By Richard McKenna / February 16, 2017
Of all the visual shorthand for a particular type of outmoded futurism, one of the most immediately recognizable—like the chrome lettering with which it is often paired—must be the light grid. Usually depicted as a network of glowing straight lines receding in perspective against a black background, occasionally with the outlines of mountains or the blush of dawn visible on the horizon, the light grid (or laser grid, or neon grid) today is in widespread use as the appropriated expression of a perceived aesthetic, a tongue-in-cheek signifier of the naïve dreams of Generation X. It is hard to believe that it once communicated such a potent sense of transformation and possibility, but it did just that. As rocket-fin styling symbolizes the sleek and innocent aspirations of the 1950s, the grid is now the symbol par excellence of “The Eighties,” a now-mythological time when a cocktail of affluence, Cold War tensions, and the encroaching power of computing combined to confer upon the dreamers of the West a form as memorable as it was ephemeral.
Grids have played a vital role in human life and our perception of our environment since the beginning of recorded history: we have been using them as the basis for our dwelling places since at least the third millennium BC, when cities divided into grids of straight streets were already being constructed in the Indus Valley, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. Grid-based cities were also a feature of Mesoamerican architecture, with cities such as Teotihuacan in Mexico covering areas of eight square miles.
The work of Hippodamus of Miletus, who sought to design cities that were regular and rational (unlike, for example, Athens, which had evolved spontaneously and chaotically), helped the grid plan gain widespread acceptance in 5th century BC Greece, and Alexander the Great would later deploy Hippodamus’ urban planning method across his extensive empire.
Influenced by Greek ideas, the Etruscans introduced the grid to the Italian peninsula, and the Romans themselves took it up during the period of the late Republic and early Empire: the standardization of their grid-based Roman castra or military camps, many of which later developed into towns and cities, meant soldiers could always orient themselves quickly, no matter where in the Empire they found themselves. The Empire’s expansion drove the development of grid-based towns and cities throughout its vast territories, and many European towns were later constructed upon the plan of the Roman colonial outposts that lay beneath them.
In China, the Kao Gong Ji (or Book of Diverse Crafts, a treatise on science and technology from the 1st century BC) stated that “a capital city should be square [with] nine main streets crisscrossing the city and defining its grid-pattern,” and grids had been used for urban planning in various parts of the country since the 15th century BC.
It was also during the 15th century that the concept of geometrical perspective began to take hold in the arts. Perspective formalized the rules for the reproduction of distance in images. With the help of a mirror, a painting, and a peephole (and influenced by the work of 10th/11th-century Arabic scientist and philosopher Ibn al-Haytham), Florentine architect and designer Filippo Brunelleschi demonstrated the technique to his fellow countrymen, and other architects, artists, and thinkers of the Renaissance world soon adopted it, the first published work on perspective—1505’s De Artificiali Perspectiva, by Viator, alias Jean Pélerintold, secretary to Louis XI—promoting the spread of Renaissance ideas about art and space throughout northern Europe.
Perspective proved to be hugely compelling to the eye and allowed artists to create vivid, powerful renderings of space and distance. The School of Athens, a fresco painted in the Vatican by Raphael in 1510, depicts the various notables of ancient Greek philosophy arrayed around the steps of a Brunelleschi-esque building whose lines recede into the distance. One of the best-known Renaissance examples of the power of perspective, it must have seemed as startling to those who encountered it for the first time as the oncoming train in the 1895 film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat or the 3D in 1953’s House of Wax were to their audiences.
While artists across Europe were experimenting with this new technique, the Spanish were adopting grid layouts during their colonization of the Americas, with King Phillip II specifying in 1573 that towns must posses a square or rectangular central plaza with streets running from its corners. And when one of the earliest colonial settlements in North America—the New Haven Colony—was established in 1638, it was designed on a grid, as was Philadelphia in 1682. In 1637, the year New Haven founder Thomas Davenport landed in Boston (a city not planned on the grid system, and thus one of the easiest to get lost in), French mathematician René Descartes published Discourse on the Method, a philosophical treatise that introduced the Cartesian coordinate system, which specified the position of a point upon a plane via the use of numerical coordinates. The finalized version of the geometric model of two dimensional space was based around a horizontal and a vertical axis, their intersections producing a grid that, in addition to allowing abstract mathematical properties, would prove revolutionary in allowing a shared, regular mapping of the world and our environment.
