Tim Jaeger

VJ as Hyperindividual

Moving image culture is one that is still in development, and continues to increase in size and scope. Consider the multiplicity of formats that are available: images downloaded online, images on PDAs, screensavers, computer-generated animations, OpenGL renderings, non-linear video to name a few. This short article serves up some thoughts and instances of how VJs are the new 21st century 'hyperindividual'. The question remains: is the 21st century able to handle this mode of processing, distributing, and remixing information? Even as I re-edit this article, I am using not the familiar Microsoft Word, but rather TextMate, a common GUI interface for software development. In one click I'm back to some code, a website, and something rendering out in Final Cut Pro. These thoughts aren't just theories, they are lived and internalized. I can go to YouTube and see unlicensed works of mine and other artists that have been remixed by people from around the world into new narratives, new tales. VJing and VJs are the 'avant-garde' (used half-jokingly) of our 21st century media landscape.

Being able to parse through this dense web of commercial, political, and artistic (and various crossovers) of images in the context of everything from production to consumption (software, hardware, wetware, devices), environments (cinema, public art, web-based, projection, generative), communities (motion picture guilds, VJ networks and web sites, clubs, alternative venues, festivals), and contexts (collaborative, modular, singular, spatial) is not only important, but useful in understanding how modular and 'hyper' VJ culture is.

"Home is where my laptop is." - Bjork, as quoted in Empire Everywhere, On the Political Renaissance of Space (Rudolf Maresch)

The hyperindividual has been sprouting up in numerous places these days, but has a particular resonance for the moving image community. William Mitchell in Me++ sums it up in a few succinct phrases that I'll take and roll with: "Now the body/city metaphors have turned concrete and literal...My reach extends indefinitely and interacts with the similarly extended reaches of others to produce a global system of transfer, actuation, sensing, and control. My biological body meshes with the city; the city itself has become not only the domain of my networked cognitive system, but also the spatial and material embodiment of that system" (p.19). These biological metaphors function in a way to extend the body out into larger systems, ones that are increasingly global.

Maybe this is why so many new VJs are using the city as a metaphor for the extended body, and are dealing with global issues and media rather than 'personal' ones that certain video artists from the '70s, '80s and '90s used (such as long, dramatic monologues delivered to the camera). The increasing focus from Live Media artists for these abstract and 'global' (in the sense of being identifiable, recognizable by people all around the world) images of buildings, lines, shapes, etc. is that they act as greater attractors to draw people in and extend the network. Works by 242 Pilots, VJ Scott Brown, and VJ Dino Lava all use clips of cities that are abstracted to varying degrees. Hyperindividuals: those with the ability to adapt, survive, and maintain themselves in environments shaped by large amounts of noise, change, and instability.

Many-to-Many Montage

One instance of this new hyperindividuality is the many-to-many montage.

In film history there were eras like the 1920s in which Sergei Eisenstein developed the narrative [montage], or a way to combine two dissimilar clips together in a way that made sense, or furthered the narrative of the film in a new, different kind of way. Net artists of the '90s like Olia Lialina pioneered a new form of non-linear digital montage, where there were still traces of narrative at play in pieces like "My Boyfriend Came Back from the War". Now, in our globalized contemporary info-society we are in a situation where, to paraphrase Lev Manovich paraphrasing Rem Koolhaas, "the point is to connect everything to everything else."

What situations like the global Share or Rhizome OpenMouse do is set up a many-to-many montage that "abandons the surface in favor of the situation, abandons the narrative in favor of the event, abandons immersion in favor of the atmosphere" (Timothy Druckrey). This 'rapid prototyping' of information flows lets practitioners and audience engage in a flow where bits and pieces of a set that hit or miss are immediately recognizable.

Space/Time and Connectivity

Space and time are important to live media practitioners, but the new ways that this increased modularity and flexibility fits into the scheme of things isn't an effort to develop a future-oriented cosmopolitanism, but the new electronic capacity to simulate a tribal landscape that inherits some of the traditions that tribal man once experienced. Space is an electronically decentralized network (p2p), and time is a loop, or loops over time.

Marshall McLuhan wrote about these traditions, and how the differences between Western literate man and non-Western tribal man stem from the difference between rational and acoustic (or haptic, tactile) space. He noted that "Audile-tactile tribal man partook of the collective unconscious, lived in a magical integral world patterned by myth and ritual, its values divine and unchallenged, whereas literate or visual man creates an environment that is strongly fragmented, individualistic, explicit, logical, specialized and detached." It is this tribal, mystical tradition that is being resurrected in the forms of drum circles, DJ jam sessions, raves, festivals, and other events where temporary 'tribes' form for a duration and then disassemble naturally.

