Creating Art with Light

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By Hank Hogan, Contributing Editor

A workhorse of industry and research, lasers also have a home in the arts. On stage, they've danced with performers. In museums, they've been behind almost magical portraits.

For artists, this new tool has allowed them to do new things. However, they'd like to see further improvements in laser capabilities and robustness. Also, for some projects, improving laser safety and cutting laser costs are key.

Star of stage and screen

In one case, the light fantastic trips the light fantastic, with laser animation combining with live action on stage. Artist P.C. "Manick" Sorcar, CEO of Denver suburb Arvada, Colo.-based LaserLight Magic and Sorcar Engineering, is the man behind these scenes.

One of his award-winning shows depicts a dancer regaining her confidence, while another shows a demon trying to disrupt the Buddha's meditation. A third, which is under development, will show a little girl dreaming of being underwater, rescuing trapped fairies.

In these shows, lasers power the animation. They're projected from the rear onto a special screen with the actors moving in front of it.

"The key is to use a screen that will remain virtually invisible, yet show the laser graphics nicely without any penetration or spillover into the audience," said Sorcar.

He added that, while the screen remains unseen, the live performers must be clearly visible. That's done through a combination of lights.

Sorcar noted that the development of semiconductor lasers has made all this easier, since they can simply be plugged into an outlet and don't require water cooling. However, the technology could be improved further still, he said, if the lasers could be made either much more robust or were transportable inside a plane. Lasers shipped today for international tours go inside the cargo hold and can arrive in a far-from-perfect condition.

A scene from Sorcar's "Enlightenment of Buddha," with live performers and a laser-animated ghostly forest fire. (Courtesy P.C. "Manick" Sorcar, LaserLight Magic)

A scanner, safely

One thing Sorcar doesn't have to worry about is eye safety. His productions do no audience scanning, a practice in which lasers are sent through an audience to create an effect that has been likened to being inside a fireworks show. Often a supplement to a live performance, audience scanning has also been used for artistry. Those who do audience scanning have to meet maximum permissible exposure levels in the US and a few other countries. Complying with those regulations presents an artistic challenge.

"Meeting the safe, legal audience scanning level 'dims the color,' which may make it a less exciting experience," said Sorcar.

Patrick Murphy is the Orlando, Fla.-based executive director of the International Laser Display Association. The trade group is working to refine existing international exposure standards while offering data that the safety record is good.

According to ILDA figures, over the past 30 years, at least 109 million people have inadvertently had their eyes directly exposed to 11 billion pulses of laser light during audience scanning. Over that time, there have been perhaps 4 or 5 proven injuries, the group claims.

"The risk to audience members from deliberate scanning using continuous-wave lasers is so low as to be practically zero," said Murphy. Fail-safe systems are being developed that will shut off a beam instantly if it ends up in the wrong spot. Some of these have been approved by government regulators, said Murphy, and more are on the way.

Safely getting up close

ILDA member ER Productions of London recently supplied technical and safety support to United Visual Artists for their Speed of Light project, which ran in London in April 2010. ER Productions director Ryan Hagan said that the lasers involved were high-power RGB systems.

The lasers might have been fairly standard, but the artistic needs did demand certain changes in how they were operated. In particular, there was a desire to allow viewers to get close to the art, much as might be done in other settings, said Hagan.

"When you go to a museum, you don't want to feel like you're being prevented from being able to see, or feel like you're not being a part of, the object that you've come to look at."

Doing that safely meant that ER Productions had to come up with new safeguards and unobtrusive protection that could run without an engineer or technician being present. The company went with infrared curtains, capable of shutting down the lasers within 20 ms, along with panic buttons so that the venue staff could manually disable the lasers if necessary.

As for the future, Hagan would someday like to get a single-diode white-light laser. That would allow the production of any color desired while keeping the systems small.