The most famous city grid in the modern world remains the one meant to combine “beauty, order and convenience” prescribed in the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan for the area between Houston Street and 155th Street, New York City. In their book Gotham, Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows describe the plan as embodying the “republican predilection for control and balance… [and] distrust of nature.” As North American settlers pushed westward, they took the grid plan with them.
This use of the grid as the basis for town planning continued to be employed across the U.S. until the end of the 1960s, by which time the computer was beginning to play an increasingly important role in the economy and the popular imagination—through film, advertising, and graphic design. The computers of the 1960s and 1970s used what were called vector graphics to economize on the processing load the video displays required. These were images whose lines were drawn directly onto the screen—like those of an air traffic control panel or oscilloscope—as opposed to being simulated by coloring in pixels as in the raster images that would predominate in the ’80s. The distinctive imagery that resulted—glowing geometric lines against a dark background—persisted in popular culture even after being supplanted by the raster model.
The 3D models created using vector graphics became known as “wireframe” images, and the first wireframe model of a human being was realized in 1964 by American graphic designer William Fetter, the man credited with coining the term “computer graphics,” in Fetter’s short animated film First Man, produced while he was working for Boeing. In 1972, Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke produced a short film called A Computer Animated Hand, excerpts from which were used in the 1976 sci-fi film Futureworld. A Computer Animated Hand was hailed as groundbreaking upon release, and Catmull later went on to become co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.
1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey featured wireframe graphics throughout, notably on the navigation screens seen in the film’s various spacecraft, as well as what is possibly the progenitor of the light grid itself: at the end of the film, the aliens who planted the monolith on Earth’s moon transport astronaut Bowman (Keir Dullea) to what appears to be a Baroque-styled hotel room or holding tank, where he lives out the remainder of his mortal life before being reborn as a “star child.” The room’s paving of large, glowing white tiles emphasizes the unreality of Bowman’s otherwise mundane surroundings, reducing them to props positioned temporarily on a stage floor to make the human guest feel at home. The scene is curiously reminiscent of another masterpiece of renaissance art, and one which predates The School of Athens: Perugino’s 1481–1482 fresco Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, which hangs in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The scene shows various personages, both holy figures and commoners, arrayed across a background of large marble paving slabs that recede into the distance. In the foreground, Christ transfers the keys of the kingdom, a metaphor for the transfer of spiritual power and authority, to Saint Peter. Given Stanley Kubrick’s famed obsession with details, it is not unlikely that the evocation of the passage of authority is purposeful.
Wireframe graphics also featured prominently in Robert Wise’s 1971 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain and 1977’s Star Wars, where computer animation—produced by George Lucas’ visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic—was used to create targeting computer displays, as well as a memorable presentation of the Death Star gleaned from plans stolen from the evil Empire.
In 1979’s Alien, a wireframe 3D rendering produced by British software engineering company System Simulation was used to portray navigation computer displays (and one of the film’s posters featured what looked peculiarly like a biomechanical perspective grid), while more wireframe images appear in another influential and visionary film from the same director, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), set in a 2019 Los Angeles where gleaming technologies coexist with noir grime. The following year’s WarGames featured more vector graphics—this time on the screens of the NORAD operational control room—devised by Colin Cantwell, a computer and special effects pioneer who had worked on 2001 and developed spacecraft for Star Wars.
