SAN FRANCISCO– The VJ Book by Paul Spinrad was released in fall 2005. It’s a great source of practical advice for live visual performers, both novices and veterans. For those who think they know everything, it contains a treasure trove of interviews with an incomplete but fascinating array of artists and innovators. This will be particularly valuable to people living in a city that doesn’t support a notable VJ sceene. Other readers will be inspired by the exploration of VJing’s relationship to light, image and performance artforms throught history. As he was finishing the book, Spinrad asked Lightrhythm co-founder Jon Schwark to write the Foreword. Here’s the “Directors Cut”…
FORWARD by Jon Schwark
The appeal of becoming a VJ is obvious– we are junkies for power and flash. We imagine ourselves as Zeus or Thor at the eye of the hurricane, casting our lightning bolts above the fray. We look out with satisfaction across the swirling clouds.
We are born with an innate will to create visible action at a distance. It’s the rush of shooting bottles off a fence with a rifle. It’s calling someone you’re about to meet on their cellphone when you can already see them across the cafe. As a child, who didn’t want to be the construction crane operator or the railroad engineer the first time they realized such dream jobs existed? You push a little button here and you see something big happen over there. Its a primal thrill.
Maybe it comes from a behavioral tendency (rooted way back in our evolution) to appear larger than life as a way to attract mates or frighten predators. Many animals carry out these bluffs instinctually, and it seems to succeed in saving their skins and passing on their genes. On the other hand, maybe its just the basic drive of Homo Sapiens to construct, to add complexity, to think big.
So back to VJing, this relatively new art form. We imagine it as a tendril of modern culture, evolving in the fertile soil of technology and energized by our primal desire to affect visible action at a distance. That’s the theory, but where has this mixture of desire and technology taken us in actual practice? In spite of our aspirations of Zeus-like omnipotence, VJs often feel more like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from “Fantasia”. Our magical objects take on a life of their own, with only occasional unskilled input from the protagonist mouse who summons their performance.
These humorously juxtaposed metaphors, Zeus and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, hint at where we’re going. Mickey needs better command of the medium-–tools that offer finer and finer grained control. Zeus is searching for alternate structures for the audiences relationship to moving pictures–new contexts beyond the one way streaming rectangles of cinema and television.
Deep inside ourselves, we can sense the perfect medium. It’s a waking dream we have– a reboot to a galaxy of glowing stars. Your presence as a visual artist envelopes this new space from a point of choreography at the center. Your consciousness becomes a vortex of glittering eels, swimming with one mind, each of them a pixel choosing what to reflect. You see the visible in every direction, and control it fluidly at all levels– from the conceptual and editorial, through the compositional elements of the image, right down to the pixel level. Most difficult of all, your performance is dynamic, and can change on a whim to respond to the audience.
Creating, or even approaching a general-purpose, visual-performance medium of this sort has been difficult. In its purest form it will always remain elusive. Compare this to the problem faced by audio artists. Sound is natural, and soundwaves are a byproduct of our breath. Musicians, orators and singers mastered realtime performance literally ages ago, immersing rooms directly with their minds and bodies. We have no organs for directly generating light waves, so with visuals it’s been a centuries-old struggle against the laws of physical reality (waged with light and shadow, chemistry and mechanics, electronics and assembly lines.)
The hard-fought spoils? About a century ago, we nailed down photography with continuous time–Cinema and Television, with the cameras, projection systems and economic models to which they were inalterably linked. Early silent films and especially early television, with its 100% live format, seemed to promise a more dynamic future, but artists who worked in these new media were captivated, understandably, by radical new powers of representation. Businesses that owned these media systems opted for safer returns on their investment. Through most of the last century, only scattered effort went into recapturing artistic spontaneity and the uniqueness of the present moment.
The history Paul delves into in these pages, then, begins with a process of evolutionary false starts and one-offs. The fingers of Cultura have been searching for a natural modality–the base stalk that would survive to be the proto- species from which the next generations could spring. We have recently seen an accelerated snap into this new modality. Over the last decades VJing has exponentially evolved into a standardized medium that takes the best aspects of film and television and opens them back up to performance and human interface.
Just as in evolution, it was a change in the environment that drove the new form into existence. Niches opened up in the culture, begging to be filled. Artistic resources became available as byproducts of other processes. Grazers, predators and scavengers roiled in the unexplored landscape of mixers, projectors and laptops. Technology is our meteor. So yes, it really is obvious why someone would want to become a VJ at this point in the timeline; there were rats before, scurrying between their holes at night, but the smart rats are stepping forward, into the age of mammals.
Jon Schwark, San Francisco, 2005