Vague Terrain 09: Rise of the VJ

The energy behind the growing practice of audiovisual performance is intriguing; what is it that sparks the passions for creators and theorists working within this art form? The diversity of the concepts, techniques, and aesthetic qualities is remarkable, suggesting that this practice is not rooted in any one particular mindset, but instead, emerges from a wide range of trajectories that are converging within a contemporary form of media based performance art. However, live video mixing performances certainly address a hunger for immersive and synaesthetic sensory experiences where aural and visual elements work together to create a whole that is something beyond the sum of the parts. To experience the live performance of a talented VJ (or live cinema artist, if you prefer) alongside the talent of an innovative sound artist is a treat indeed; the senses are enveloped and the mind is tantalized into a world being spun into existence on the spot. Perhaps it is this feeling of immediacy and immersion that is so rewarding for performers and audiences alike. Perhaps it is the intense bombardment of the senses that does it. Or perhaps it is the richness of the dialogue between technology, spatial architecture, and human expression that speaks to us so powerfully. At any rate, I am pleased to present to you a carefully selected sampling of a few of the brightest creators and theorists working within live audiovisual performance today. Some of these artists define themselves as VJs and some do not, but they are united with their passionate innovation, critical thinking, and attention to detail. I have been impressed and moved by the work within this issue, and I am delighted to be able to share some of the fruit of their labours with you.

The two interviews in this issue present some interesting places to explore some of the concerns informing contemporary audiovisual performance culture. Peter Kirn's video interview with Solu (recorded at the Byte Me! Festival in Perth, Australia two months ago) provides one artist's overview of some of the issues facing people working in this field. Solu touches upon the question of the significance of the nomenclature for practitioners in this field (VJ vs. live cinema artist), working conditions, and gender representation. Michelle Kasprzak's interview with Jaygo Bloom discusses how artists can push the functions of new and old technologies into new "participation devices" where interactivity is a key to communicating with audiences.

Interactivity is a critical theme within this specific form of audiovisual performance. Ryan Stec's article discusses the role of the synaesthetic experience for audience members and how it relates to the question of performativity within technologically-driven audiovisual performance. Connected to this is Michael Betancourt's examination of the fine line between consumption and engagement on the part of audience members and how it relates to the problem of "wallpaper" visualizations vs. fine art practice. Tim Jaeger's article places the VJ at the forefront of new media innovation, suggesting that much of the unique reward in this field of performance is within the "realtime feedback" cycle between audiences and the performing artists.

However, the social and the historical dimensions of live audiovisual performance are also interactive, as VJs engage in dialogue not only with audiences, but also with history, technology, and other creators. Lara Houston's in-depth study of the work of Gilbert Simondon and the practices of VJs draws intriguing lines of thought through to understanding how relations with technology inform, and are informed by, collectivity and individuation. The history of audiovisual performance technologies is examined in Ziv Lazar's article, which also looks at how both club culture and the avant-garde have developed distinctly different veins of live video mixing performance, further problematizing the term "VJ". Xárene Eskander's examination the role of technology as a tool for social change references the radical urban politics of the Situationist International group and draws parallels to the deterritorializing guerilla activities of the San Francisco Bay area "Video RIOT!" events. Describing another scene is Ana Carvalho's writing on the "VJ Theory" project and website, which is a node of contemporary intellectual discourse surrounding the VJ and other forms of realtime interaction.

Several of the videos in this issue work with concepts of spatial, social, and technological architectures. Kero and Neubau present a hypnotizing de/reconstruction of vehicular industrial design, relating mechanical architectures to the organic. Defasten's contribution is an intimate scape of interior life within a seductive postmodern realm of order, disorder, and fragmentation. Glitchy and dark, Frances Theberge suggests a space of technological indeterminacy and perceptual meltdown. The collaboration between VJ Pillow and VJ Madamoiselle abstracts the cityscape of Hong Kong with crisp vibrancy and a distinct sense of place. Speaking to distinct place with contested histories, we find the work of Mo Selle and her expressions on the 1963 Singapore Riots, as well as Jackson 2bear's video-turntablism piece on the problematic representations of First Nations people in popular culture. These two pieces, in particular, are significant in demonstrating the re-visioning of political discourse that can be further enabled by VJing technologies.

Three of the works fall under a more abstract category, teasing the senses and creating an unfixed, yet distinctive psychological space. kelleY boleN and Jake Hardy (aka Holzkopf) present a live recording of a collaborative improvisation with layers of unusually animated and textured materials and a sense of playful interaction between the images and the sound. Visually, Leeane Berger's acid-toned, crunchy squares are highly mechanical looking, but the delicate flickering transformations move at a speed that is both fast and slow at once, as the motion details are caused by the live processing of sounds she performs on a circuit bent children's toy guitar. The video by VJzoo, ChrisM and Fenris is a delightful, tongue-in-cheek journey through their masterful processing of vintage 1980s Fairlight gear, led by none other than a banana. These pieces provide a small glimpse into the diversity of practices in abstract, improvised audiovisual performance.

I would like to take a moment to express my gratitude to all of the artists and writers who have shared their work with us for this issue of vague terrain. What an amazing group of people! It has been exhilarating and inspiring to connect with all of these talented creators. I hope that some of my enthusiasm is infectious, as I am highly passionate about both audiovisual performance and the potential for new technologies to further enable the establishment and strengthening of translocal networks. My sincerest gratitude and respect also goes out to Greg J. Smith and Neil Wiernik. Without their support, patience, and hard work, none of this could have happened.

Carrie Gates, Saskatoon
March 2008