VJing

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VJing is a broad designation for realtime visual performance. Characteristics of VJing are the creation or manipulation of imagery in realtime through technological mediation and for an audience, in synchronization to music. VJing often takes place at events such as concerts, nightclubs, music festivals and sometimes in combination with other performative arts. The term VJing became popular in its association with MTV’s Video Jockey but its origins date back to the New York club scene of the 70s. In both situations VJing is the manipulation or selection of visuals, the same way DJing is a selection and manipulation of audio.

One of the key elements in the practice of VJing is the realtime mix of content from a ‘library of media,’ on storage media such as VHS tapes or DVD disks, video and still image files on computer hard drives, live camera input, or from a computer generated visuals. In addition to the selection of media, VJing mostly implies realtime processing of the visual material. The term is also used to describe the performative use of generative software, although the usage is contested since no video is being mixed.

Historically, VJing gets its references from art forms that deal with the synesthetic experience of vision and sound. These historical references are shared with other live audiovisual art forms, such as Live Cinema (a term formerly describing the live musical accompaniment of silent movies, but which has grown to include the simultaneous creation of sound and image in real time), the camera obscura, the panorama and diorama, the magic lantern (an early image projector), color organ, and liquid light shows.

The color organ is a mechanism to make colors correspond to sound through mechanical and electromechanic means. Bainbridge Bishop, who contributed to the development of the color organ, was ‘dominated with the idea of painting music.’ Bishop states: ‘I procured an organ, and experimented by building an attachment to the keys, which would play with different colored lights to correspond with the music of the instrument.’

Between 1919 and 1927, Mary Hallock-Greenewalt, a piano soloist, created a new technological art form called Nourathar, which means ‘essence of light’ in arabic. Her color organ, which she named ‘Sarabet’ after her mother, required her invention of a number of new technologies. Her light music consisted of environmental color fields that produced a scale of light intensities and color. In place of a keyboard, the Sarabet had a console with graduated sliders and other controls, more like a modern mixing board. Lights could be adjusted directly via the sliders, through the use of a pedal, and with toggle switches that worked like individual keys.

In clubs and private events in the 1960s people used liquid-slides, disco balls and light projections on smoke to give the audience new sensations. Some of these experiments were linked to the music, but most of the time they functioned as decorations. These came to be known as liquid light shows. From 1965 to 1966 in San Francisco, the visual shows by artist collectives such as The Joshua Light Show and the Brotherhood of Light accompanied The Grateful Dead concerts, which were inspired by the Beat generation–in particular the Merry Pranksters–and fueled by the ‘expansion of consciousness’ from the Acid Tests.

The ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable,’ between 1966 and 1967, organized by Andy Warhol contributed to the fusion of music and visuals in a party context. The Exploding Party project examined the history of the party as an experimental artistic format, focusing in particular on music visualization – also in live contexts.

During late 70’s video and music performance became more tightly integrated. At concerts, a few bands started to have regular film/video along with their music. Experimental film maker Tony Potts was considered an unofficial member of punk band, The Monochrome Set for his work on lighting design and film making for projections for live shows.

British industrial group, Test Department, initially worked with Bert Turnball as their resident visual artist, creating slideshows and film for live performances. Industrial bands would perform in art contexts, as well as in concert halls, and often with video projections. Groups like Cabaret Voltaire started to use low cost video editing equipment to create their own time-based collages for their sound works. In their words, ‘before [the use of video], you had to do collages on paper, but now you present them in rhythm—living time—in video.’ The film collages made by and for groups such as the Test Dept, Throbbing Gristle and San Francisco’s Tuxedomoon became part of their live shows.

An example of mixing film with live performance is that of post-punk band, Public Image Ltd. at the Ritz Riot in 1981. This club, located on the East 9th St in New York, had a state of the art video projection system. It was used to show a combination of prerecorded and live video on the club’s screen. PiL played behind this screen with lights rear projecting their shadows on to the screen. Expecting a more traditional rock show, the audience reacted by pelting the projection screen with beer bottles and eventually pulling down the screen.

