VJ Diary

Jessica Ruffin

Printed in MFJ No. 45/46 (Fall 2006) Hybrids


The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.

— Guy Debord

Usually, attending a motion picture alone means a retreat into myself. There, surrounded by any number of people, once the lights go down, I'm in my own private viewing booth. I know that there are people watching what I'm watching, but their presence around me is nothing more than a lack of space. This feeling may have been my expectation the first time I attended a live video-editing event, but I did not find myself in isolation.

I went to the Mundial bar on a Sunday night because I'd found a flier for a 'media performance community' called Share at the Anthology Film Archives. I was in New York for the summer of 2005 doing research on contemporary avant-garde cinema, and Share seemed like something I should check out. The website explained that Share provided a space for individuals to bring laptops, cameras and instruments to do live audio and visual jamming. The concept seemed to fit in with my research and was exciting in its newness.

Upon entering the bar, I ordered a drink and headed to the backroom, as it sounded to be the source of loud electronic beats. Still possessing my lone spectator mindset, I chose a seat that faced the screen and permitted me to keep a reasonable bubble around my person. It was clear that the bar was made for the purpose of visual entertainment: there was a large blank wall for projection and the small drink tables were equipped with flat screens—later I found out that Mundial is normally a soccer bar, and only on Sunday nights did it morph into a meeting place for performance media artists. The music was produced by about five people jamming on their individual laptops, mostly iBooks. The sounds were upbeat, characterized by feedback-like buzzes and hums and the occasional human voice or digitally produced horn. The images on the screen swirled in pinks, yellows and greens, coalescing into other abstract forms.

"So, do you do this?"

I was sucked out of my world, disoriented for a moment. I turned to see a middle-aged blonde woman with a rectangular jaw sitting on the other side of the small table next to me. I replied that I was only there to do research. She told me that she was there to learn how to use the editing programs and equipment because she was working on an opera that required her to do live video editing. Our conversation continued until Eric, a relatively young looking redhead, came to offer her some advice on programs to use for her opera. I was ready to retreat back into my bubble when Eric offered to let me look over his shoulder to watch the demonstration. He showed us a program called KeyWorx that was developed and released for open source download by the Waag Society (Amsterdam). He took some video he'd previously taken of a woman dancing and showed us how the basic image could be transformed through a combination of visual layers and either computer-generated or original formulas. I watched as a girl dancing in a white room became the girl dancing in front of a disorderly swaying background and finally, the outline of a dancer filled with vertical lines. I was hooked—my infatuation was driven by witnessing the spontaneous creation of such novel images but also the openness of the people.

I began to speak with more people around the bar. I found out that those who did live video mixing were called VJs and that many of the people involved with Share were part of 'multi-sensorial' warehouse parties in the mid-nineties. When Mayor Giuliani decided to enforce a Prohibition-era law, which prohibits dancing in bars and other venues without cabaret licenses, police began to shut down these warehouse parties. So, VJs were forced to move their parties to legal or dance-less locales. Share rose out of the loss of the warehouses and has met every Sunday for the past 5 years.

It's hard to keep track of how many times I've been to Share since that first time; the sense of community is addictive. The experience of Share presents an immediate manifestation of Debord's belief about the spectacle. Not only is the Share community literally built around the spectacle, but also watching the birth and growth of a work of art with a community of strangers and friends is a truly unifying experience.  Anyone who has been to a live concert has felt the special energy, which unites the people in the venue, spectators and performers. Imagine the addition of creative energy pulsing around the room: the beat one of the audio jammers picks up prompts one of the VJs to make faster cuts between shots, this collaborative effort inspires someone who was idle to get up and dance, and as another VJ with a DV camera begins to record this, he distorts the image on his laptop. All present are spectators, performers and artists taking part in creating a hyper-sensory environment.

It's impossible to fully convey what it's like to attend a VJ event, but I do feel it's important to give an idea of the variety of materials and programs some artists are working with to create spontaneous and unique artworks.

