Single Wing Turquoise Bird flashes back to its ‘60s light shows

Single Wing Turquoise Bird members include Michael Scroggins, David Lebrun, Amy Halpern, Larry Janss and Peter Mays.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

It’s not your typical Vegas-style light show.

Single Wing Turquoise Bird formed in 1968 to create light shows at the Shrine Auditorium for the likes of Cream, the Who and the Velvet Underground. The experimental arts collective devised baroque visual pastiches of ancient and modern art rooted firmly in the psychedelic vocabulary of the time.


Art collective: A July 21 Calendar section article on the art collective Single Wing Turquoise Bird said member Shayne Hood was in his 40s. Hood is in her 40s.
After nearly 35 years apart, the seven-member collective re-formed, and it’s staging its latest installation at the Young Projects gallery in West Hollywood through Aug. 9. The show follows the group’s full-room installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, a grant from the Getty Research Institute to perform at UCLA’s Broad Art Center and two sold-out shows in April at USC. David James, a USC professor of cinema and expert in avant-garde film, calls the group’s work “the premier light show in Los Angeles and one of the best in the world.”

It’s a modern renaissance for these underground artists, brought about by a digital generation’s interest in all things analog, as well as a growing respect for art and music once dismissed as merely “psychedelic.”


“We’re not a sort of Beatles revival group. We embrace that era, but we’re all artists who have been working for 40 years,” filmmaker David Lebrun says of himself and collaborators Amy Halpern, Shayne Hood, Larry Janss, Peter Mays, Jeff Perkins and Michael Scroggins, most now in their 60s and 70s. (Hood, a more recent addition to the group, is in his 40s.)

The Young Projects exhibition includes nine works by the individual artists, but the heart of the show is a 47-minute collaborative film called “Invisible Writing.” It is one of the few recordings of the group’s live visual improvisations.

The film unfolds like a lucid dream: Bubbly liquid floats across images of disembodied faces as yellow and green orbs flash rhythmically and what looks like tiny fluorescent fish swim beneath the surface of dozens of abstract designs.

Using up to 14 projected images at a time, the group operates like an optical jazz band, riffing and scatting to create ephemeral “films” scored by live or recorded music.

Five members of the group gathered at the gallery recently to discuss why people are once again interested in the work.

“Psychedelic originally means ‘mind manifesting,’” says Scroggins, who is exploring experimental animation and immersive virtual reality as a faculty member at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. “Young people have always rediscovered their spiritual basis, sometimes by using substances like entheogens. That didn’t go away. It’s just no longer a pop-culture phenomenon.”


Tapping into deeper states of consciousness is still part of Single Wing Turquoise Bird’s mandate, but now the silver-haired members are more interested in the process of creation than they are in the means through which their audience discovers the art’s effect.

Hulking 16-millimeter projectors, Navitar Xenon 750 slide projectors and other bulky early audiovisual equipment are the tools of their trade, as are custom analog projectors outfitted with mirrors and spinning wheels cloaked in colored gel — devices with names such as “Gizmotron.”

Members of the group joke that they recently graduated from ‘60s technology to ‘80s technology thanks to the employment of dated devices like an Edirol four-channel video mixer.

“My gallery is devoted to video, and I’m constantly talking to young people from around the world,” says gallery founder Paul Young, standing next to a projection of bubbling colored liquid. (Young, formerly a Times contributor, has focused on Young Projects since 2009.) “I think they like it because it has a handmade quality. It feels earthy.”

After a performance at UCLA, a couple of Las Vegas VJs approached the group. Lebrun taught the VJs how to shoot with a Super 8 camera, and the VJs showed him how to do advanced work in Adobe After Effects.

“They love the manual projectors and the sprockets,” Lebrun says. “When young artists develop their own film, it’s very tactile. A lot of art now is pure pixel.”


Pixel, however, has the distinct advantage of being portable.

In its early years, Single Wing Turquoise Bird could transport all of the equipment for a performance in a single truck, says Mays, an experimental filmmaker with a fondness for occultist Aleister Crowley and mandalas. Those days are long gone. The USC show took several trucks and a production manager.

“It’s hard to remember,” Scroggins says, “but my feeling is that we’ve gotten a lot better.”

The enduring importance of Single Wing Turquoise Bird lies in the sophistication of the visuals that the group creates, USC professor James says. “They are improvising with each other in the same ways as classic jazz bands like Coltrane and Miles Davis. They are masters of what they do.”

Back at the Young Projects gallery, Perkins stands in a small back room that is cloaked in black while his four-slide projection called “Circle Piece” flashes blinding white circles of various intensity and sizes in rapid order. He stares at the piece, remembering how the painter Sam Francis took Single Wing Turquoise Bird under his wing, acting as its patron. (Perkins’ 2008 documentary about the artist is what brought the Birds back together for an impromptu performance.)

The artist walks out of his room and into the space where “Invisible Writing” loops to its hypnotic Miroslav Tadi¿ soundtrack. He stands staring at the flickering screen, slightly hunched at the shoulders. A small smile crosses his face.

“I like it,” he says. “It’s finally getting to me.”


Twitter: @jessicagelt