With the advent of the first audio synthesizers built by Bell Labs in the ’70s, image synthesizing was not far behind. An artist retreat in Owego New York called Experimental Television Center, founded in 1971, made contributions to the development of many artists by gathering the experimental hardware created by video art pioneers: Nam June Paik, Steve Rutt and Bill Etra, and made the equipment available to artists in an inviting setting for free experimentation. Many of the outcomes debuted at the nightclub Hurrah which quickly became a new alternative for video artists who could not get their avant garde productions aired on regular broadcast outlets. Similarly, music video development was happening in other major cities around the world, providing an alternative to mainstream television.

A notable image processor is the Sandin Image Processor (1971), primarily as it describes what is now commonly referred to as open source. The Dan Sandin Image Processor, or ‘IP,’ is an analog video processor with video signals sent through processing modules that route to an output color encoder. The IP’s most unique attribute is its non-commercial philosophy, emphasizing a public access to processing methods and the machines that assist in generating the images.

The IP was Sandin’s electronic expression for a culture that would ‘learn to use High-Tech machines for personal, aesthetic, religious, intuitive, comprehensive, and exploratory growth.’ This educational goal was supplemented with a ‘distribution religion’ that enabled video artists, and not-for-profit groups, to ‘roll-your-own’ video synthesizer for only the cost of parts and the sweat and labor it took to build it.

The rise of electronic music (especially in house and techno genres) and DJ club culture provided more opportunities for artists to create live visuals at events. The popularity of MTV lead to greater and better production of music videos for both broadcast and VHS, and many clubs began to show music videos as part of entertainment and atmosphere.

In the 1980s the development of relatively cheap transistor and integrated circuit technology allowed the development of digital video effects hardware at a price within reach of individual VJs and nightclub owners.

One of the first commercially distributed video synthesizers available in 1981 was the CEL Electronics Chromascope sold for use in the developing nightclub scene. The Fairlight Computer Video Instrument (CVI), first produced in 1983, was revolutionary in this area, allowing complex digital effects to be applied in real time to video sources. The CVI became popular amongst television and music video producers and features in a number of music videos from the period. The Commodore Amiga introduced in 1985 made a breakthrough in accessibility for home computers and developed the first computer animation programs for 2D and 3D animation that could produce broadcast results on a desktop computer.

A number of recorded works begin to be published in the 1990s to further distribute the work of VJs, such as the Xmix compilations (beginning in 1993), Future Sound of London’s ‘Lifeforms’ (1994), Emergency Broadcast Network’s ‘Telecommunication Breakdown’ (1995), Coldcut and Hexstatic’s ‘Timber’ (1997), and ‘The Mego Videos’ compilation of works from 1996-1998.

In the United States, the emergence of the rave scene is perhaps to be credited for the shift of the VJ scene from nightclubs into underground parties. From around 1991 until 1994, Mark Zero would do film loops at Chicago raves and house parties. One of the earliest large-scale Chicago raves was ‘Massive New Years Eve Revolution’ in 1993, produced by Milwaukee’s Drop Bass Network. It was a notable event as it featured the Optique Vid Tek (OVT) VJs on the bill. This event was followed by Psychosis, headlined by Psychic TV, with visuals by OVT Visuals. In San Francisco Dimension 7 were a VJ collective working the early West Coast rave scene beginning in 1993. Between 1996 and 1998, Dimension 7 took projectors and lasers to the Burningman festival, creating immersive video installations on the Black Rock desert.

In the UK groups such as The Light Surgeons and Eikon were transforming clubs and rave events by combining the old techniques of liquid lightshows with layers of slide, film and video projections. Another collective, ‘Hex’ were working across a wide range of media – from computer games to art exhibitions – the group pioneered many new media hybrids, including live audiovisual jamming, computer-generated audio performances, and interactive collaborative instruments. This was the start of a trend which continues today with many VJs working beyond the club and dance party scene in areas such as installation art.

The combination of the emerging rave scene, along with slightly more affordable video technology for home-entertainment systems, brought consumer products to become more widely used in artistic production. However, costs for these new types of video equipment were still high enough to be prohibitive for many artists.