The Front Room, July 31, 2005

I first got a sample of Chika's work at Share. It was another look-over-a-shoulder experience as she demonstrated how she used her program of choice. I got a sense that her work primarily consisted of circles and lines of white and red pulsating on a black background, but I didn't actually experience one of her performances until an exhibition in The Front Room Gallery, in Brooklyn. Her work, which seemed fairly simple during my first exposure, took hold of me as she collaborated with Socks and Sandals, a DJ duo characterized by strong, elaborate beats. The pulsing of the lines and circles—as they carried the beat of the music—became a visual representation of the movements the music compelled my body to make. My senses united. Looking around the room, I could see that I wasn't the only person seduced by the motion of the performance. I saw men and women dancing; eyes locked on the screen; feet tapping...

Share, August 14, 2005

Still a bit in my own world, I was watching Jeremy Schaller's work, with some ambivalence about talking to him. The dancers in the images moved in strange erratic ways, but it was the constant manipulation of the layers and relation between true and negative colors that kept me from looking away. Chika came up to say hello, and asked if I'd met Jeremy. This inspired me to seek answers to the questions that had been stirring in my head. I asked him to tell me how he achieved all of the effects. He explained that images he was using were captured during a filming workshop in which eight individuals shot the same dancers simultaneously. He then wrote programs to respond to audio signals and manipulate the relation of the eight video feeds accordingly. The result is a video piece that allows you to transcend time and space, being in the past and present simultaneously or witnessing the same scene from two different angles at once. I talked to Jeremy for a long time that night, about philosophy and lots of film theorists I'd never heard of. That night, I walked to the subway light on my feet and confident about my aspirations in the study of moving images.

Eyewash, August 17, 2005

Knowing that I had a growing interest in live video editing, a friend forwarded me an ad for Eyewash, a monthly event produced by Forward Motion Theater (directors: Eric Dunlap and Holly Daggers). Unlike Share, this event is organized around specific performers, but the feeling of a close community was not lost, as I recognized many of my friends and acquaintances from Share. This is also where I was to experience a performance by Adam Kendall, whom I would meet a few days later at Mundial. I was at this performance with a couple of friends, but under the guise of a researcher, I was still able to prevent myself from being too social. Adam was collaborating with a musical group called Vortex. The combination of strangely opaque, gray-scale images and the haunting echoes of Vortex produced a beautifully unrelenting sense of fear. Familiar scenes became foreign to the point that even a toddler was frightening. I was wrapped up in this wonderful sense of terror when my friend, Dana, told me that she was so scared that she had to step outside. I let her go, but then, she called my cell phone and insisted that I leave the dark cave to keep her and her cigarette company.

The following Sunday I met Adam at Share, where he explained that he films all of his own digital images, does some pre-editing in addition to editing on the spot, and often collaborates with Vortex. He was also quite pleased about the effect his piece had on my friend.

Share, July 10, 2005

I saw Sima's work the first time I attended Share and a few times afterwards. I was drawn to conversing with him because of the amount of equipment he was using, which in addition to the usual laptop, consisted of a turntable and a mini-keyboard. At the time, he was using his turntable to manipulate his projection, and I was quite confused. I asked him how it was done. He explained that he had configured a program to sense the movement of the record. If he allowed the record to turn, the images progressed at normal speed, but reversing the movement of the record would reverse the movement of the images, etc. On this first day of exposure to live video editing, I was mesmerized by his conflation of musical and visual technology. The simple shot of a man's karate kick stopping and being reversed seemed revolutionary. So revolutionary that when Sima offered to let me try it out, I declined, feeling I could not possibly possess such power. Sima's melding of the two technologies was a micro-representation of Share in the same way that Share embodied Debord's theory of the spectacle.

The technological advancement in our society makes it increasingly unnecessary to directly interact with another person in order to view pictures in motion. Even 'art house films' can now be purchased on-line. At a gallery opening for experimental media that I attended during my summer in New York, the people seemed exclusive and hardly concerned with the surrounding artwork. If Debord is correct in his definition of the spectacle, I am glad that the images and sounds of Share exist to bring people out of their isolation.

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