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A VJ mixes time-based images like a DJ mixes streams of sound. ‘VJ’: A coin termed shortly before the beginning of MTV in 1981, referred to the presenter of video clips, much as a traditional radio DJ presents musical tracks. As the electronic technology to make music and pictures grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the concept of the VJ or the DJ has grown to include much more. From within the laboratory of the dance club, the DJ and VJ are these days involved in not only mixing streams of media, but also affecting the overall mix with real-time effects and computer driven overlays of additional sound and image. Terri Dentry talks to John Power, a veteran in the VJ sub culture and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Design, RMIT.
Header images: John Power, VJ Remix
Original publication: Design Graphics: DG Magazine 2006
Republished with permission
To stand amid a performance of modern VJ art is for some an overwhelming emotional experience, and for others a totally jumbled array of sound and light that projects around them in a seemingly mindless manner that somehow moves from one thought to another. The role of the VJ is pushing the boundaries of digital graphics and human interaction. John Power, a lecturer in animation and design, explains this interaction, “Live video mixing tends to promote collaboration and the sharing of information and material, perhaps not unlike discourse among musicians.”

John explains, “this communal element of live video mixing was perhaps more personally pronounced for me due to a natural suspicion I’ve had since art school toward the romantic mythology of the painter as a solitary practitioner. VJ’ing is neither like painting nor working at the desktop interface; VJ’ing is a third environment that demands constant intervention and play within the moment.”

The images projected onto a screen contribute to an entire environmental effect that is impossible to repeat and as hard to document as a dance performance, so the best way (John would say the only way) to see these visual performances is to be there. The live performed video image is so ephemeral that, unlike other types of visual art, it doesn’t stand to accrue market currency or ‘promise’ as an attributable work ending up in a national institution or esteemed catalogue. Vision mixing and live Time-based collage may be emerging as a distinct mode of live performance.

Because of the time-based element of live vision mixing, it is common for VJs to have some training and experience as animators or in the techniques of film and video production. Because of the breadth of software now available for image making, it is common for people to converge on live image mixing from different areas. It is interesting to consider the leap into live performance for artists trained in creating static images (graphics design, printing, painting photography), since the use and manipulation of time is not as ‘native’ to those traditional areas. Computer programmers with a visual bent are attracted toward the potential for developing software for live visual manipulation.

As a local artist making images in a live context, John says he feels a debt to the culture of live experimental film and video mixing. This influence stems back to the experimental film work of Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, which began in 1963 and included the extensive use of optical printing and compositing techniques. Dirk DeBrun, a colleague of John’s at the AIM Centre at RMIT, created and wrote about experimental film work on 16mm and 8mm from the late 1970s; his achievements include support and involvement with the Melbourne Super 8 group, multi-screen live projection shows with collaborator Andrew Pam, and has written many articles on media art and artists for Australian periodicals.

Australian technological innovation has also made an impact in the development of live video jamming. The Fairlight CVI (Computer Video Instrument), a hybrid Analog Digital video processor, designed by Australian engineers Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie premiered in 1984/85 (shortly after the introduction of the Apple Macintosh). The CVI design anticipated live, or at least, gestural performance in that “it did not use a conventional ASCII keyboard (though in later models one could be attached), but rather a set of sliders and a small graphics pad about the size of the palm of your hand. Menu selections were made with a stylus rather than a mouse. The CVI allowed you to paint directly over the top of video footage as well as with video footage itself via an extensive series of effects. The Fairlight CVI encouraged experimental video art in Australia, notably in the work of Peter Callas.

Encouraged by Steve Middleton in 1998, John went to work as vision mixer at Christropher Coe, Brian Westbrook and Hannah Alameyehu’s, Centriphugal, (in the basement of 456 Queens St.) in a weekly residency that ran for over three years. Soon joined on this weekly video collage jam by Kim Bounds and Csaba Szamosy, they immediately set about remixing various archives of image media to the screen. John explains of that time “I found I was able to generate material of a particular type in the space of two hours, which would not have arisen from months of using conventional desktop software. Variation of approach at all times created respite from video image production problems centred on software. The hired video mixer we used (a Videonix MX1) provided methods for blending and juxtaposing two video signals on screen at once in a way that is typical of many similar hybrid analogue/digital video mixers or switchers.”

In October 1999, Newcastle played host to the second “This Is Not Art” festival where it was clear that the ‘third wave’ of live image making had arrived as a lively national scene. Over five days, 40 talented live video mixing artists from across Australia enthusiastically discussed their video mixing exploits in the dance parties and clubs of Australia’s cities. John explains, “If you talked to those people now, you’d find that their enthusiasm for lugging heavy equipment out of clubs at 5am has faded, but their fascination for the live video image has not. Talk tends these days more towards long-term projects, installations, public art and generally more narrative-driven theatrical forms of delivering live video.”

The moving image director’s primary task is to stage an audiovisual exposition of that which is comprehensible in words. Filmmakers are audiovisual writers who must communicate literary ideas on the screen. The literate culture of cinema, which requires the framing of visual spectacle by narrative, defines the roles in every part of the production/distribution apparatus: an extensive cycle from film script to film review. This apparatus assures that technical innovation in image manufacture will always be put to the service of narrative drama. While many DJs and VJs often refer to a loose notion of “taking people on a journey”, John tends to believe that a good deal of video mixing deliberately pursues a logic that is about an abstract response by the VJ to the environmental state or mood of the space they are working in at the time. This naturally takes the music in as a big consideration, but there are always unpredictable factors on the night.

It is natural that at a time of technical innovation that puts such a huge array of image manipulation tools into the hands of artists that visual experimentation and expression will spill out into previously unrecognized forms and forums. While music is part of the life blood of cinema, it also has a life elsewhere and people go to see musical performances for their own intrinsic value. It may be that the same is becoming true for complex visual spectacle where live visual improvisation, whether merely “eye candy” (as many would claim) or not, may nonetheless persist within our cultural vision.



Terri Dentry is an independent film journalist, animation producer, and the Director of thinkRED film & media in Melbourne, Australia.

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