The 2000’s saw the proliferation of affordable and faster laptops; the release of the Edirol V4 four-channel video mixer in 2001; a drop in prices of video projectors; and the emergence of strong rave scenes and the growth of club culture internationally. As a result the VJ scene saw an explosion of new artists and styles. These conditions also facilitated a sudden emergence of a less visible (but nonetheless strong) movement of artists who were creating algorithmic, generative visuals.

That decade saw video technology shift from being strictly for professional film and television studios to being accessible for the prosumer market (e.g. the wedding industry, church presentations, low-budget films, and community television productions). These mixers were quickly adopted by VJs as the core component of their performance setups. This is similar to the release of the Technics 1200 turntables, which were marketed towards homeowners desiring a more advanced home entertainment system, but were then appropriated by musicians and music enthusiasts for experimentation.

In 1998, Roland / Edirol released the V5 Video Canvas, which was a hybrid device featuring solid state storage of still images combined with a basic video mixer. The V5 marked an important transition point, where large music corporations saw an emerging market for video performance hardware. The products that followed the V5 have become the mainstay of VJ hardware setups.

Early desktop editing systems such as the NewTek Video Toaster for the Amiga computer were quickly put to use by VJs seeking to create visuals for the emerging rave scene, whilst software developers began to develop systems specifically designed for live visuals such as O’Wonder’s ‘Bitbopper.’

The first known software for VJs was Vujak – created in 1992 and written for the Mac by EBN artist Brian Kane for use by the video art group he was part of – Emergency Broadcast Network. In the mid-90s, Audio reactive pure synthesis (as opposed to clip-based) softwares such as Cthugha and Bomb were influential. By the late 90s there were several PC based VJing software available, including generative visuals programs such as MooNSTER, Aestesis, and Advanced Visualization Studio, as well as video clip players such as Motion Dive, ArKaos, and VJamm.

Programming environments such as Max/MSP, Macromedia Director and later Quartz Composer started to become used by themselves and also to create VJing programs like VDMX or pixmix. These new software products and the dramatic increases in computer processing power over the decade meant that VJs were now regularly taking computers to gigs.

The new century has brought new dynamics to the practice of visual performance. To be a VJ previously had largely meant a process of self-invention in isolation from others: the term wasn’t widely known. Then through the rise of internet adoption, having access to other practitioners became the norm, and communities quickly formed.

The VideA festival in Barcelona ran from 2000 – 2005. AVIT, formed in the online community of VJCentral.com had its first festival in Leeds (2002), followed by Chicago (2003), Brighton (2003), San Francisco (2004), and Birmingham (2005). Other events inculde the 320×240 festival in Croatia (2003), and Contact Europe in Berlin (2003).

The Cimatics festival in Brussels was a pioneering event, with a first festival edition in 2002 completely dedicated to VJing. In 2003, the Finnish media arts festival PixelAche was dedicated to the topic of VJing. While in 2003, Berlin’s Chaos Computer Club started a collaboration with AVIT organizers that featured VJ Camps and Congress strands.

LPM – Live Performers Meeting live video performers, visual artists and vj meeting was born in Rome in 2004 with the aim to answer to the need for creating a space-temporal referential field where to meet, know each other and share vjing related experiences, with an edition in Mexico in 2008, LPM is now an international meeting dedicated to artists, professionals and passionates of veejaying, visual and live video performance.

The MUTEK festival (2000–present) in Montréal regularly featured VJs alongside experimental sound art performances, and later the Elektra Festival (2008–present) also emerged in Montréal and featured many VJ performances.

In Perth, Australia, the Byte Me! festival (2007) showed the work of many VJs from the Pacific Rim area alongside new media theorists and design practitioners. Two festivals entirely dedicated to VJing, Mapping Festival in Geneva and Vision’R in Paris, held their first edition in 2005. As these festivals emerged that prominently featured VJs as headline acts (or the entire focus of the festival), the rave festival scene also began to regularly include VJs in their main stage lineups with varying degrees of prominence.

