Paul Beattie: Finally, A New Face in the Lost History of Beat Era Projection Art

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by Jason Steidman

When I first began experimenting with an overhead projector I bought off Craigslist about 10 years ago or so, I must confess that I was definitely trying to channel the hippie culture of the late ​S​ixties. ​With anything I become involved in, I need to know the details, the history, the origin: how did this begin? Where did it come from?​ I first came across the idea of the overhead projector being a medium for live, spontaneously created, projection art when hearing about Shary Boyle doing “live doodling” on transparencies in Toronto clubs during performances of different friends’ bands. The abstract art of the liquid light show was certainly something different from that, but somehow both seemed connected to a common tradition or idea. 

The hippie movement co-opted much from their older, countercultural siblings, the Beats: a fascination with Eastern philosophy and mysticism, drug experimentation, exploration of alternative lifestyles and sexuality, vegetarianism, a reverence for extended musical improvisation​, ​rejection of ​’​establishment​’​ ​ideals, etc. There is another, ‘niche’ item to be added to the list: the use of the overhead projector as a visual medium. One author has opined that the development of improvised, projected visuals was “very much part of the Beat era, and […] characterized by the same kind of free form modern jazz improvisations favoured by the Beats”[1]. During the Beat era, projection as a mode of visual expression outside the cinema was largely relegated to the theatre for stage production (or, previously, a ‘novelty’, eg. The magic lantern). There are also many examples of early light art by Thomas Wilfred, László Moholy-Nagy, and others that could be certainly be considered as early projection experiments.

The overhead projector, however, was a different, more immediate medium of expression. Designed in the late 1800s, this American invention was first popular with the US military in WWII before it was widely used in schools and offices as a presentation tool. However, the use of the OHP as an instrument of light art can be traced to a region, and a subculture that began experimentation in the 1950s: San Francisco, and the Beats.​ Charles Perry’s Haight Ashbury has provided an origin that has risen almost to the level of myth in some circles: San Francisco State prof Seymour Locks accidentally discovered the magic of liquids in a clock face on an overhead projector while preparing for a special performance at a “conference of art educators” at the university in 1952. While he made little of this initially, one of his students who witnessed the results – Elias Romero – went onto to develop this technique, and teach it to many others in the region. The next thing you know, the ballroom scene emerges with the beginning of the hippie era, and there is a waiting population of liquid projectionists ready to fill posts at the soon to be opened Avalon, Fillmore, Carousel, Family Dog, etc. But what had been happening with this art form in the time between its discovery, and its ultimate dissemination? Unfortunately, the goal of Perry’s book wasn’t to find out great details beyond Romero, but to briefly explain the origin of the immersive environments of the hippie music venues. Since reading of the “Light Shows” section of the Perry book, I know I’m not alone in trying to imagine what San Francisco projection art might have looked like between 1952 and the mid ‘60s. Paul Beattie’s work provides a glimpse into this medium at this time.

Paul Beattie was a visual artist who arrived in San Francisco from New York in 1954. He was relatively established in Manhattan’s East Village artistic community, and had already shown his work at Hansa Gallery, one of the highly reputed 10th Street galleries. Beattie has an extensive (though not entirely accessible) body of work, having been actively creating until his death in the late 1980’s. He is known to have been close friends with Elias Romero, and also artist Wallace Berman, having shown his work in Berman’s rogue Semolina Gallery (literally a shack “in the swampland on the edge of a canal off San Francisco Bay”[2]). He was also active as a saxophonist in the Bay area, lived in the apartment at 2322 Fillmore Street in SF (aka. “Painterland”), later made famous by Bruce Conner’s film, The White Rose. Beattie’s work explored a variety of different media, including explorations in sculpture (he even experimented with mannequins in this regard), film making, photography, and his use of the overhead projector seems to have been merely a ‘phase’ in his career, but this took place at a time where there is currently no record of anyone other than Elias Romero doing so (Tony Martin’s work at the San Francisco Tape Music Center would happen 4-5 years later), and this is therefore significant.

