“Chicago Light Passage”

Chicago Lakefront and Walter Kelly Gallery

Chicago Light Passage was a series of seven nighttime performances given by a “light brigade” of 16 artists and architects, a “field marshall” in charge of implementation and coordination, and John David Mooney, the sculptor who inspired and “estheticized” the plan.

First the practical aspects. Dr. Robert S. Rohde, a laser physicist presently with the U.S. Army Electronics Command, had early in his career been responsible for programming complex, precision, army marching drills. Using the same methods for charting sequences of interacting, overlapping, dipping, pivoting, intersecting, and fanning out movements, he designed a separate program for each of the 16 giant Hollywood searchlights in Mooney’s brigade, making up one vast overall pattern for the lights in the sky.

After one flashlight and two searchlight rehearsals, 16 people went “into the field,” each equipped with a searchlight and a notebook detailing how many degrees and in what direction to move the light beam, how long to leave it there, how many seconds after the preceding operator’s move the next movement would occur, etc. City ordinances and union rules made it necessary for an electrician to stand with each artist-operator, and a crew was also required to push three 350-foot barges positioned on Lake Michigan, these to hold the parts of Light Passage that demanded searchlights in the lake.

Meanwhile, at Control Headquarters, up on the 14th floor of the McCormick Inn, Field Marshall Rohde, with one assistant, sat in a double room, light coming only from a football game on the silent color TV, ate peanuts, watched through a mammoth picture window overlooking the Outer Drive, and communicated via walkie-talkie with all the operators and with Mooney in the field. Such details as “Number 101, are your generators on?” or “All red units change instructions and at 9:05 rotate clockwise two full revolutions and return to present positions,” or “All operators do movement number 6 at 10:20 rather than 10:40,” or “Call to McCormick, light number 109 is delayed because the artist is seasick on the barge,” or “Mooney to McCormick, this pattern really looks great out here,” or “Operator 104 to McCormick, we’re out of gas and cannot find the keys,” became unpredictable human elements in an otherwise carefully choreographed procedure.

But what about the esthetic aspects? The quality of the light beams in space is worth remarking on. They looked like transparent, hollow tubes. When backed against clouds they seemed to have a weighty, polka-dotted blotch at their tips, and near their point of origin they illuminated countless specks flying around inside. From different positions around the city, viewers could see different configurations of brightness, the beams appearing most intense to those toward whom they were pointed. Light reflections in the lake figured in each overall pattern, and because of the nature of light reflections and of light beams projected in space, the V-shaped overlapping configurations were patterns with no surface.

Such qualities often made it necessary to alter the programs which had only been based on abstract diagrams and studio models. Each performance night Mooney frequently radioed on-the-spot alterations to make the whole effect “look better” or “feel better,” changes which were then instantaneously communicated through McCormick Control to all the operators. The Sunday night Temple of Light performance, for example, framed an immense space, giving a sense of quiet unity to the buzzing chaotic city, and often making one wonder where the sky does start.

But Light Passage also brought up other issues, issues of competence, credit, and responsibility. John David Mooney and Robert S. Rohde met over a cafeteria table at Notre Dame University when Mooney was bored with graduate school painting and Rohde invited him to see the gas discharges in his physics laboratory. That led to Mooney’s Plasma Light Sculpture, whose interest was a fascinating stopped, starting, vibrating, circulating gas and whose mystery was that anything involving such a fascinating substance could then be accompanied by such insensitivity to spatial installation in the gallery and such slick commercial polish of the “holders” for. the plasma gas.

Even Light Passage was often interesting only for elements which had very little to do with Mooney. His one-man show of “documentation” at the Kelly Gallery after the performance included drawings and lithographs of V-shaped beams in purples with pink shading or blues with green shading or white with charcoal shading whose artistic level was remarkably lower than that of the whole Light Passage project. Indeed, any collaborative venture takes its significance from the way everyone works together, but here there is a definite question about what John David Mooney could accomplish on his own.

C. L. Morrison