VJing – Projections and Reflections

In our unceasing quest to root out different cultures and scenes we use a specially trained bloodhound. As a puppy he was taught to make positive associations with exemplars of art and culture; pedigree chum served from a fauvist inspired bowl, squeaky toys in the shapes of Brancusi’s most influential sculptures. He now roams the collective consciousness searching for all that is new, exciting or evolving.

Most recently he alighted on the VJing scene, so we got in touch with four of the VJing world’s movers and shakers to find out a little more.

Visuals in clubs are commonplace but live mixing and sampling of video is still a rarity, although it’s certainly happening more and more. Through our interviews it’s become apparent that live visuals are evolving from a number of directions. Boundaries are blurry, and there is little consensus about what names mean: are you a VJ, video artist, film maker or something else? Unsurprisingly many people occupy more than one category.

You probably haven’t walked into a club recently and seen someone hunched over DVD decks and a vision mixer (partly because they are still very expensive), but there is a growing scene of VJs doing exactly this in the club environment. There is also a commercial world that drives forward new technologies such as the increasingly prevalent DVD decks and the cutting edge displays that deliver 3D visuals and holograms. This big money sphere also encompasses the complex visuals that accompany stadium filling concerts from established artists.

Alongside the ‘VJing scene’ and the more commercial side of things is a third source of innovation and development: ‘AV art’. There is a distinctive continuum of individuals who are using new technologies, and abusing old technology, to produce installation works and bring interactivity and the avant garde to club nights.

Add into the mix DJs who have started to stray into the visual world (viz. Roger Sanchez and Ferry Corsten), and the development of a version of Serato that allows scratching and syncing of video from standard decks, and it soon becomes clear that there’s a lot of boundaries converging on live visuals.

In our interviews we attempted to find out what techniques and equipment our subjects used, where things are headed and how people slotted themselves into the various categories mentioned above.

Hexstatic are Stuart Warren Hill and Robin Brunson. We had a chat with Robin about what Hexstatic do, and where their visuals are headed. Both men have a long history in visuals and formed Hexstatic in 1997. They are signed to Ninja Tune, and have a close association with Coldcut. They have performed at many significant art galleries and alongside David Byrne, as well as producing two AV albums of their own work.

Do you think of yourselves as VJs?
Basically we are AV artists – we kind of get lumped in the whole VJ thing, which is our roots, but I think we are trying to do something a bit different now. We’re not just about clubs – we’ve played at the Guggenheim in Bilbao and at other art galleries. We did a thing in Nottingham a while ago where the audience participated by controlling the visuals and the music. The results were a bit chaotic!

I’m interested to talk to you about the equipment you use. I know there’s a whole variety of equipment that different VJs use. When we spoke to VJ Anyone he suggested that he liked the idea that a pair of DVD decks and a vision mixer should become something of a standard setup. What’s your view on this?
We’ve been using the Pioneer DVJs for about 4 years now, and we helped develop them too. The set-up we have at the moment is two DVJs, a pioneer mixer which has midi out that controls a vision mixer and maybe a laptop with a video sampler so you can freestyle over the top with samples.

People often say of DJs with laptops on stage that they might just be checking their emails and playing back something pre recorded. Do you ever worry that people can’t tell exactly what you are doing live?

I think it can be quite obvious when you’re doing visuals because people can actually see that you are triggering stuff live. If you’re watching a DJ with Ableton you can’t tell what they are doing.

How much do you want people to focus on your visuals? Do you want people to take them in passively or concentrate on a screen?
People are more used to it now. When we first started people would just stand and watch, which could be a bit disconcerting because we didn’t know if they were enjoying it or not. I think you have mix stuff; there are parts in the show where the emphasis isn’t on the visuals. It’s sync and triggering but you don’t have to be looking at it all the time. Maybe during a break-down we might have a funny clip of video that gets peoples’ attention.


Part of the Natural Rhythms Trilogy and produced with Coldcut, Timber is one of Hexstatic’s most famous works. It is made with archive footage from Greenpeace.

