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Over Head

Over Head will tell the history of the liquid light show that began in 1950s San Francisco, where it spread from art galleries and Beatnik jazz clubs to the 1966 Trips Festival. Fueled by Ken Kesey’s LSD and electrified by the Grateful Dead, it was the light show that illuminated the dancehall with a collage of psychedelic imagery. Its aesthetics became the basis for a new counterculture in San Francisco that quickly acquired a global resonance. Though its ephemeral nature has caused its marginalization in the histories of art and cinema, the light show is part of a continuing worldwide movement to create and experience multi-sensory art and culture.

The liquid light show was a distinctly California populist art that grew out of a counterculture with complex roots. The art form was born in 1953 San Francisco when art professor Seymour Locks stirred and swirled paint in a glass dish under a Viewgraph overhead projector to get plantlike growth patterns to accompany live jazz music. His students went on to pioneer a sizable repertory of liquid projection and colored light techniques through the fifties, especially Elias Romero. By the sixties, the liquid light show had come into contact with many corners of San Francisco’s avant-garde scenes-- the Dancer’s Workshop, the Mime Troupe, the Open Theater, the Tape Music Center, City Lights Books, Canyon Cinema, and the Merry Pranksters.

The light show was psychedelicized in 1965 when Bill Ham became the first artist to project a light show for rock bands. Around this time, the liquid light show became an essential ingredient for Ken Kesey’s Acid Test parties. In January 1966, Kesey collaborated with Whole Earth Catalog author Stewart Brand and Tape Music Center co-founder Ramon Sender to produce the Trips Festival. This three-day LSD-enhanced multimedia dance-happening was the Big Bang event for the California light show. Performances by emerging rock groups the Grateful Dead and Big Brother & the Holding Company, bathed in the psychedelic glow of the light show, captured the attention of the thousands of attendees. By the Summer of Love, the aesthetic component of the light show became the basis for a new counterculture social formation in San Francisco that had international influence. As the psychedelic revolution spread across the United States and linked with corresponding developments in Europe, nearly every major music venue would have its own light show in residence until the early 1970s when the counterculture movement began to decline.

Because of the ephemeral nature and sociocultural implications of the psychedelic light show, it tends to fall outside of the formal histories of art and cinema. Over Head will build on recent scholarship to construct the previously fragmented history of the liquid light show that began in California, spread around the globe, and took audiences on a journey to new realms of consciousness.