Inspiration for light art
From Philip Vaughan:
“I first started working with light while I was at Chelsea arts school in London, one of my teachers, Anne Reese Mogg, taught a great course on the theory of light and color. She pointed out that the mixing of light colors is quite different from the way that paint colors mix and I got very interested at the time about this difference and the idea of using light as a medium itself to make art.
I was for a while using light as the subject of an investigation for creating an artwork. My first piece there consisted of three light sources with reflectors and each one had a filter on it, one was red, one was green, & one was blue. This assembly was attached to a motor and gearbox assembly. The spinning work projected light on the walls and the resulting illumination was a mixture of the three lights that were projected from the light source, so for instance if red and green were on when this was spinning they would mix to make yellow light. So this device is effectively a mixer of the light in the room from the colors that were on the machine and I varied the brightness of each lamp and color by running the power to that light source through a rather crude resistive dimmer system.
During that time I was introduced to Neon by some friends of mine. One of them was Peter Wynne Willson who was the lighting projectionist for the Pink Floyd band. We started working with Neon for a storefront display for a fashion designer on the Fulham Road in London and while working on that piece, I learned there a little bit about some of the people in the Neon industry in London including a very elderly gentleman who made the first tubes for us. His work was quite amazing and he explained to me that in his early days he had been a valve manufacturer. Valves as we refer to them in the UK, what you call here tubes, were used in radios and other types of electronic equipment so this gentleman was making the glass enclosures for these valves or tubes. One day, his boss, the scotsman John Logie Baird, came to him with a special request and this was to make a very large tube with very thick glass and my neon manufacturer was telling me that he was not quite clear what this was for but it later became clear that this was in fact the first CRT tube, an experimental cathode ray tube that was built in England so they effectively made the first experimental TV set in England. Logie Baird was one of the pivotal figures in the invention of color TV back in 1926.
I wrote my thesis for Chelsea art school on the subject of colored light. I had read a book by that name by a gentleman by the name of Cornwell Cline. He was actually a German and spelled his name Klein with a K. By that time he had escaped Germany and moved to the UK he had changed that last name to Cline. This was something that many Germans living in the UK had done, they Anglicized their names. He had done some very interesting work on synesthesia, searching for parallels between music and light and color. He had built an organ in the 1920s and early 30s that allowed him to play light, projected light in this case, on a screen or a curtain in the movie theater while the theater organist played music and the two organs in the theater would play the same piece of music. I’m not really sold on the idea that there is a direct parallel between color and music but I thought it was a very noble effort that he had done and the technology that he used in his light organ was quite incredible. He had used an arc light source as the main white light generator and he used a large prismatic array to create a full color spectrum that was about three or 4 inches long and then he used a very clever shutter system actually a sliding shutter system that would then isolate a band of the colors out of the rainbow out of the spectrum and project that onto the screen. As you can imagine using a light source using an Arc light source meant that there was a tremendous amount of heat generated and this projector looked more like a steam locomotive than anything else it but because of the amount of heat that was involved all the shutters and such like had to be built of high temperature-rated, non-flammable material such as mica and steel and it was quite an amazing actually technical feat.
I was also fascinated by geodesics. I had had the good fortune to go to a lecture given by Buckminster Fuller when he was in London and it was really a revelation to me that such amazing structures could be built out of triangulated networks of rods and hubs. I started to experiment with geodesic structures myself and made a group of models of them and eventually started to incorporate linear lights, in this case neon with geodesics and I have to say that one of my teachers at Hornsey Art school, Stuart Brisley had also done something similar and so in a way I was using some ideas that he had developed.
Towards the end of my time at Chelsea at school I was invited by Norbert Lynton our art history professor and the art critic for the Guardian to join the competition for the Hayward Gallery Neon Tower make a sculpture that would be outside of The Gallery that would help identify the building as a gallery and help guide people there. I came up with a concept for a tower in steel with linear neon outlining the structure. This was at the time the tallest sculpture in Britain at 48ft tall. It sorted over the skyline of the Southbank art center of London’s Thames river. The neon in this case was controlled by a dimming system designed by Roger Dainton and we worked on this with a view to making this a sculpture responsive to it’s environment.