McLuhan also noted that "the man of the tribal world led a complex, kaleidoscopic life precisely because the ear, unlike the eye, cannot be focused and is synaesthetic rather than analytical and linear. Speech is an utterance, or more precisely an outering of all our senses at once; the auditory field is simultaneous, the visual successive. The models of life of nonliterate people were implicit, simultaneous and discontinuous, and also far richer than those of literate man."

It is precisely this synaesthesia that characterizes the shift, or move, towards increased networks and spaces where all of one's senses are tuned, activated, 'on'. Peer-to-peer file-sharing is a way of accessing, or accelerating, this decentralized tribal network. Increasingly, it's about getting more out of the tribe as well. Now that the software and tools we use are increasingly modular, peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent or DC++ allow for a rapid sharing of movies and data that has been up to this point archived on formats such as DVD, VHS, etc. Newer networks like the Open Video Archive help archive works in a slightly more centralized format. It is these 'electronic tribes' that people are cultivating for their synaesthetic content. These communities are often self-organized, and allow for the rapid dissemination of information, and connecting (potentially) 'everyone to everyone else'. The benefits of these systems are that everyone gets more: by sharing, you also have the opportunity to accumulate.

Realtime Feedback

The VJ picks up where motion graphics designers, video artists, filmmakers, and even animators leave off. All of these disciplines are very subject to time, labor, and honing a final product to present to a client (or dealer). Once it's done, it can be copied ad infinitum via the internet, but that still doesn't leave us fulfilled for that other kind of social interaction we have that warehouse party/rave culture introduced: a vibrant social interaction fueled by media, drugs, and other stimuli that provide an external sense of belonging - a tribe, a necessary function in an increasingly socially-divisive world where things that function as 'tribes' are backwards looking fundamentalist religious groups, and institutionally-sanctioned clubs without a free-floating amorphous element. The point being to be/to get together, to see one another, and to see what will happen. Part of the lure of club culture for VJs was the ability to develop a realtime feedback of what works and what doesn't by watching people's interactions with your work (something that's extremely difficult to do in a gallery setting). A VJ can see what images, sequences, and rhythms are having a positive effect on the crowd. Because it is possible to shift gears mid-performance, the VJ can automatically adjust to the audience's realtime feedback of his/her work.

Rapid Prototyping

The 21st century VJ can rapidly prototype works of art using various software. Back in the 1970s, Ted Nelson wrote that "movies and books, music and even architecture have for all of us been part of important emotional moments. The same is going to happen with the new media. To work at a highly responsive computer display screen, for instance, can be deeply exciting, like flying an airplane through a canyon, or talking to somebody brilliant. That is as it should be...In the design of our future media and systems, we should not shrink from this emotional aspect as a legitimate part of our fantic design." (New Media Reader) Software like Max/Msp/Jitter, VDMX, and Motiondive allow for quickly articulating concepts, stringing images, videos, and filters together and watching what happens. In fact, VJ Michael Parenti comments on this new trend:

I regularly use VDMX and GRID2 now as production tools - both for their immediacy, and flexiblity. I just can't be bothered to wait while something renders, or to look at a frame by frame preview. I used to spend time dialing in the parameters in AE, but now I just create different stuff inside of VDMX and xport it with the dvr, working with a sound file on loop to drive the fx while i tweak them in real time until it looks how I want. Then I take those xports into GRID2 and arrange them around in the cells, and play with the sequence of things, which images flow well into each other. In the end, after I have done this I have a pretty good idea about how I will finish up a piece and jam through it really quickly in Final Cut Pro. You can literally churn out an interesting 4 minute piece for a music video or a presentation in one day like this, which looks like you spent weeks on. (vidvox website)

These are some of the characteristic trademarks of VJ performance, and increasingly other art, culture, and even business and marketing, in the early 21st century. This article was originally written in 2004. Since that time, Web 2.0 has exploded, YouTube is commonplace, and books like Wikinomics talk about share-culture and UGC (user-generated content) as real viable business models. The point isn't to celebrate (that's already being done by new, fast-growing Web 2.0 companies that are being bought out for hundreds of millions of dollars), but to keep advancing trends, keep new ideas flowing, and remain at the forefront of both business and culture.