Sculptures of light

In addition to the performing arts, lasers have also found a home in the visual arts. An example of this can be found in holography, a technique that uses lasers to achieve a 3-D rendering of an object or scene.

Holographic portrait of Bishop Paul Moore, created with the aid of lasers. (Courtesy Ana Maria Nicholson)

That dry description doesn't do holograms justice, noted holographic artist Ana Maria Nicholson. "They're magical. To me, the whole idea of something being there and not being there, the whole ambiguity of the space, was very intriguing."

Nicholson has done many portraits of the famous over the past few decades, with numerous exhibitions of her work. The San Francisco-based artist characterized holograms as sculptures of light. They are both of this world and not, a paradox that Nicholson has been drawn to.

Magical as they may appear, holograms require the right technology. They need a coherent source, such as a laser, and a beamsplitter, which divides this light into a reference and illumination beam, with the latter reflecting off an object. The interference between this and the reference beam is captured by a recording medium. When the medium is properly illuminated, the original object is re-created.

Nicholson, who did her first holographic portraits in the 1970s, has seen tremendous technology improvements over the years. When she started, the laser required daily tuning. The latest devices need to be adjusted perhaps only once a year. Also, digital holography is now replacing the original analog approach. Other innovations are needed for holographic art to reach a mass audience. One problem has been that there's no way to convey a hologram on the printed page, at a website or in a video. The advent of 3-D displays may overcome that limitation.

Twisting perception

Multiplexed reflection hologram captured from the series "we're all looking," in which 26 participants with digital cameras captured Melbourne's urban landscape. (Courtesy Martina Mrongovius)

Artist Martina Mrongovius, an assistant professor at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany, said that what she finds most interesting about holograms is that what you see depends upon where you are.

"I use this in my work to play with spatial sense, such as an acceleration or twisting of perspective," she explained.

She starts with photographs and video of urban encounters, combining these into multiplex holograms. When she's finished, the viewer then moves around to see into the hologram, discovering a dynamic perspective that has been enfolded into space.

She noted that holograms are a challenging medium to work with. Color control, for example, is a question of chemistry and geometry, requiring practice to master. Installations have to be carefully planned.

Sometimes the effect is a collective "Wow!" by the audience. While that sounds good, Mrongovius cautioned that this can be so overwhelming that people simply stare rather than viewing the art from different angles and interacting with it.

Nonetheless, she loves the medium, although she is looking for further technological improvements. "I will be really excited when I can work with an active holographic material, something like where OLED technology is now," she said.

Breaking down barriers

Of course, not all visual artists who use lasers are making holograms. A case in point is Hiro Yamagata, whose laser-powered exhibitions have appeared in Europe, the US and Japan. In his work, the Los Angeles-based Yamagata has used lasers and moving, reflective cubes or mirrors to create complicated, overlapping multicolored patterns that engage the viewer. The effect, according to reviews in Nature and the New York Times, can be otherworldly.

An exhibition of art created with lasers and reflecting surfaces. (Courtesy Yamagata Studio)

That may be the case, but the technology behind this art is definitely of this realm. As a result, the artist's latest project, a permanent installation at the Hermitage in Moscow, has met with some delays related to funding, or rather the lack of it.

Laser technology plays a role in this, as the lasers that are going to be used are quite expensive. So advances in technology, particularly reduced equipment costs, could make pulling off projects like this easier in the future.

Exploiting developments in technology is nothing new for artists, said Yamagata. He also doesn't view the technical and the artistic as being distinct, which perhaps explains not only his projects but also how he implements them. It also is an example of a mindset that will continue to incorporate lasers in the arts. As Yamagata said, "I don't get it, dividing art and technology. They should all be combined."

Hank Hogan
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Published: June 2010
1. The additive process whereby the amplitudes of two or more overlapping waves are systematically attenuated and reinforced. 2. The process whereby a given wave is split into two or more waves by, for example, reflection and refraction of beamsplitters, and then possibly brought back together to form a single wave.
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