Monday, October 4, 2010

Regarding Laser Pointers

This past weekend I saw The Flaming Lips in Oakland. It was utterly spectacular - the best show I've seen in ages. The picture above pretty much says it all. A huge love-in, this massive explosion of positive energy with confetti, balloons, rock 'n roll and lasers.

So I wanted to talk for a second about that last thing - the lasers. The Lips seem dedicated to doing whatever they can to bring their audience into the show with them, to give us a sense of agency around what is happening onstage. Hence the confetti, the balloons, lead singer Wayne Coyne rolling over the crowd in a giant inflatable plastic ball... but of all of the tricks that the band used to draw us in, the laser pointers were the most ingenious.

As the soundcheck drew to a close, I started noticing little red dots cropping up all around the stage. "Great," I thought, "some jagoffs brought their laser pointers." But soon three dots became ten became fifty, and when a staffer with a giant box walked by I realized... the band is handing out laser pointers. Pretty soon everyone in the house had one - there were dots flying all over the stage, tiny red fireflies dancing from amp to drum to video screen to chandelier.

As I got my own and started pointing away, I grinned and realized that this was going to be brilliant. The tiny thrill of finding my own dot up on the wall amidst the others, moving it just so that I could tell it was mine, going over to another stationary dot and dancing around it, possibly grabbing the attention of another person, a stranger in the sold-out crowd. I felt somehow enhanced, as though I had the freedom to touch anything I could see.

The laser-dot represented my own agency; my tiny bit of will, a small way in which I was making the show my own. No matter the magnitude of the events onstage, I had a bit of input.

It was a brilliant bit of show-design, and it capitalized on something that I have come to enjoy so much about gaming - interaction, a bit of a say over even the largest of aesthetic experiences. When I play through a game, my effect on the experience may be fairly minimal (Half-Life 2) or it may be so thorough as to render my experience unique (Minecraft). Either way, the fact that I had an effect fundamentally changes the nature of my experience, the relationship between creator and audience.

Midway through the show, the screen behind the band lit up with a giant message: "Ready your laser pointers!" We complied, and a countdown began. "10... 9... 8..." red dots danced about, frantically zigging about the walls and props, "4... 3... 2... 1... AIM AT WAYNE!"

The lights went out, and just as a thousand points of light struck him, Wayne held up a mirror. Our combined laser-pointing efforts bathed the stage in red, our beams reflecting scattershot through the fog of the smoke machine.

The music became subdued, and Coyne held up a balloon lit in jagged, frenetic red. As he tossed the balloon out over the crowd, it was almost as if the energy from our pointers kept it afloat.

"That's beautiful," he remarked. And it really was. 
blog comments powered by Disqus