YOU LIE on your back staring up into darkness 38 feet deep. Floating in the air, a helix of light glows: little spines on a curving axis, like palm fronds. Another helix, and another. Around them coils a spiral of light 17 feet across. Electronic beats pulse softly.
The spines, ribs of luminescent Lucite tipped with bright light, seem to turn in strobe flashes. The circling neon goes red and blue, then white. Beads of light chase each other up the spiral. For almost nine minutes, the apparition flickers, jiggles, swirls, bounces, spins, wiggles and flips end over end like a bunch of batons twirled in the air.
It's called Swirling Helix, and it is the work of Milton Komisar, who has spent more hours than he wants to count erecting it at the Washington Project for the Arts, 404 Seventh St. NW. It will be there for about three months.
"The only way to see it, really, is to lie down on the rug and look up," says the 47-year-old Californian. "The room holds about 20 people, and when they're all lying there it gets sort of tribal. Like sitting around a fire."
This is the fifth such piece Komisar has done since he started working in the new medium 10 years ago. Sponsored by Apple Computers, his sculptures have been exhibited from San Francisco to MIT. They are delightful and, if you watch long enough, hypnotic.
"I had a need to do something but no insight how to make it happen," he says. "I was groping for a means of expression. I used to do large environments like Segal and Kienholz, but I'd pushed that to the limit and I was ready to make a creative leap."
A philosophy major (BA at Vanderbilt) who strayed into art (San Francisco Art Institute and MA at the University of California), he was hardly your average electronic whiz kid. But he saw these lights swirling in his mind and needed to find a way to make them real.
"It was kind of like animation, like an animation film, but in real space," he says. "People told me there was no way I could do it unless I knew somebody at IBM or something."
He bought an Altair computer kit by mail, primitive by today's standards. It took him two years to get it running. By the time he had it doing what he wanted, he had spent $5,000. By then, so fast was the field expanding, he could have bought the same thing for $500 ready-made.
"This was before the personal computer came along, before 'Star Wars.' At the time, no one had any idea where this technology would go, what its uses would be. I didn't try to learn the whole technology, just what I needed."
Three years ago Komisar brought in some expert help, a professor of communication sciences at Cal named Michael O'Malley. They have collaborated ever since.
"You need lots of support for a project like this, and space and helpers. It takes all kinds of people who know how to do all kinds of things. Al Nodal (the WPA director) wanted me to do this one here."
He is getting a few commissions now, though his art still makes some architects nervous. He handles his third-generation Apple II with aplomb and two fingers. Some people, he says, make art out of technology. He invents technology to realize his art.