One of the things the Eclectic Method said was that a bigger screen(s) helps give a more immersive environment, which stops people from ‘watching’ in the TV sense.
It differs from show to show, it’s always quite hard to get the set-ups you want. We played at Glastonbury last year with tiny screens which was quite nice, it meant people had to focus on the music. I’m more interested in the immersive stuff on the arts side, like the stuff we did projecting onto the Thames and holograms, that sort of thing.

Is there any technology coming up in terms of projections and holograms that you would like to build into a show?
We’ve always been really into that. We’ve got some friends from a company who are working on 3D screens which you don’t have to wear glasses for.

How good are they?

They’re amazing. They’ve only got them at television size at the moment, because it’s a very new technology, but they are working on larger. I’m not sure how long you could watch them for though! There is a bit of a problem with them if you want to film stuff because you have to film it from eight different angles. But if you do computer generated images you can do that automatically.

Companies like Pioneer have spent a lot of money producing VJing equipment and it’s easy to make a fairly Naïve analogy with the prevalence of DJing and conclude that the VJ thing is going to be very big. I was interested to discover that the VJs I’ve spoken to are often less optimistic. How do think things will evolve?

Well I’m not so sure. Very big acts like the Chemical Brothers have always produce visual stuff. At a lot of the nights we go to in Europe all of the acts have some kind of visuals. There are a lot of big name acts using the DVJs now as well – people like Roger Sanchez and Ferry Corsten, Jeff Mills as well. That’s interesting because most people in the VJ scene started off doing the visuals and came to the music after, where they are coming from the other way.

I’ve noticed that a lot of VJ world seems to rotate around this DJ magazine poll of the top 20 VJs. Have you got any feelings on that?
It does push the scene out there, I can’t really complain because we were number one two years ago, but then we’re not strictly VJs. That’s always a problem for the pole – I know this year there’s a couple of scratch hip hop DJs who just started doing it on DVJs. Those guys have no background in the VJ scene at all. I’m not sure it’s representative of what’s actually out there. I think they could be clearer about who is eligible; people like Inside-us-all do great stuff and really deserve to be there.

How would you like eligibility to be decided?
The people who put it together, I know Oli (VJ Anyone) and Addictive TV are involved, and they know enough to say who is really is a VJ and who isn’t.

I was interested to discover that someone has discovered a way of making final scratch work with video.

Yeah, I think its Serato actually. I’ve not tried it yet, it’s in beta at the moment but it will be very interesting to see how that works out. I know that DJ Food uses Serato and I think he’s going to get into the video side of things. He’s a really amazing DJ, so it will be interesting to see what he can do with it. I think it will open the VJing thing up to a whole new group of people. Serato seems to be used by a lot of hip hop and scratch DJs, all the people with the turntable skills to make something interesting happen.

What’s your next project?
The next thing is our DVD with some videos for our last album which didn’t have any video with it, and also some of older material which has only been released at low quality on CD-Rom. It will probably come out in around 2009.

VJ Anyone a.k.a. Oli Sorenson performs with many top DJs and is currently touring with Sander Kleinenberg. He also runs the AV Social night in London, which pretty much does what it says on the tin. He has written essays for several books as well as writing for DJ Mag on the subject of VJing.


What is AV social?

It’s an off-shoot of another event called Vectors. That was at The End. Vectors lasted for 2 years, but then I got really busy and had to give it a rest. Then I got to be no. 5 in DJ Mag’s top VJs list, and I thought that gave me the profile to make a difference and highlight emerging artists. There wasn’t really an event that was focused on VJing in London, which is ironic because London has so many VJs. AV social is the simplest title I could find that describes it – it’s a social event for promoters and VJs so that they can network. It’s for both established and up-and-coming acts. We also get people from the manufacturers like pioneer and Pioneer to come down.

How hard do you think it is for a promoter to introduce visuals to their night?

It’s easier than it used to be, but it’s still difficult. At the same time it’s added value for the night, but it’s not just a novelty like pogo dancers, you’ll have to orchestrate it, for example having a lighting guy who makes sure the lights don’t go on the screen.

Speaking to Cuisine, their objective is to make the VJ as central to the night as the DJ. However, they still said they don’t get many people down who are there for the VJing. What it does do is really set their night apart from the others.
The advantage of booking a VJ is that you get a different crowd down, normally more sensitive to cinema and visual arts – people who go to festivals like Sonar or Futuresonic, not druggy punters. You can’t make those people pay attention if it’s not what they’ve come for.