In 1981, Information International, Inc. (or Triple-I) released Adam Powers, The Juggler, a short computer animation that, in addition to one of the first CGI anthropomorphic characters, featured various glowing grids, and the company (which also contributed visuals to Westworld, Futureworld, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) also provided effects for the film Looker (1981), whose plot involved fashion models being “topographically” scanned in order to be recreated as virtual simulacra. Looker‘s climax features a shoot-out against a glowing green grid, this one a virtual stage upon which computer-generated commercials are produced. The glowing matrix is dotted with fitted kitchens, sportscars, and other ephemera of Western consumerism, like some crass update of 2001‘s hotel room.
It was, however, two films produced by the United States’ most revered vendor of visionary art—Walt Disney Productions—that were most instrumental in carving the image of the luminous grid into the zeitgeist: 1979’s The Black Hole and 1982’s Tron.
The Black Hole’s opening sequence, which some sources cite as the longest computer-graphics shot yet produced at the time, featured a POV that roamed over, around, and through a green laser grid suspended against a dark starscape before eventually plunging into a wireframe rendering of the titular space-time phenomenon. Originally created for the film’s trailer, the sequence—produced by RA&A, a computer graphics studio founded in 1971 by computer animator Robert Abel and animator-designer-programmer Con Pederson (who had worked on 2001)—so impressed Disney executives that they decided to use it as the opening sequence of the film itself, accompanied by John Barry’s memorably eerie, churning score. (The effect was simulated by RCA for a 1980 television commercial featuring the SelectaVision VCR. Unsurprisingly, tech products throughout the decade were often advertised on neon-on-black perspective grids.)
Dean Edward Mitzner, Looker’s production designer, also handled production design on Tron, for which Triple-I and RA&A provided computer graphics. In Tron, the “game grid” makes up the world itself—a digital universe within computer company ENCOM’s mainframe into which protagonist Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is exiled (after being digitized by a laser) by the autocratic Master Control Program (MCP). Perhaps the film’s most memorable set piece involves the protagonists racing “light cycles”—vehicles leaving a solid wall of light behind them, designed by futurist visionary Syd Mead—across a glowing grid arena. Along with Mead and comic artist Jean Moebius Giraud, Tron‘s conceptual design team included Peter Lloyd, a British artist whose previous work included the glowing, Art Deco-ish lines of the gatefold cover of Rod Stewart’s 1975 LP Atlantic Crossing.
Over the same period, the entertainment sector was beginning to realize just how lucrative vector graphics could be in the development of video games. A company called Cinematronic and its offshoot, Vectorbeam (founded by Larry Rosenthal, the MIT student who had designed the arcade version of Spacewar!), produced several influential games. Taking inspiration from Star Wars, players of 1979’s Starhawk flew along a trench that rolled towards the viewer in endless wireframe perspective, attempting to fight off TIE-fighter- and A-wing-like enemies as they went, while players of the same year’s Barrier maneuvered a small triangle around a 3D perspective grid that disappeared into the cowl of the ominous hooded figure adorning the game’s cabinet.
One of the games principally responsible for imprinting the neon grid on the mind’s eye doesn’t actually feature one. Atari’s Battlezone (1980) was a first-person arcade game that used green vector graphics on a black background to create the impression of a vast 3D environment with a mountainous horizon. This space—inhabited only by the tanks of the player and the enemy, along with various transparent polygons and a waxing crescent moon—was both alienating and compelling, and the “periscope” through which players viewed the battlefield added to the game’s immersive power, placing them in an alternative world that was at once new and familiar. The same year Battlezone was released, the U.S. Army approached Atari to produce a version that could be used to train gunners for the then-new Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Many Atari staff, like most game and computer developers of the era, were restive at the idea of their work being used for the military, and only two prototypes were produced, one of which turned up years later in a dumpster. Other popular vector graphics games followed, including Atari’s Tempest (1981) and the official arcade adaptation of Star Wars (1983), which featured a sequence set on the surface of the Death Star and another set inside the space station’s trench, again rendered in glowing vector wireframe. (The controller used for the Star Wars arcade game was adapted from the one originally developed for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle trainer).
