A Digital Trip: Strobe Light as New Media

In the spring of 1966, New York filmmaker Jonas Mekas noted an emerging trend: suddenly, strobe lights—invented in the 1930s by Dr. Harold Edgerton at MIT—were being used in avant-garde art all over town. Commenting on this trend in his regular column for Village Voice magazine, he argued that “something is happening and it is happening fast—and it has something to do with light, it has everything to do with light—and everybody feels it and is in waiting—often, desperately.” In a follow-up column a few weeks later, Mekas interviewed the painter Steve Durkee, a member of the psychedelic intermedia group USCO, about that group’s use of strobe light. To the question “What is the strobe light all about?,” Durkee replied, “Strobe is the digital trip.”

The same equation between strobe light and electronics was made in Time magazine’s 1967 survey of “luminal art,” which called USCO’s use of strobe “the visual equivalent of the electronic scream at the end of the Beatles’ record Penny Lane.”This paper examines the use of strobe light in intermedia environments of the 1960s, paying particular attention to USCO’s “Strobe Environment” at the Walker Art Center in 1967, and its “Fanflashstic” environment for the Intermedia ’68 festival held across New York State the following year. While light is what Hartmut Böhme called an “absolute metaphor,” and is often presumed to have universal physical or cultural significance, this paper aims to understand the historically- and technologically-specific use of strobe light in 1960s art. It argues that strobe, dependent on the electronic modulation of fluorescent tubes, symbolized the effects of more complex emerging electronic technologies that were far more difficult to visualize. In its trippy dislocation of time and space, the strobe heralded the more profound dislocations of the electronic age to come.

Tina Rivers Ryan

Tina Rivers Ryan is an art historian and critic who specializes in art, avant-garde film, and visual culture from the 1960s to the present day. Her current research on light art examines the relationship between art, media theory, and new media technologies. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Art in America, Art Journal, Framework, and Media-N, as well as in several books and exhibition catalogs, and she has presented her research at conferences throughout the U.S. and in Germany and Canada. She holds a PhD from Columbia University and a BA from Harvard University, and was a 2014-15 Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.