Art + Design

Art + Design: Light Art in the realm of Radiohead

In my high school days I was deep into music (vocal, orchestral, live, and through the radio waves) and publishing. Prose, poetry, the school yearbook—I was paid for my first poem as an early teen, which gave me a false sense of security in pursuing a career in this arena, and later successfully petitioned the school district to view my journalism courses as vocational in nature (yes, I almost didn’t graduate from high school because I skipped home ec and woodshop in the ninth grade in favor of “electives” like orchestra and journalism). I grew up in a small town that was home to the 5th-largest state fair in the United States, so for three weeks a year it was transformed, with national acts like the Beach Boys, Ray Charles, and the top 40 flavor of the moment appearing on stage—the same stage used for the high school graduation. One of my first great breaks was getting to interview a now-forgotten band for inclusion in the yearbook, bringing together my two great loves.

Fast forward twenty-odd years to an art fair in Los Angeles. I had joined the staff of Chronicle Books as senior editor of Art + Design a few months earlier, and I was interested in projects that would be artistically edgy but also speak to a wide audience, in keeping with Chronicle’s goals. My friend and colleague Sant Khalsa said, “You’ve got to meet my friend Chris, I’ll bring him over to you.” After exchanging a few introductory pleasantries, Christopher Scoates gave me the verbal brief that became Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was: The Lighting and Stage Design of Andi Watson. I was hooked.

Over a million people saw Radiohead’s In Rainbows tour in 2008. Those fans were all treated to an aural and visual artistry that uniquely blends music and light art, resulting in an unforgettable immersion. Far fewer saw a Dan Flavin installation or a Turrell space in that same year. Could we draw connections based on the visual and bring both audiences—the fans of Light Art and the fans of Radiohead—to a place of contemplation and greater understanding? Could we make a book of an amalgam of lived moments, and, without motion or sound, still convey key elements of the experience?

To undertake the first publication that would examine not just Andi’s vision but the history of light as a component of the live music experience was exciting beyond belief. It was also a risk—Chris’s scholarship, along with that of his fellow essayists, is heavily researched and drew on a wide swath of references from the origins of modern art through technological advancements in a period of sea change. The hundreds of images included, along with reference images and technical drawings, needed to reproduce well, and it was costly to proof all of them. The exceptional designers Andrew Blauvelt and Matthew Rezac worked closely with us to achieve the production elements that would make the book a physical object complementary and in keeping with Andi’s art and design philosophy. And, it retails for under $50—hard to do for an art book these days, but important, we felt, for the audience we hoped to reach.

A risk worth taking? Absolutely. I am not alone in my fan feelings for this book—the New York Times to Print Magazine agree. This is a book I love to read, to peruse, to hold. It’s also my third book with Chronicle to bring together music and contemporary art—it’s like finding my way home.

Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Andi Watson on Studio 360 (WNYC).

Purchase: Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was: The Lighting and Stage Design of Andi Watson

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