Breakthroughs in Light: The Work of Tony Martin

Tony Martin has always been first with light. He is the inventor of the original light show, as well as interactive media and the first implementation of projected, scalable vector graphics. These all combined original ways of deciphering illumination with tightly synchronized engineering.

Game Room, Interactive Environment, 1968

In 1964 the legendary impresario and producer Bill Graham asked Martin to come by and see the Fillmore West in San Francisco he was about to open. Martin told Graham he thought it would be interesting to have rock groups on the floor and set up ten projectors on the balcony to highlight the concert below. Martin recalls, “I was one of the first people putting together dry things and liquids but the person who was the forerunner in ’62 and ’63 using liquids was Elias Romero who did light shows with jazz using oils and projected liquids.” Mixing pigments, powders, and oils to create “paintings in time,” Martin did the first light shows for The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and other groups, working at the Fillmore until 1966. Martin thought of doing the light shows as his “day job” (even though they took place at night). His interests lay in accompanying the avant-garde composers like John Cage, George Brecht, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, and Yoko Ono’s first husband, Toshi Ichiyanagi, by using light projections for concerts at KPFA Radio, and at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, whose collection of music eventually found its home at Mills College.
The dancer Anna Halprin commissioned an interactive space in San Francisco called A Theater for Walkers, Watchers and Touchers from Martin in 1961. She included a mechanical piece to touch a piano in order to feel the music, and a word wall that added different people’s words over the course of a month, set in a 20-foot long piece that spiraled like a shell. This predated Jenny Holzer’s word pieces by many years. Martin also used light in the San Francisco Tape Music Center Festival. Steve Reich and Terry Riley performed at the festival and the modernist composer Karlheinz Stockhausen attended the performances.
After moving to New York, Martin created the visual systems for the infamous Electric Circus, a sensorama rock dance palace. He was also invited by the then just forming Intermedia Department at NYU to become an artist-in-residence in a studio above the Bleecker Street Cinema. In 1967 he produced the first interactive sculpture called “The Well”, a process-oriented work that necessitated the presence of other in order for it to function. Depending on where you stood, different events took place. By focusing on the spot where their hands were placed, a viewer could perceive waveforms that came from incessantly vibrating mercury. The idea behind this was to lose your own sense of importance and join with others into a bigger universe. Another piece, “You, Me, We” created a blend of two viewers’ images combining to make a changing third person while colored light shone on different parts of its face.
In 1969 Martin created “Game Room”, an “involvement” in which people activated imagery on the four walls by stepping on a photoelectric cell. Each participant triggered an overhead track containing one of four tinted spotlights as well as sounds and images. Different colors would appear. Blue represented infinity, green was earth, yellow provocation and red, passion. If there was more than one activation for each cell, it caused a chaotic and disagreeable effect, which forced the participant to change their position. In 1970 he took his light works to Japan where he created the interior light system for the Experiments in Art & Technology at the Pepsi Pavilion Expo 70 in Osaka.
In 1980 at P.S.1 in Long Island City, Martin installed a room of works called the Vector Image Wall using a machine that was the first vector image generator, created with an engineer. Martin hired the engineer with money he received from the National Endowment for the Arts grant to make images that continuously changed. Using one dot as the focus, lines and shapes could be drawn with an oscilloscope as a model. This was the first known use of vector images as luminescent art.
Using light as a major process as well as a tool, this long-time Williamsburg resident has long pursued what he refers to as “Kandinsky’s dream” of consistently innovating and expanding the definition of what it means to “paint with light.”


Ellen Pearlman