Can you see those kinds of people getting into VJing in the future?
I think that’s starting to happen, but it’s not a ‘big thing’ at the moment. There are people out there doing more commercial stuff as well like corporate events and so on, with mixed results. When people interview me they often ask ‘is VJing going to be the next big thing?’. It’s been big before, in my 10 years in the business it’s been big about 3 times. It’s like asking ‘Is drum and bass going to take over from house?’ not really, it’s just another thing.

Presumably you can foresee growth just through the technology getting cheaper?

Definitely. The main advantage of the technology becoming more accessible is that it becomes transparent. People don’t pay attention to how many projectors there are. There are so many people who say ‘how is it done?’, rather than paying attention to what is being said through the medium. If you carry on using really cutting edge technology you carry on drawing a veil over the narrative aspect of visuals. Visuals have a strong heritage with cinema, design and even architecture; because you have to make people more conscious of the space they’re in when using visuals. If you are using a vocabulary that is constantly new, i.e. using new technology, people are going to be learning as they experience it. If they become more familiar with it, for me, it’s more interesting because you get to do things like storytelling or conveying an experience. Your performance is more to do with the expression of artistic vision.

I’ve noticed there are no fixed bounds to the technology that a VJ can use. DJs usually use two decks and mixer. I wondered if VJs did the same with two DVD decks and a vision mixer, the scene would be more focused and easier for the public to understand?

I’ve been pushing that for a while. I’ve been touring for about 6 months, doing between 2 and 4 gigs a weekend, flying everywhere. I’d love to put on rider the equipment I need and just take an external hard drive, but at the moment I have to travel with DVJs and all the equipment I need. I’m always jealous of DJs just taking records or CDs. It’s also expensive for me to buy something new every time it comes along. Let’s not forget that DJs used vinyl long after there were more modern alternatives. The only reason they have been so successful is that they’ve had so long to develop the technique.


VJ Anyone’s Kimono Flower single

Do you think VJs have a slightly easier time than DJs? There are so many DJs out there, while if you’re a VJ there isn’t so much competition to come up against.
It’s give and take. There’s a smaller audience to tap into. You can be a big fish in a small pond, and the VJ scene is relatively small. One important thing is that you can access visual arts grants and British Council grants. I think a lot of DJs are tapping into the VJ world to give themselves an angle.

Are you an artist or an entertainer?

Maybe a year or two ago I was very faithful to my roots as a club VJ. I love the heritage of clubbing which goes all the way back to disco; house music is the direct descendant of disco. I loved the attitude of house music, it focuses a lot on positive energy. More recently I’ve found that a little bit one dimensional, and I wanted to explore more sophisticated stuff, so I’ve been getting into grime and dubstep. I’ve been doing a solo dubstep gig for a while now alongside my more mainstream stuff.

Do you use a lot of video samples in your work?
I like to use samples a little bit because you tap into the collective memory, for example if you use a Star Wars clip everyone has seen Star Wars so everyone is going to understand where that comes from. My position on copyright is that if you are stopping people from using samples then you are stopping artists from tapping into collective memory. I use sampling for less than 10% of my performance, but it’s good to have that palette available. The danger with using samples is that if you are working with a high profile person, if you get filmed by a broadcaster they might have an issue with rebroadcasting it. I’m not that much into Coldcut type films though, I’d never put a dancing President into one of my films, it gives me a rash just thinking about it!


Have you ever done any bootleg stuff?

Not officially, but I have been commissioned to remix Manga videos.

I know that people often say that when DJs have a laptop on stage they don’t know what’s being done live. You mentioned that you have a laptop on stage, I wondered if you worry about this issue?
The danger is that people think you are checking your emails. The solution is to use a midi controller, because then you are using a musical instrument. I use a Korg Microcontrol, which has 25 keys, faders and a drum pad. In a way the midi controller is hacked, because it’s intended for music, but now it works with video. You can look like a musician, and behave like one stage, but you’re actually controlling the video.

Can you explain your working method?
When I perform with a DJ, which is my bread and butter, it’s a case of being flexible to improvise with the music that someone else is providing. That means I tend to use a laptop because it allows me to skip between videos quicker. I use Resolume at the moment but I’m looking into Modul8.