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Paul Beattie, projection, circa 1959-60

There is documentation of September 1959 and May, 1960 performances in San Francisco at 707 Scott St., of a project called “VISIO”, described as a “series of visual experiences in motion in conjunction with improvised music”, that found Beattie providing a “light show”, with musicians Bill Spencer and Warner Jepson. Their collaborative performances with Anna Halprin were also well known in the Bay area artistic community at the time. [3]

Paul, Bill and I, and dancers from Ann’s classes would get together a Sunday evening, often at Wellend’s studio, 1831 Union St. Simone Morris [later Forte], Robert’s wife, who was an outstanding improviser with Ann, and Robert Morris himself would be movers. Robert began to bring “things” to use, which were the beginnings of his conceptual pieces. [He gave me one for my birthday which I later dismantled! when I didn’t know what to do with it. But then I destroyed a construction of my own that was in a SF Museum sculpture annual.] [2]

The use of the term “light show” is an unfortunate one, as many of the providers of visuals in both the Beat era, and even the immersive environments of the ballroom events in SF likely thought of what they were doing as their own art form, with all performers at an event operating on an equal collaborative footing, with the culmination of efforts working as a whole, “gestamkunstwerk-style”. There is much documentation of such underground multi-disciplinary collaborations taking place in San Francisco at this time, and many involved musicians, with Elias Romero doing projections, often with dancers, or actress Ruth Maleczech.[4]
Wally Hedrick, a colleague of Beattie’s in San Francisco during the Beat era, known for “live painting” during jazz performances, was experimenting with light as an art form as early as the late 1940’s, and “created a light machine that combined keyboard, glass, speakers, and colored lights that responded to changes in pitch, register, and volume”[5] in 1953 (for which not a shred of documentation other than “oral history” exists – please contact me if you come across anything!). Hedrick expressed this very perspective in an interview years later about the “happenings” at the famous Six Gallery (where Beattie also showed his work shortly after his arrival in SF):

People were thinking about the complete art work at that time. I know I was […]. And the jazz-poetry thing was one aspect of that. But we were doing light shows. That was my contribution. We would have poetry readings with jazz background and then I had my light machine […] and they’d be in front of the machine. Sometimes rear projections. But this was very primitive compared to anything that’s done now. But we were trying to find a connection — at least I was — between the visual arts. We were incorporating dance also.[5]

A precious few of very earliest SF ballroom scene events support this outlook. Taking a look at the Firehouse poster below, from March, 1966, designed with a vaguely vaudeville or “circus” style, it is clear that the imminent music business-influenced hierarchy of ballroom venues such as the Fillmore, Avalon, etc. was not yet in place: instead of the music act having clear prominence in the advertisement, with minor credits to a “light show” and other details, visuals and music are on an equal footing. The term “light show”, which began its life with the obvious meaning of a “spectacle of light” (especially in the wake of the lauded Vortex Concerts at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco), didn’t intend to carry implications of a supportive, decorative, and dependent effort, but this is certainly what occurred once the music business became the principal driver in event curation and documentation in the mid to late ‘60s in this region and elsewhere. I believe the use of this term, and the development of its meaning has led to the visual work’s exclusion from consideration as an “art form”, and the dearth of research on the history of projected visuals from the mid to late 20th Century.

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1966 event posters

While there is little information available on Beat era overhead projector art, we have some convincing evidence in the form of Elias Romero’s film Stepping Stones (1968). This work was captured outside of the period in question, but given Romero’s veteran status with this art form, it is doubtful that he had drastically altered his style to fit in with the “sensory overload”, multi projector approach that had become de rigueur by this time. The fact that his name only appears on the lineup of less than a handful of ballroom era event promos also reinforces the notion that he was not trying to keep up and ‘innovate’ in order to stay relevant, and “get gigs”. It is therefore quite likely that what was captured by cinematographer Richard Edlund for Stepping Stones is quite similar to the type of projection performance Romero was doing many years earlier. (Note: Edlund went on to enjoy a successful Hollywood career, working on Star Wars, and other high profile movies.) There is also this account of an informal Romero performance from the late ‘60s by Michael Scroggins, of Single Wing Turquoise Bird, which shows that even at that time, he was still comfortable, and possibly even preferred a minimalist approach, close to his “roots”:

In fact, one day Elias came and did a lightshow outside. They just stretched a sheet in the trees and he projected onto that. Just doing single projector– single projection, very slow and interesting. And I was really taken by that. [6]

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqWfjl0AmZk

 

