Art at the Speed of Light

After physicists first demonstrated the optical laser in May 1960, scientists and engineers started thinking of what they could do with it. So did artists. By 1970, these communities, often collaborating with one another, transformed lasers into a novel artistic medium.

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The first optical (red) laser, tested May 1960.

For a short period, Elsa M. Garmire was part of the artist-engineer interactions that peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Raised by her chemical engineer father and her homemaker/violin teacher mother, by the age of 12 Garmire wanted to be a scientist. After doing an undergrad degree at Radcliffe, she started graduate school in MIT’s physics program. Her specialty was optics and lasers and she was advised by Charles Townes, MIT’s new provost who had shared the 1964 Nobel for his laser and maser research.

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Garmire and Townes, c. 1965

In 1966, Garmire moved to California for a postdoctoral position at Caltech. Caring for two young children, increasingly unhappy with her marriage, and stymied by the school’s treatment of women faculty, Garmire began to consider other options.

Intrigued by the use of technology “in a non-logical, artistic way” she contacted Billy Klüver in the summer of 1968. An engineer at Bell Labs, Klüver was the driving force behind Experiments in Art and Technology, the most prominent of the American organizations started in the 1960s to catalyze artist-engineer collaborations. Impressed with Garmire’s enthusiasm and background – Klüver did laser research too – he brought her into the E.A.T. fold.

An active member of E.A.T.’s branch in Los Angeles, Garmire organized, for example, a “Cybernetic Moon Landing Celebration” in July 1969 at Caltech. This included a “laser wall” Garmire helped build – a low-power argon laser beam spread into multiple lines of color that people could walk through.

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“Laser Wall” at Caltech, July 1969

Garmire captured her thoughts on the relationship between art and technology in a short piece published in a newsletter the local E.A.T. chapter put out. “Technological art,” she wrote, “is the first step toward eliminating this divinity of technological wonders…The technological artist approaches and utilizes the incomprehensible for his own ends in ways often irrelevant to the original ‘purpose’ of the device.”1

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Garmire in her lab, c. 1970.

Garmire, working in her Caltech lab, became increasingly interested in exploring the aesthetic possibilities of lasers. Initially, Garmire created “lasergrams” – still photographs made by shining laser beams through various diffraction media. Here’s one example from 1969. It’s similar in appearance to the active, changing Lumia pieces made by the Danish-born artist Thomas Wilfred.

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One of Garmire’s laser art images, 1969.

Another Garmire creation from the same period is less diffuse and more geometric in shape:

Another of Garmire's laser art pieces.

Another of Garmire’s laser art pieces.

Caltech’s public relations department generated attention for her artwork in 1971.  Unfortunately, a powerful earthquake on the day of Garmire’s opening at a local gallery overshadowed the publicity and also damaged some of her pieces.

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Garmire on local Pasadena TV.

Garmire also explored a variation on photographing manipulated laser images via live shows using a HeNe laser and rotating diffraction wheels and then filming the changing shapes and colors.

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Garmire and Ivan Dryer in her Caltech lab, 1970. This sowed the seeds for what eventually became Laserium.

The idea of doing live laser shows was already in the air in the late 1960s. For example, Lowell Cross, a multi-media artist, performed the first “public multi-color laser light show” in May 1969 at Mills College. Cross later collaborated with Berkeley physicist Carson D. Jeffries and composer David Tudor to create a laser light show for the interior of the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka. This used a laser deflection system which manipulated the four colors from a krypton laser. Highly sensitive mirrors in the system could vibrate up to rates of 500 times per second and were activated from the sound system in the Pavilion’s mirror dome.

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Cross’ laser piece for Pavilion, 1970.

Cross’ work was only one example of attempts by professional artists to adapt the laser for aesthetic purposes. Another notable effort was by Rockne Krebs, an American artist who made laser-based sculptures for several years starting in the late 1960s.

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Krebs with his piece Sculpture Minus Object, 1968

Over time, Krebs expanded his focus from small-scale efforts using lasers in rooms and galleries to ambitious outdoor installations that incorporated building and landscapes into the work. Harking back – unconsciously, most likely – to Garmire’s experiments, his piece The Green Hypotenuse (1983) used a 7 mile-long laser beam that stretched from the observatory on Mt. Wilson down to Caltech.