When I do A/V performances it’s quite orchestrated, I use DVDs a lot more. In the same way as DJs have eight bars of music at the beginning of records to beat match I make DVDs with eight bars of just a beat and a small rhythmic visual cue, so that I can mix DVDs.

How do you feel about the DJ mag top 20?

It’s very helpful, for example if you look at Addictive TV, they’ve been number one twice and said ‘we’re the top VJs in the world’ which is great. It’s helped me to a lesser degree, I was ranked no.5 in 2005, and I got a call from Nokia, and got to tour Europe and South America. It gives attention to people you wouldn’t see otherwise. It’s a straightforward popularity thing, you can’t be the best VJ because who is going to judge?

Any projects coming up at the moment?
We’ve got an AV social coming up in April in the Tate Brtain. They open the building up late one night a month and have some kind of event. It’s a really big challenge because the audience will be up to 5000.

I’ve also got a collective called NE1CO. I’ve been working a lot with big clients, and they’ve often said that it would be easier to work with me if I wasn’t an individual who might get sick or something. So I’ve decided to make it so that we are a collective who can all replace each other. To an extent we are challenging the idea of the artist as an individual.

Geoff Gamlen is one of three people who make up Eclectic Method. Of our four interviewees Eclectic Method are perhaps most straight forward in terms of characterising themselves as pure entertainment in the form of music and live visuals. They have produced visuals for U2, Fatboy Slim, MTV and Faithless.


How do you feel about being called VJs? I know you’ve released an album called ‘we’re not VJs’

First and foremost we are DJs, we play the music, and we know from technical mishaps that our sets work without the video! We often describe ourselves as video DJs.

Can you tell us a little bit about your performance Technique?
We play a selection of instrumentals, hip hop, breaks, electro and DnB, off CD decks. Over the top of this we use Pioneer DVD decks to play video and acapellas synchronised with the instrumentals. This means we can scratch the video and the vocal over the top of the instrumental, which gives us plenty of room to improvise. All our sets are completely live in that sense, and we hardly do any planning. At the moment we are trying to work more on turntablism.
We’ve got an enormous library of stuff to dip into when we are playing – Ian [Edgar] is our video collector and we get to take round a big crate of DVDs when we play live. I like DVDs, I’m always dropping them everywhere and spilling beer on them, having them ransomed….

That’s actually happened?
Yeah in Sao Paulo, but fortunately the promoter bought them back for us. I think it was a matter of honour for him, we did say we didn’t want him too!


Eclectic Method’s take on Bad Ass

Do you think it would be helpful if there was some kind of core concept of the VJing ‘thing’ that people could identify with? I’ve spoken to other people about the DVD decks/vision mixer becoming a standard.
I think at the moment it’s a question of picking your own niche really, and there is quite a lot of healthy rivalry. It’s a question of trying to do something a bit fresher.

Do you see a link up between specific musical genres and video ones?

At the moment there is a grass roots movement to sync up audio and video effects – delay, and reverb etc. for visuals. Through that I suppose we might see that some audio effects in a specific genre translate to a particular kind of visual.

How do you think your style of performance fits in with the range of styles that are out there?

For us the music and the audio must go together rhythmically. If you don’t do that you have to look for some kind of other way for the audio to hold hands with the video, if indeed there is audio. Our AV experience is about making the music more enthralling.

We draw a distinction between ‘arts’ and ‘entertainment’. We see ourselves as entertainers, and although we might try to stop and make you think for a bit occasionally, its never for long enough to make you feel uncomfortable. We have played at events with more arts orientated acts who have made audiences less comfortable through the intensity of the visuals.

I wonder how immersive you aim to be? I can imagine there might be a worry that the audience would simply be watching TV in a club.
There was a concern early on that visuals might take the focus away from where you wanted it to be, but it didn’t turn out that way. It helps a lot if there is more than one screen, if you can have a couple of walls then it almost turns into a very impressive light show.

Where do you source material from?

We’ve actually done some work with the Getty film library, which was fantastic because they have such a large collection of old material.