The US scene has been host to more workshops and salons than festivals. Between 2000-2006, Grant Davis (VJ Culture) and Jon Schwark of Dimension 7 produced ‘Video Salon,’ a regular monthly gathering significant in helping establish and educate a strong VJ community in San Francisco, and attended by VJs across California and the United States. In addition, they produced an annual ‘Video RIOT!’ (2003–2005) as a political statement following the R.A.V.E. Act (Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act) of 2003; a display of dissatisfaction by the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004; and in defiance of a San Francisco city ordinance limiting public gatherings in 2005.

Several VJ battles and competitions began to emerge during this time period, such as Video Salon’s ‘SIGGRAPH VJ Battle’ in San Diego (2003), Videocake’s ‘AV Deathmatch’ series in Toronto (2006) and the ‘VJ Contests’ at the Mapping Festival in Geneva (2009). These worked much like a traditional DJ battle where VJs would be given a set amount of time to show off their best mixes and were judged according to several criteria by a panel of judges.

Databases of visual content and promotional documentation became available on DVD formats and online through personal websites and through large databases, such as the ‘Prelinger Archives’ on Archive.org. Many VJs began releasing digital video loop sets on various websites under Public Domain or Creative Commons licensing for other VJs to use in their mixes, such as Tom Bassford’s ‘Design of Signage’ collection (2006), Analog Recycling’s ’79 VJ Loops’ (2006), VJzoo’s ‘Vintage Fairlight Clips’ (2007) and Mo Selle’s ’57 V.2′ (2007).

Promotional and content based DVDs began to emerge, such as the works by Mixmasters (2000–2005), Lightrhythm Visuals (2003), Visomat Inc. (2002), and Pixdisc, all of which focused on the visual creators, VJ styles and techniques. These were then later followed by NOTV, Atmospherix, and other labels.

Mia Makela curated a DVD for Mediateca of Caixa Forum called ‘LIVE CINEMA’ in 2007, focusing on the emerging sister practice of ‘live cinema.’ Individual VJs and collectives also published DVDs and CD-ROMs of their work, including Eclectic Method’s bootleg video mix (2002) and Eclectic Method’s ‘We’re Not VJs’ (2005), as well as eyewash’s ‘DVD2’ (2004) and ‘DVD3’ (2008).

The availability and affordability of new consumer-level technology allowed many more people to get involved into VJing. The dramatic increase in computer processing power that became available facilitated more compact, yet often more complex setups, sometimes allowing VJs to bypass using a video mixer, using powerful computers running VJ software to control their mixing instead. However, many VJs continue to use video mixers with multiple sources, which allows flexibility for a wide range of input devices and a level of security against computer crashes or slowdowns in video playback due to overloading the CPU of computers due to the demanding nature of realtime video processing.

In 2001, Roland / Edirol released the V4 Video mixer, a popular video mixer designed specifically for VJing. It features MIDI control to enable integration with digital music equipment, and quickly became adopted as a standard VJ mixer. Other companies (Korg and Pioneer, for example), following the success of the V4, launched visual mixers as well. The Edirol V8 came out in 2008.

Today’s VJs have a wide choice of off the shelf hardware products, covering every aspect of visuals performance, including video sample playback (Korg Kaptivator), real-time video effects (Korg Entrancer) and 3D visual generation (Edirol CG8). The widespread use of DVDs gave initiative for scratchable DVD players (Pioneer DVJ-X1 and Pioneer DVJ-1000). Many new models of MIDI controllers became available during the 2000s, which allow VJs to use controllers based on physical knobs, dials, and sliders, rather than interact primarily with the mouse/keyboard computer interface.

There are also many VJs working with experimental approaches to working with live video. Open source graphical programming environments (such as Pure Data) are often used to create custom software interfaces for performances, or to connect experimental devices to their computer for processing live data (for example, the IBVA EEG-reading brainwave unit, the Arduino microprocessor, or circuit bending children’s toys). The second half of this decade also saw a dramatic increase in display configurations being deployed, including widescreen canvases, multiple projections and video mapped onto the architectural form.

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One Comment to “VJing”

  1. Then there are those who utilize old-school light show effects video recorded and digitally enhanced and cut into clips to create a live experience which bridges the gap between traditional light show and modern VJ experiences, improving on both.

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