Another factor contributing to the creation of the light grid archetype was, naturally enough, the laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) itself. Heat rays and ray guns had been common currency in popular culture since at least the 1930s (and to some extent since the Martian heat-rays of H.G. Wells’ 1897 War of the Worlds), and the first working laser had been realized in Howard Hughes’ Hughes Research Laboratories in 1960. A red laser beam made an appearance in a famous scene from the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger as a weapon capable of slicing through metal and human flesh, and, in 1968, undergraduate musician Lowell Cross started using lasers to create light shows to accompany music. That same year, in Washington, D.C., artist Rockne Krebs began creating the laser sculptures that would earn him an invitation to Expo ’70 in Japan, where the Pepsi Pavilion featured a laser/sound installation (created by Cross and Carson Jeffries) that was seen by an estimated three million people. In the meantime, the work of Dr. Elsa Garmire (who developed a laser light “wall” in 1969 as part of Caltech’s celebration of the moon landing, and was subsequently invited to Expo ‘70) so impressed young filmmaker Ivan Dryer that he launched Laserium, a show featuring laser beams choreographed to music, which debuted in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park Observatory in 1973. By the late 1970s, laser shows were common features at discotheques and rock shows.
It was the fusion of these elements—grids, lasers, vector graphics, repetitive geometric patterns, and pulsing dancefloors (such as the one in Saturday Night Fever’s famous 2001 Club)—that made the laser light grid a pop culture trope. And, despite its aura of electronic futurism, graphic designers of the day report that perspective grids were often drawn by hand, with photographic diffusion used to make the lines glow. Perhaps it was their cost-effectiveness, combined with their more than passing resemblance to the gridded cutting mats present in most graphic design and photography studios, that contributed to making them a popular way of evoking the zeitgeist. Like its hackneyed ancestor, the chessboard, the grid was a cost-effective and easily-realizable method for creating a sense of modernity, sophistication, space, and scale—all you really needed was a ruler and a pencil.
At some point towards the end of the decade, though (perhaps after Time magazine featured one on its cover in 1986 to illustrate President Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense initiative), overused and sullied by consorting with what was increasingly becoming a passé vision of the future, the grid began to fall out of aesthetic favor, making way for the streamlined fractal chaos that would symbolize 1990s fashions.
Despite what retrospectively looks like ubiquity—particularly in those milieus linked to the then-burgeoning demographic of home computer users, science fiction readers, popular science buffs, and technophiles—a cursory review of the magazine and book covers of the ‘80s reveals that the grid was less pervasive than imagined. The renaissance it has experienced in recent years as an ironic avatar exploits a revisionist vision of the decade made explicit in initiatives like retrowave, which, at best, takes up the ontological investigation of perception and memory present in the vaporwave and hauntology movements. At worst, these movements cherry-pick the ‘80s collision of futurism and camp to create a world of faded primary colors, John Carpenter-esque synth, and alluring vector landscapes without engaging with the messy political, social, and aesthetic realities of the time they attempt to evoke. As we have seen, though, the grid was in many ways already a “retro” proposition by the time it began to impose itself, raster graphics having already won the war as far as popular computing went. So why, to paraphrase Tron’s Master Control Program, must we return to the grid?
The soothing reassurances of nostalgia and recognition are obviously part of the attraction, but there is something more. With its sense of an imaginary place that is at once empty plain and cityscape—both quiet and humming with possibility—the grid evokes the vast, uncontaminated spaces of the mind experienced in video games like Battlezone and suggested by nocturnal aerial views of that most photographed of cities, Los Angeles, a place internalized in our collective fantasies by decades of films, photographs, and music videos. The grid is also the feeling of power and control that comes with seeing the world through the heads-up display of a targeting computer, liberated of the confusing detritus with which it is normally strewn. The grid is the Classical piazza pared down to its essentials, freed of context and at once ancient and futuristic, a fillable mass of space and direction across which we can omnipotently swoop. The grid is a dream dimension that exists outside of time and yet which, for a small moment in the latter half of the 20th century, seemed eminently realizable.
Richard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.