Where do you stand on the legalities of gathering material?
There was no decision at the beginning to keep everything above board, but it mainly is. All of our live performances are covered under VPL, which is equivalent to the arrangement the clubs have so that DJs can play music without paying rights. It is controversial if we try to sell our material, and I understand entirely why! In the past we have put out limited amounts of bootleg stuff, because we felt we were doing something new and that justified it.

Do you have any feelings on where copyright law is going at the moment?

Absolutely, it’s relaxing. You just have to look at the deal that the four majors have done with youtube, giving them pretty much carte blanche. They know they can’t control distribution, but attempts to make money out of copyright material are more and more the focus of litigation.

Any big technological developments on the horizon?

The pioneer SVM is looking very exciting. It’s a sound and vision mixer and it should be very interesting. It will be a bit pricey though.

I’ve got the impression that the whole AV thing is almost on the cusp of something, do you feel that?

Well yes, the technology only becomes more accessible and there are more and more people doing it. However it’s felt as though we are on the cusp of things for some time now.

What projects have you got coming up at the moment?

Our magnum opus is going to be a DVD with all our own music and a rights-free video, so that we can actually sell it this time! We all produce music, I do a lot of breaks, and then we will invite guest performers in too. The video will be from the public domain, and stuff we shoot ourselves, for example of the guest performers and of us on stage. We want to start work on it very soon, it’s a big project.

Nicolas Boritch is part of ‘visual label’ Anti VJ and club night Cuisine. Anti VJ orchestrates visual events and recently performed at Light Up Bristol, using the city’s council building to project their works onto. The Cuisine club night offers Bristol’s clubbers the opportunity to see Europe’s finest VJs. On both projects he works closely with French artist Crustea (Joanie Lemercier) – who performed at the Light Up Bristol event – pictured left. The thing is… tracked Nicolas down to get the promoter’s perspective on club visuals.

What is Anti VJ?
Anti VJ is focusing on big outdoor productions and video installations – anything that’s not a club night. We are into using projectors to create a light environment.


VJ Crustea of Anti VJ projecting on the council building on Bristol’s College Green.

And can you tell us a little bit about Cuisine?
It’s been running for a year and a half, I was running a night before called Chien, where I met with VJ Crustea. The main concept was to make sure that the visuals had the same importance as the headline DJ. We fly in people from France, Germany, Switzerland…

So is there an established European circuit?
It’s getting there, we find people through VJ forums, looking at peoples’ videos on the net and VJ Crustea has been playing around Europe for a year and a half now. We’ve got a network of people we like to work with. France, Germany and Swizerland seem to have a lot of talented VJs at the moment, things are really happening there.


It’s interesting that you go abroad to source a lot of your talent, is that because there isn’t so much going on in the UK, or just because that’s where your roots are?

The style of people like VJ Anyone, who I know you’re speaking to as well, is an example of the UK ‘style’ of VJing, although I don’t want to generalise too much! Its quite graphic design based and less abstract and ambient than what we are into. There are definitely people who we haven’t got in touch with who are doing stuff that we would be really interested in, but there is less of a mix in the UK of VJing technology and arty/forward thinking VJing. Here it seems to be more about clubbing.

How does the Cuisine aesthetic differ from that?
We are really interested in visuals being more an element of décor and the architecture. We think of it as light engineering, in the sense of lighting for theatre stages – using the lights to create a visual environment. We’re not just projecting graphic design and extracts from films onto normal screens. We are very interested in using projections as a source of light to create an atmosphere.

From what you’re saying the lighting you use is a lot to do with creating an ambience, do the visuals at your nights tend to be synchronised with the music?
It depends on the environment, and what equipment people work with. With Cuisine people do all the visuals live, and loop the video live to follow the music. They try to make the loops build up in the same way as the music.

What kind of equipment do people tend to use at your nights? I’ve been discussing this topic a lot with the other interviewees, particularly with respect to having a standard DVD decks/mixer set up.
It would be good to find set ups like this in clubs. I think things are moving that way and we can hope to see changes in the next year or so. It’s quite similar to what happened when DJs started to ask for decent CD decks or specific mixers with effects. Having said that, DVD decks are just one way of doing visuals, and a lot of people use laptops and can’t do what they want with DVD decks.

