquid projection part of the light show has to synch well with the other aspects of the show.

As I said, liquid projection is just one aspect of psychedelic lighting. It is combined with slide projectors, film projectors strobes, blacklights, mirrored balls (actually these came later) and many other devices. The trick is to have so many stimulating devices going at once that it causes the condition of sensary overload, and simulates an acid trip. As far as I'm concerned, the main rule of a good psychedelic light show is to prevent one part of it from degrading another part, like when you're projecting slides and a movie on the same screen, you have to be careful not to wash out one with the other. Another example is when using a strobe, you have to be careful to shut off other lighting (like mirror balls) that may interfere with it (strobes work best in a totally dark room).

For the same reason, usually the blacklights are setup in a separate room from the rest of the light show, as was done at the Watts Acid Test (which you can read about in Tom Wolfe's book). That not only keeps the other lights from interfering with the blacklights, but gives people a good place to retreat to when they become overwhelmed by the rest of the light show. Some people should not be stimulated by strobes for medical reasons and this gives them a place to hang out.

Since the 60s, many other gadgets have been added to light shows that were not part of the original versions you were likely to experience in the mid-60s. Part of this came about when Bill Graham took over the management of rock shows and refused to pay the liquid projection artists. Mirror balls and other forms of lighting that didn't require human operators replaced the liquid projections. Fog machines were also a later (late 70s) development, as were lasers (brought about by the delopement of the laser diode) and chaser lights (which resulted in advances in solid state switching circuits).

Certain aspects of light shows, especially the film projections, are very expensive to produce. Today, the cost of 16mm film is about $150 for 400 feet. I'm not sure how much this has increased since the Prankster movie, but even then, it was expensive. Today, video is rapidly replacing film because of the lower cost of the media. The main problems with video today is the low resolution and the high cost of video projection equipment. Both these limitations are being worked on and I predict that in the near future, video projections will be an important part of every light show.

What happened in the 60s was that people discovered that strobes, blacklights and the liquid projections could simulate many of the effects produced by psychedelic drugs. The Trips Festival was even billed as an LSD trip without the LSD. Of course, there was plenty of LSD there, but most outsiders didn't know that, and for a few, it may have very well been an acid trip without the acid. 

Copyright © 1997-2002, Colin Pringle (
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