Ten years ago, when hip hop was on the rise in the US and house along with XTC were on the rise in Europe, VJs were also making their way into clubs and parties. Ibiza was big and jet set, MTV had liquid television, and people like Klein, Kaap, Ploeg and Kriel were popping VHS tapes into stacks of recorders to be able to feed projections to the masses, with a labor intensive manual overlay of effects and transitions on their MX50s. DJs still used vinyl and laptops were no where to be seen, analog was the way to go, as well as loud arcade game colors and iconic smiley, flower and pill imagery.
Ten years later, a few changes had been introduced in the equipment, but the VJ culture did not seem to undergo the same explosive growth that the DJ culture did. The DJ overcame the live musician by labelling their sample and arrange qualities as all part of a new organizing collage movement, but the VJ still has not been able to overcome the DJ, or even attain a similar exalted position. People go to parties for the DJs and the VJs are a nice side dish.
At the Visual Sensations symposium which was held in February in the Paradiso, even the mere job description of the VJ seemed to be lost. What was a VJ? What were these people supposed to be doing? Initially a seemingly strange question to ask when we can already observe a 10 year history of VJs in practice. In fact, even the dutch taxmen have an answer: to be able to use the tax cut specially made for VJs, one must
- edit the images live during the performances;
- frequently perform as an independent artist at dance parties with at least 750 visitors. An independent artist should not be supplemental, but should give an entirely 'own' performance. The lowered VAT-tarif is only valid for performances.
And yet, the symposium's invited speakers (Hans Beekman - WORM/V2, Maarten Bax - Photonic, Eelko Anceaux – Chemistry, Annemie Maes – Looking Glass) all tried to divide and analyse, or find labels for newer projects that were not easy to categorize as only VJing due to their interdisciplinary nature. Terms that fell were 'immature category culture', 'Live Cinema' and even (gasp) 'installation'. According to Annemarie Maes, if the VJ was too engaging, it would be disturbing for a club scene where people come to dance and interact with each other as opposed to look at screens. But a dark room with loud music and lots of smoke is also not necessarily the best place for chit chat, so exactly what kind of communication are clubbers interested in? Staring at each other while pretending not to? Meeting each other at the bar?
Should VJing be totalitarian, completely immersive screen narration? Or a moving wallpaper projection passively pleasing the crowd but not distracting them from each other? Perhaps the VJ should take the responsibility of the entire visual element of the situation, including beamed videos, but also light schemes, atmospheric smoke and even architectural design. After all, there is much more eyes can take in at a party than only upgraded TVs and fellow dancers, and surely there are people who are interested in designing perception. At the moment the largest parties have more light shows than projections, but with the latest interiors of clubs like Club 11, VJs are given more and more possibilities.
However, at the moment VJs working in the Netherlands now do not seem to be so interested in the theoretical possibilities of club culture. They simply do whatever they want to be doing. But nevertheless, their activities have a few similarities in form. First of all, they're making software. In fact, two friends, Edwin de Koning and Bart van der Ploeg from the Haagse Hogeschool decided they wanted to be VJs, needed software, designed that, and then never got to VJing because they had become the chief software designers of Resolume VJ software. (Resolume is still only available on a Windows platform, but they are hoping to cater for the Mac in 2006).
Second of all, they're making their own widgets and gizmos to regulate (or disturb) the images. So basically, they're nerd-prone, which I think is fine, I like nerds. But once you start measuring art with nerd standards, your values certainly get mixed up. For instance, SF&L mix ecoline ink live on a glass plate and use that as a base for their projections. Not much of a progression since the liquid slides of the 80s, hardly cutting edge mediatech. But does that mean that their work has less value than the work of mnk in which the images are partially regulated by self built software and in which the sound/image duo respond to each other live with self configured joysticks and an especially unusual self-built signal interference gadget that is to be worn around your big toe? In the end, is the work not about the product, and is the product not defined but only what we hear and what we see on screen, reducing how they made it -be it with paint or a complicated self written algorithm that simulates paint- to the artist's personal choice which really has nothing to do with the audience?
But according to mnk, the visuals and sounds are not all of the product, but they themselves are part of the artwork as well. In the end, they are not studio artists but live performers. They want the tension and the dramatic arc of their work to come forth from the live experience, from the live interaction between the two performers, and not necessarily from overwhelming imagery or even from perfect audio-visual correspondence.
Then again SXNDRX is also all about live interaction (their performance consists of two ex-lovers saving their breath by fighting with quicktime movies instead of using vocal cords) and tension, and yet a video rendering of their project is on display at Montevideo. The VJ Hexstatic sells DVDs of specially made sets, and Eboman's films have been on display a several prestigious film festivals. So these artists call them selves VJs, but publish off line movies and sell their artwork -not including themselves in the package-. But then again, DJs do that too, and their products are widely accepted in a thriving business.
So the only thing we perhaps could conclude, is that we cannot conclude much. Perhaps dutch VJ culture is still in its baby years, or perhaps the whole VJ genre was and will stay undefined and free for quite some time to come. Let's just say we're lucky that we don't have a bunch of pimping Pioneer endorsers toting DVJ-X1s around and jockeying DVDs as if it were some art form.