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Psychedelic light shows — the unlikely thread connecting Janis Joplin and Yayoi Kusama

The Joshua Light Show's
The Joshua Light Show's "High Society" kinetic sculpture at The Welcome Collection in London.
Courtesy of The Joshua Light Show
The Joshua Light Show's
The Joshua Light Show's piece at the Miami Art Basel 10-year anniversary gala.
Courtesy of The Joshua Light Show
The Joshua Light Show's
The Joshua Light Show's piece at the Miami Art Basel 10-year anniversary gala.
Courtesy of The Joshua Light Show

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As far as interesting careers go, Joshua White’s body of work ranks pretty high up there.

In 1967, he founded The Joshua Light Show — a group of visual artists who put together live, psychedelic light performances using materials that included overhead projectors, colored liquids, and mirrors.

As resident artists at the famed Fillmore East in New York City, the legendary concert promoter Bill Graham paired The Light Show with some amazing musicians, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin,  The Grateful Dead, and The Byrds:

The Joshua Light Show also performed at Woodstock and in the 1969 film, "Midnight Cowboy," but then White made a pretty big career change. He began directing television shows such as "Max Headroom," "Inside the Actors Studio," "Seinfeld" and "The Jerry Lewis Telethon."

But in recent years, there’s been renewed interest in The Joshua Light Show, in large part, from the art world. Joshua White and his fellow artists have performed at the Whitney Museum in New York and The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. This week, they’re putting on three performances at The Broad in downtown L.A.

Yayoi Kusama's
Yayoi Kusama's "Infinity Mirrors" exhibition at The Broad contains six mirror room installations. Museum-goers have 30 seconds inside each room.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

The performances will be paired with the new "Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors" exhibition at The Broad, which features a range of works by the Japanese artist, including six of her wildly popular infinity rooms.

And there's an old connection between Kusama and White as well. In 1968, at the Fillmore East, The Joshua Light Show collaborated with Kusama, back when she was better known as a performance artist.

The Frame host John Horn spoke with Joshua White about his career and his work with Yayoi Kusama.

Interview highlights:

On the ephemeral quality of The Joshua Light Show's performances:

I've always had to deal with the fact that a live light show performance is totally fugitive art. Fortunately, you can document it now, so I have really really good documentation, but it's not the same thing. I've never been able to solve the problem because the minute you mass produce it, manufacture it, film it, it becomes something else. So for me, this is an acoustic performance.

On performing at the Fillmore East alongside some of the great music acts of the '60s and whether he knew at the time that it was something significant:

The people that came to the Fillmore, they came to see the bands, they knew they were great. But to be in their company and to have Janis Joplin perform, not one, but four shows every weekend, and to do it a dozen times while I was there. To have The Grateful Dead sometimes play all night, we knew that it was special. But you have remember that the whole idea of that kind of music really being important and that audience really being important didn't really happen until the Woodstock festival, which was August of 1969. Before that, it was marginalized. You couldn't really see music on television unless it went through one of the gatekeepers — Dick Clark or Ed Sullivan. You know, Now here's something for the kids. And after Woodstock when 400,000 people showed up and actually had a good time in the mud and all the best bands were there, and a year later when the film came out, it really solidified that world. 

On his collaboration with Yayoi Kusama in 1968:

At that particular moment in 1968 ... what she did most prominently was that she painted dots on people, and very often it was on people who didn't have any clothes on. At the time it was exotic, and they booked her into the Fillmore East, which was very interesting. She opened for Country Joe and the Fish, and we did a light show behind her ... She trusted us. I had gone to avant-garde festivals, but I hadn't actually seen her. What was interesting was the audience at the Fillmore, which was notorious for telling the artists exactly what they thought, they liked her. They were very respectful, they watched and they kind of appreciated it. Personally, it wasn't as impactful then as it was over time. When I look at the photographs, her work looks fascinating and our work looks good, and so I'm proud of that.

On the connection between his career as a television director and what he was doing with The Joshua Light Show: 

The thing that I did best in television was improvisational work, and I sought that work out — like directing the whole "Jerry Lewis Telethon," which you can't plan out. You just have to set it up properly to begin with ... For me, it was all about camera placement and being loose and being able to take everything that was going on and reducing it down to a single image. And that was very similar to what I was doing in The Light Show.

To hear the full interview with Joshua White, click the blue player above.

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