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The Green Hypotenuse, 1983

A key difference between Garmire’s “lasergrams” and installations made by artists like Krebs is the latter’s ephemeral nature. When the laser was turned off, the art disappeared. All that’s left are the sketches that went into its planning – “drawings for sculpture you can walk through” according to the title for one Krebs’ exhibit.

Physicist Garmire’s experiments in blending art and technology were only slightly less ephemeral. In 1973, she co-taught a course on art and technology to undergrads at Caltech before leaving on a lengthy sabbatical trip with her family. By 1975, she was a single parent trying to return to a career in science. She did this with a vengeance. She held faculty positions at USC and then Dartmouth, eventually becoming dean of engineering there. Along the way, she made a point to promote the professional activities of women in science and engineering fields.

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Garmire and her former advisor, Charles Townes, 2007

Professional accolades accrued –  election to the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was also made a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the American Physical Society, and the Optical Society of America (she served as OSA’s president in 1993). A new husband, her two kids, and her scientific career – these, instead of art, became the lights of her life.


  1. Elsa Garmire, “Art and Technology: Ruminations of an Engineer,” E.A.T. L.A. #1, January 1970, p. 5. []

Fog & Physics

Every day, hundreds of visitors to the recently relocated Exploratorium in San Francisco cross a pedestrian bridge between Piers 15 and 17. Here, if the timing is right, they can encounter and play within an immersive fog sculpture. “Fog Bridge” was conceived and designed by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya. Its existence as interplay between art, aesthetics, and physics can be traced back more than four decades.

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Fog bridge at the Exploratorium; photograph by Gayle Laird © Exploratorium

Nakaya’s work began in the 1960s during the brief but potent flowering of formal collaborations between artists and engineers. A signature piece of this “art & tech” movement was the Pavilion. Initiated and sponsored by Pepsi-Cola, the multi-media experience that was the Pavilion opened in the spring of 1970 as part of Expo ’70 in Osaka. In an era marked by Big Science – typified by expensive large-scale research collaborations – we can see the Pavilion as the aesthetic analog: Big Art.


The Pavilion at night; Osaka, 1970.

Organized by Experiments in Art and Technology (or E.A.T.), a group co-founded in 1966 by Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver, scores of artists, engineers, and staff worked to bring the Pavilion into existence. Meanwhile, Pepsi poured over some $1.2 million into funding their work.1


Part of the team that made the Pavilion possible.

The Pavilion was the apogee of the “art & tech” movement of the 1960s and, as Klüver often pointed out, one of the grandest art projects of the 20th century. Visually, the most striking thing about the Pavilion, at least from the outside, was how much of it you couldn’t see. This is because the designers of Pavilion decided early on to shroud (perhaps hide?) the Pavilion’s crumpled geodesic-style dome – what one E.A.T. member lampooned as a “Buckled Fuller dome” – with fog.2 This was no natural fog however, but an artificially generated veil of atomized water droplets crafted by Nakaya and engineered by a small California company.


Fujiko Nakaya, c. 2005.

Born in Sapporo in 1933, Fujiko Nakaya was the daughter of Japanese physicist Ukichiro Nakaya. He became well-known in mid-20th century for his path-breaking research on the science of snow.

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Ukichiro Nakaya, c. 1940

For decades, Nakaya – recently featured in a Google doodle – worked to perfect lab techniques for making artificial snow crystals. He then rigorously studied their structure and developed a classification system for them.3

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Nakaya in the lab, c. 1940.

The culmination of Ukichiro Nakaya’s work was a 1954 book published by Harvard University Press called Snow Crystals: Natural and Artificial. Snow flakes, he wrote, were “hieroglyphs sent from the sky.”

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Ukichiro Nakaya’s 1954 book

His daughter, Fujiko, took her father’s empirical approach to understanding a specific meteorological phenomenon and applied it to art. After graduating from college in 1959 at Northwestern University, she spent two years at the Sorbonne in Paris where she studied painting. Around 1966, she met Klüver and participated in the (in)famous 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering show at the 69th Street Armory in New York City. When Klüver and E.A.T. got the nod from Pepsi to do the Pavilion, Nakaya became a central person in the project. Besides handling logistics and smoothing over Japanese-American interactions, in Osaka, she designed the fog sculpture that would surround the building.

