In the windowless basement of the North Melbourne Town Hall, lasers dance across the walls. A couple of hazers fill the room with a low level of fog, which is pierced by sharp, bright beams of light. A straight line bows and curves and becomes a circle, then disappears altogether. A sheet of pink cuts the room in half, accompanied by a low electronic thrum.
The people making it all happen are as surprised by the light show as I am. Twelve people sit hunched over laptops, learning their way around the complex software and machinery that creates these projections. They’re taking part in a laser workshop run by accomplished light-and-sound artist Robin Fox. The session is designed to demystify a very technical process that has high barriers for entry, including expensive equipment, and some health and safety risks.
I’m given two direct warnings: don’t stare directly into the projection units, and don’t walk through the beams. The biggest dangers are ocular damage and getting burnt.
Fox has been creating installations with lasers for 15 years, and now he wants to share the skills behind his craft. Arts House (a City of Melbourne initiative for contemporary art) artistic director Emily Sexton introduces Fox to me as the “king of lasers”. He laughs at the honorary title. “I’ve never considered myself that, but I’ll take it,” he says.
“Lasers have been around for 60 years and they still make people gasp,” says Fox. It’s a mysterious medium that stuns audiences and strikes fear into the hearts of production managers and venue owners. The machines used to be the size of a small Datsun, and drew a huge amount of power. Now they’re the size of a laptop.
A Robin Fox show is a cut above the laser display at an EDM show. Colours flicker. Beams fork and divide. Patterns of electrical pitches translate into melodies of sound and vision. Fox says a lot of people compare his shows to raves in the ’90s. “I never went to raves in the ’90s,” he shrugs.
His work reminds me more of the scientists who make contact with aliens in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind by using a mysterious new audio-visual language created by machines.
Fox started working with lasers in 2004. He was working with oscilloscopes (an instrument that visually displays signal voltages) at the time, making sound and then looking at the visual representation of it. “I was fascinated by that mechanical synesthesia,” says Fox. “When I make electronic music I like to think of it as sculpting voltage.”
A lot of people see his music as aggressive and overbearing, but Fox has always seen it as beautiful. “I like loud things, intense things,” he says. “To me it’s an ecstatic state of real beauty.” Adding a visual component to his music solidified that. “When I made grinding distortion, it looked like a flower.”
He’s hosting the workshop so other artists can make use of his gear when he’s not using it, allowing them to make works they otherwise couldn’t, restricted either by budget or logistics. “I know a lot of people who’ve always wanted to work with lasers,” he says. “Now they know the basics, they can use my stuff.”
This is standard practice for Fox. He also runs MESS (the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio), a vast archive of vintage synthesisers Fox has stockpiled and inherited over the years. Anyone can become a member and come in and use them.
A lot of the people here have no experience with lasers, but they’re artists, and Fox seems to be getting just as much out of the exchange as they are. I sit at a laptop with artists Lichen Kelp and Meri Leeworthy, who are taking turns manipulating a complex interface of sliders, tabs and fields, controlling the beams emanating from a suitcase-sized black box which is humming with electrical strain. There’s a lot of trial and error. The machines are being stretched to the limit of what they were designed to do. When he first purchased one of these projection units, Fox was told it would last a couple of years before it blew out. It’s lasted over a decade so far.
Kelp and Leeworthy’s projection unit is emitting a high-pitched whine. “When you’re hearing those galvanometers go super high-pitched, don’t do that for too long,” Fox says gently. Then he laughs. “Like, this is amazing, I fully condone destroying these machines, but let it rest up a while.”
Tomorrow, Kelp plans to bring in a disco ball encased in a block of ice, to see how this odd mix of materials play together. Will the ice absorb the laser light? Will they refract against the crystalline structure? Will the ice melt under the heat of the laser? What do lasers look like when projected onto dripping water? Can Fox work around the added safety concerns of water meeting electricity?
“I don’t understand how electricity works,” says Fox. “I think it’s magic and I want to keep it that way. I never want to demystify it. But seeing it come to life, it’s a deeply satisfying thing. It connects those two parts of your brain, and does it so quickly you don’t rationalise it.”
Fox is taking part in Spectral, a week-long showcase of sound and light art at Arts House. His exhibition Quadra is a psychedelic installation for four lasers. Meagan Streader’s Echoes will use lights for architectural interventions. The week will culminate with the Melbourne debut of Fox’s Single Origin, a work he describes as a “concerto for laser”.
These are the artists at the forefront of sound and light art in Melbourne. We’ll have to wait to see where the dozen artists in Fox’s workshop will take the form. As long as they don’t blow up the equipment first.