REVIEW: Kerry Laitala pays tribute to the 1915 world's fair in "The City Luminous" on view at the California Historical Society
By Joe Ferguson
Electricity was nothing new a hundred years ago, but the country was far less wired. Most towns lacked anything more than a simple streetlight infrastructure. A trip to the big city revealed a nighttime world of bedazzled architectural giants. These sky-reaching odes to industry were however framed by snaggletooth strips of glaring, failing light bulbs. The technological weaknesses of illumination were inspiration for Walter D’Arcy Ryan, the founder and first director of General Electric’s Illuminating Engineering Laboratory.
Ryan was the lighting designer for the 1915 World’s Fair, or the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in San Francisco. Ryan’s landmark illumination designs are revisited in Kerry Laitala’s The City Luminous: Spectral Canopy Variation. Every night the California Historical Society gallery’s front and side windows are aglow with her impressive installation.
The stated purpose of the 1915 PPIE was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, but for San Franciscans it was also an opportunity to highlight its recovery from the 1906 earthquake. The fair was constructed on a 635-acre site that featured eleven exhibition palaces, twenty-one foreign pavilions, forty-eight state buildings, several grand courts, and a 65-acre amusement park.
World’s fairs were typically showcases for new technology, and Ryan wanted something special for this one. Instead of conventional illumination approaches, he promised there would “be no outlining of the Panama-Pacific Exposition buildings with incandescent lamps.” The centerpiece of his design was the Great Scintillator. Three nights a week a battalion of specially-trained Marines manipulated Ryan’s 48-searchlight machine, shooting beams of high-intensity, colored light far enough to graze Alcatraz Island and the Marin Headlands. Crowds gathered nightly to watch the foggy San Francisco sky get carved with vivid, chromatic patterns.
Kerry Laitala’s The City Luminous: Spectral Canopy Variation is a collage of documentary material of the PPIE, intercut with expressionistic video segments. It features Laura Ackley, author of San Francisco’s Jewel City, as one of the Star Maidens of the PPIE’s Court of the Universe--one of the largest and most ornate courts during the fair. The installation also features dancer Jenny Stulberg performing a tribute to Loie Fuller--a pioneer of modern dance and theatrical-lighting techniques.
Laitala’s piece cleverly reminds us that the works of innovative minds can be as impressive and inspiring now as they were a century ago. Her own work, though on a smaller scale, is no less affecting. Viewers pause in front of the glowing windows where her installation is projected before beginning their commutes home. Like those spectators a hundred years ago, they brave the chill of a San Francisco evening to glimpse at the possibilities of emerging technologies providing insight, hope, and beauty. Unlike a century ago, however, the technology required is far more within our grasp.
An excerpt video from The City Luminous is available here.
The City Luminous: Spectral Canopy Variation can be viewed after dark until midnight at the California Historical Society through June 28th.