Producing fog from pure water isn’t easy however. In nature, fog is often produced when the air temperature drops until the air is saturated and water droplets condense. One way to generate artificial fog would be to boil water which, when surrounded by cooler air, condenses. Another would be to dramatically cool the Pavilion’s roof. Both of these approaches would require huge amounts of energy. But there was a third method, the one that Nakaya wanted to do. Fog can also be made by atomizing water i.e. basically spraying tiny droplets of water into the atmosphere.

To realize her aesthetic goal, Nakaya struck up a collaboration with a physicist based in Southern California. Thomas R. Mee moved to the Pasadena area after working on a variety of weather modification projects for Cornell University in the early 1960s. After working a few years for Meteorological Research Inc..4  In 1969, he started his own company. Initially, Mee Industries Inc. made niche instrumentation for weather and pollution studies.

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Tom Mee, shown in 1985.

In June 1969, Nakaya contacted Mee who had never heard of E.A.T. and was unaware of plans to combine art and engineering at the Osaka fair. But he was “impressed by her knowledge of cloud physics” – Mee had met Nakaya’s father and was well-aware of snow research – and her probing questions about how one might go about making fog.

Mee w agreed to meet with Nakaya and experiment with a method in which water was sprayed under high pressure through a very narrow nozzle to produce a dense cloud of tiny water droplets. More experiments and hardware development followed. A few months later, on a hot, dry August day in California, Nakaya and Mee met in his Altadena backyard, set up the equipment – 60 pin-jet nozzles connected to piping in which water was pumped at 500 psi – and successfully tested a prototype system. The result was a large cloud of artificial fog that partially obscured Mee’s house.

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Testing Mee’s fog system, August 1969.

The nest step was to scale up the system in Osaka for the Pavilion. Ultimately, 2,520 of Mee’s specially-crafted nozzles and 11,000 gallons of water an hour would enshroud the Pavilion in an ever-changing fog sculpture some 150 feet in diameter. The humid Osaka air cooled the air around the Pavilion so that the pure white fog that Mee’s system generated poured down over the structure in patterns that Nakaya wanted. To pull this off, Nakaya and a team of specialists carried out detailed monitoring of the environment around the Pavilion site to account for wind speed, humidity, and temperature.


Fog-shrouded Pavilion, Osaka Expo ’70.

After Expo ’70 ended,  Mee’s company eventually began to sell fog-making systems. A patent application he submitted in 1970 cites the possibility of using his system for agricultural purposes, either for cooling areas or frost control, as well as producing a “visible cloud” which can have a “highly decorative and entertaining effect.” By 1985, company sales were approaching $2 million. After some rough financial times as a public company, the company rebounded as Mee’s children – Tom Mee passed away in 1998 – took over the business and a controlling interest in the firm. The company saw a major expansion in 1997 when the Tennessee Valley Authority decided to install fog systems on its four dozen gas turbines to improve their efficiency. Similar orders followed and the company expanded into other areas such as providing cooling for data server installations for companies like Facebook. As of 2014, some 80 people work for the company.

Fujiko Nakaya and Tom Mee maintained a working relationship, with his company providing hardware for her art installations. Since Expo ’70, she has created a variety of fog works – gardens, geysers, falls – at sites around the world including the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. Besides the “Fog Bridge” at the Exploratorium, she recently crafted an immersive environmental piece called “Veil” for the Glass House, a work of modern architecture by Philip Johnson from 1949. At the Glass House, Nakaya’s fog appears every 15 minutes or so, obscuring the house (as it did with Pavilion) and making it appear to vanish.

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Nakaya’s fog sculpture at the Glass House, 2014.

As a young artist, Nakaya painted clouds. But, as she told The New York Timesthe activism of the 1960s made her want to interact more directly with the environment and society. Where the elder Nakaya wanted to control and classify the creation of ice crystals, his daughter’s approach is orthogonal – change, chance, and contingency dominate. Both are united, however, in combining physics with an aesthetic sensibility.

  1. Over $7 million in today’s currency. []
  2. This choice stemmed, in part, from the fact that Klüver and the other E.A.T. members disliked the Pavilion’s architecture, which Pepsi selected and a Japanese firm produced. Nakaya’s fog offered a way to obscure it. []
  3. I find Nakaya’s snow research just fascinating;there’s a good graduate student project here… []
  4. This company was started in 1951 by Paul MacCready (1925-2007), a Caltech graduate who later became famous for designing and building the Gossamer Condor, a human-powered aircraft. MacCready later started another southern California company, AeroVironment, which today is one of the largest manufacturers of unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”). []