A lot of the commercial neon signs in Piccadilly Circus were mechanical and would rotate through each sequence of animation and then just repeat it over and over and that seemed to me to be too automaton-like. I wanted to develop an artwork that was more lifelike, more responsive to its environment, so we incorporated a wind direction sensor and a wind speed sensor into it and then we divided the points of the compass up into eight, North, North East, East etc.. We then ran programs that would go one through eight, depending on the direction of the wind. The computer would select one of those programs and then play it with the speed of the wind dictating the speed at which it cycled through the program. That was about as sophisticated as we could get in 1970,. This was well before the advent of the personal computer, so controllers and control systems in those days were primitive compared to those available now.
I was also very taken by the work of other contemporary artists:
It started with a fascination with the color observations of Monet and Cezanne and their contemporaries. I also became fascinated by light and kinetic artists of the time:
Marcel Duchamp and his rotating discs
The Greek artist, Takis with his magnetic sculptures
Vardea-Mavromichali, (Chryssa) with her amazing neon and mirror works
George Rickey with his moving sculptures animated by the wind.
David Medalla and his foam-emitting sculptures
Dan Flavin and his fluorescent tube assemblages
And later Nam June Paik’s pivotal video artworks using CRT screens.
I also was very interested in the proximities between music and visual art. I was also studying Buddhism, specificalIy Tibetan Buddhism under the direction of Trungpa Rinpoche, who I had heard speak in Cambridge and later visited his monastery Samye Ling in Southern Scotland. It was there that I met some amazing mandala painters and their work left a profound impression on me.
I worked with Peter Wynne Willson and others creating projections for rock and jazz shows, we tried to incorporate some of these thoughts into the projection world we were doing from rock shows. We eventually graduated from there to designing and hand building an 80ft diameter hemispherical inflatable dome theater for the entrepreneur and filmmaker John Bloomfield that we toured around the UK projecting abstract light shows on the inside screen surface. I liked the idea that this brought art out into a wider audience.
In general I was very interested in the popularization of art, making works that could live on the streets and relate to every day life. I think I was hoping to thereby attract people who might never normally visit a gallery, to do so. Using Neon was to my mind using the language of the street to make art. I also loved the fact that it was bright and animated. One of my contributions at the time was the dimming of neon light, that allowed for a much subtler animation. Roger Dainton came up with a dimmer for neon, at the time unheard of.
At around this time I started to work on building a 42ft sailboat. I had been in love with the sea and boats ever since my farther a deep sea salvage expert introduced me to ships and the sea in France at an early age. Eventually, I finished the boat and set off from England with my young wife at the time, Alice and we crossed the Atlantic, landing in Port Canaveral on the east coast of Florida. I started working for Walt Disney Imagineering shortly after arriving and there I encountered a host of engineers and designers who were at the cusp of theatrical technology, including of course computerization and lighting design. Our first project there was EPCOT. One feature of that company was the collaborative working environment that It fostered, with teams of designers and engineers developing state of the art shows and attractions.
At nights I would come home and dream up new and more ambitious art projects, hoping to parlay this technology into new public artworks in the US. That took me a long time to bring to fruition but in time I was introduced to solid state transformers and power supplies for neon and was able to create new works that were both more economical and much smaller and tidier in size. This is the technology that I have been using in my recent work, incorporating digital controls and computerized systems, working in partnership with the engineer John Biondo.
I work a lot with the idea of waves, electronic waves and motions akin to those I saw out at sea. These are sublimated into abstract works that incorporate motion and changing light and color with the idea that out of this comes a sensation that is not quite definable, that brings into question perception itself and how we perceive the world around us.”