The most significant change for us will be when you can turn up at a club and there is already a nice set-up of 3 or 4 projectors, in the right place, all cables ready and you just have to plug in at the back of your laptop! Imagine if DJs still had to move the PA where they want it and plug everything in themselves, every night!

Do you get many people using unusual equipment?
We’ve had a couple of guys from Cornwall called Fata Morgana who do something really different. Instead of using a computer they use 5 or 6 8mm projectors which project onto a little screen, which is filmed by a camera and then re-projected. They use old film, physically slow it down, and scratch it live. It’s totally different from anything I’ve seen before.
We are also working on using mosquito nets cut into strips which hang from the ceiling in many layers which we project through. It gives the impression of visuals being suspended above your head; it makes it much more immersive.

I wanted to talk to you a bit about the practical aspects of promoting a visual oriented club night. You’ve mentioned that you want to put the visuals on an equal footing with the music, do you get people coming down for the visuals?
Very few, it’s not something that’s in clubbers’ culture. There are more and more people paying attention though, and even if people don’t know what’s going on we get feedback from people who enjoyed it and remember about our night because of the visuals. The idea is to get people a bit excited about something they haven’t seen before. Even if people know Timbuk2 [the venue for Cuisine] we want them to feel a bit lost inside.

What have you done to promote the visual side of the night?
We did something called Electropicnic, where we took a generator, a small PA and our projectors and went to the park and did music and projections.


Electropicnic on the waterfront in Bristol and video of a Cuisine night headlined by Feadz and Uffie

Did you get permission for it? How long did you get away with it for?
No we didn’t but they all went really well. In one park we did it on a couple of occasions for 3 or 4 hours. We did some right in the middle of Bristol which didn’t last as long.

I know that Bristol’s police aren’t always that happy with that kind of thing, how were they with you?

The police were always very professional and really nice about it. Sometimes they just assumed it was official or that we were students doing a project or something.

You’ve had experience of promoting club nights without the visual aspect, how much extra work do you think the visuals make?
There’s different ways of doing it but there’s quite a lot of stuff to learn. It’s going to take you a few hours just to set up the technical stuff before the night, you have to know what kind of equipment your VJs want to use and think about compatibility. Just by doing it you start to find all this kind of stuff out. It’s like having people perform live music – a lot more work than just having a DJ.

I’ve had various responses when I’ve asked people about whether the visuals scene is getting bigger and more popular, what’s your view on this?

It’s a tricky one because it is more common to see moving images in a club environment, but I think it will go the same way as music. There will be a lot of local clubs projecting MTV wallpaper crap. But it’s a good thing because it means that VJs won’t have to take projectors out with them. There are more and more specific live visuals events happening, so that’s going to help to build up a culture and a community. Also, this year we’ve noticed a lot more interest from cities in running big outdoor light shows and projecting onto monuments and buildings. That’s become much more common over the past year.

Do you think that’s due to people becoming aware of the technology?
Yeah, but it’s still expensive. The kind of projectors you need to project on a building are between 25-50 grand to rent a few projectors for a few days, and there still aren’t that many around.

Is there any technology coming up in the near future that you are really looking forward to?

Yeah, every few months you see something on youTube and it looks incredible. We are really interested in holograms. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film Minority Report, but the “touch screens in the air” should actually exist very soon, so that’s pretty exciting.

feature by Jimmy Tidey

4 Comments

  1. Stefan G says:

    this article is a bit focused on a specific slice of the scene- London & small gig oriented…

    Here are some links to stuff on the International/Arena scene:

    Showtech2008-9 (BIG VJ TOYS):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JDMiwyosA0

    SHOWTECH extras & eyecandy :
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W057CfIbNo0

    retrologodemo
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxN3tK4y1cU

    http://www.vjcentral.com/?mod=members&act=view&id=3735
    http://www.thevjbook.com

  2. Doc Mustard says:

    I do a video deejaying show called ‘Wasted Planet’ which projects live performance from hot mainly guitar guru bands. It’s a master class for aspiring musicians and fun for live music fans too. There’s a sample here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDl_7WTAJ8g
    Virtual DJ is the software I use and have spent years editing the clips but it’s all been worth it because every show is a trip around mega gigsville. Which category does this belong to?