Romero’s style appears to conceive of the overhead projector as a means to creating a live, abstract, kinetic painting in real time, rather than supplying one of a multitude of components of complete immersion. In the few photos that survive of Beattie’s projection work via the Warner Jepson website, we can see a possible William Blake influence, and the use of different materials on the overhead projector stage. In Stepping Stones, we see additional media other than liquid entering the mix: pieces of glass, rocks, etc, and Beattie’s projection art also combines various elements (including feathers (!)), but also figurative images painted on acetate. From the available information, these seem to have been combined as a composition on a single projector, rather than an assembly and layering of different projections, which that became popular in mid to late ‘60s and beyond.  We can also clearly see the use of liquids, though they seem to be used in a similar fashion to paint and not in a ‘kinetic’ fashion, as Romero was known for, but many questions remain. Was the work we see in these photos prepared ahead of time, and merely “displayed” to accompany a performance? The feathers seem to be something that was manipulated live on the overhead projector, but it’s impossible to say for certain how the photographed pieces factored into the performances with Jepson, and whether they were created live, or if elements were prepared ahead of time and manipulated in performance.

​It is clear that the overhead projector has a history as an artistic medium, and one that intersects with other disciplines, and also San Francisco’s art and cultural history. More research into the Beat artists’ use of the overhead projector, and general practice of light art is definitely warranted.

 

[1] Swinging City: A Cultural Geography of London, 1950-1974, By Simon Rycroft
[2] Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980: An Illustrated History, by Thomas Albright)
[3] http://www.warnerjepson.com/1950s/index.html
[4] Summer of Love: Art, Fashion, and Rock and Roll, By Jill D’Alessandro, Colleen Terry
[5] SFAI website
[6] https://www.alternativeprojections.com/oral-histories/michael-scroggins/

Special thanks to Robyn Beattie and Kiira Jepson for their valuable assistance.
Photos of Paul Beattie’s projections courtesy of the Warner Jepson website.

Paul Beattie, projection art (below), circa 1959-60

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#NuitBlancheLdn – Sept 30th

TWldnLondon, Ontario has been an important part of my life since childhood for many reasons. Thank you to London Fringe Festival Theatre for including ThatWas in the programme this year. ✦ ✧ ✦

 

Announcing Some of the Artists for Nuit Blanche North 2017!

Heading up to Huntsville….. #ontheroad

Last night in Kensington Market…

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Garden City Colours // “ThatWas”

In The Soil definitely provided an exciting opportunity for this installation, situating us in the “hub”, or ‘meeting place’ for the Rhizomes component of the festival. This feature is a set of organized tours of a special collection of installations set up in a particular location, which took place this year in the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts on the campus of Brock U. We were located in the building’s theatre space, and Michael Kaler’s bass signal, and the output of my laptop and Kaoss Pads were fed into the PA, allowing this installation to provide a complete environment (though the visuals were limited to a single screen). Deanna Jones‘ tour announcements added an extra sonic element to the drone + bass enveloping the space. There were two hive sessions that each lasted 2 hours: one in the afternoon, and another that  ran from 10pm to 12am.

The St. Catharines Standard seemed to dig it:

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This was one of the quieter moments in the Rhizomes “Hive”:

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2015 Light Highs

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Studio Capture – “Liquid Skyporn” – 9-21-2015

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Drone Day @ The Tranzac Club, Toronto – 5-9-2015

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Velvet Underground, Toronto – 5-22-2015

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ThatWas @ The Spoke Club, Toronto – Scotiabank Nuit Blanche – 10-3-2015

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‘Guerrilla’ Liquids, Toronto 11-13-2015

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ThatWas @ The Dart Gallery – Nocturne Halifax – 10-17-2015

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Nuit Blanche North, Huntsville, Ontario. 7-11-2015

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Nuit Blanche North, Huntsville, Ontario. 7-11-2015

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“NightSuite” @ In The Soil Arts Festival, St. Catherines, Ontario. 4-24-2015

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ThatWas @ The Spoke Club via BlogTO + @ilenesova1975 10-3-2015

 

Updated: “NightSuite” @ In The Soil [was “Next Stop”]

ITS_Festival NightSuite hits the highway for a short ride to St. Catharines for In The Soil. Michael Kaler (the silhouette in the middle photo, below) joined the installation once again, on bouzouki.

“NightSuite” @ In The Soil Arts Festival, St. Catherines, Ontario. 4-24-2015

“NightSuite” @ In The Soil Arts Festival, St. Catherines, Ontario. 4-24-2015

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“NightSuite” (detail) @ In The Soil Arts Festival, St. Catherines, Ontario. 4-24-2015