Pondering the Southworth Planetarium’s laser shows

Galaxy defenders
By NICHOLAS SCHROEDER  |  February 22, 2012

art_laser_abstract_main
TRIPPY? Or outdated? Laser shows still raise questions.
Every year as spring approaches, the Southworth Planetarium hosts its weekly Laser Fest, a 3-D bonanza of about a dozen programs that light up the dome theater with retro-futurist animation. If you've never been to a planetarium, the Laser Fest makes an excellent gateway. The combination of the program's intergenerational appeal (or attempts at it anyway) and socially integrative format — everyone sits in reclined chairs in a small domed theater — can make for a compelling, perplexing experience.

Lasers have an interesting history. A decade after their invention as space research tools and before their widespread use in edutainment, lasers made notable appearances in the world of fine arts. In 1968, Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswald used lasers in a theatrical production of Faust in Stockholm, and French artist Joel Stein projected them onto the stage of a ballet in Paris. In 1969, the Cincinnati Museum of Art opened an installation exhibit titled "Laser Light: a New Visual Art," wherein three light sculptors made dense, foggy environs for which the light beams cut through. Process artist Bruce Nauman brought them to New York with his holography work in the early '70s, and by the 1977 release of Star Wars, lasers had pierced the consciousness of pop culture and had found a home illuminating the astral obsessions of the Boomer generation. Today of course, they're used in all sorts of advanced and esoteric purposes: advertising, scientific research, state-of-the-art weaponry, half-time shows at coliseums. By comparison, kids' space programs are nearly anachronistic.

Hoping to find the most adult-friendly program in the Laser Fest's schedule, I settled on "Perseus and Andromeda" (depending on one's musical tastes, they might argue that "Laser Metallica," which showed opening night at 8 pm and again this Friday night, could also win that title). It was unfortunate that the Planetarium didn't have 3-D glasses (their shipment was delayed until the following day, they reported), but the story's visuals barely suffered for it. In a sort of Rocky-and-Bullwinkle style, a professorial owl and rascally rat narrated the Greek myth as a schoolhouse lesson. This formula was charming at first, but for the 21st century, could get a little patronizing, like when we were told how Zeus impregnated Danaë with his "magical powers." Nonetheless, it was funny in tone and stylistically impressive, like a lot of contemporary Flash animation. I later discovered that Southworth gets its material from Audio Visual Imagineering, an Orlando company. This could explain why "P&A" felt a little Disneyfied.

Following "Perseus and Andromeda" was a short program called "Laser Magic," which felt — again without 3-D — substantially less magical than an iTunes visualizer on a wide monitor might. A laser-fied narrative of Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla" was good stuff; I pondered what other classic rock gems with hyper-literal lyrics might be in store at the music shows. After the timeless BOC, however, the magic began to show some wrinkles. As a song stripped of its cinematic accomplice, Will Smith's "Men in Black" has all the modern cultural significance of a Furby, and I was completely blindsided by Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." When Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life" followed those, it became clear this magic show probably hadn't been tweaked since last century.

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