25 July 2011

History of the VJ - From miracle plays to magic lanterns

Synaesthetic Performance In The Club Scene

“Let's pretend there is a way of getting through into it somehow, Kitty. Let's pretend the glass has gone all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it's turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through--“ She was up on the chimney piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.”

From: Alice Trough the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll (1871)

In the club scene sounds merge with light, images, smoke and even smell. After the popularity of the Disc-Jockey (DJ) the Video-Jockey (VJ) entered the club scene in the late ‘80s. The term VJ was introduced in the mid-‘80s by television broadcaster MTV. At first it was used for the presenters of their programs, but soon the term was taken over by the people in the club scene for the person in charge of the flow of images that accompanied the music.

At first sight the work of a VJ looks similar to that of a video artist. Using the same equipment, it has a similar aesthetics. But in contrast to most video artists the VJ only operates live. In this way VJ shows are related to performance art, especially the live creation of an experience where different senses are being triggered. Most VJ’s see themselves having a direct link with the rise of House music in the mid-‘80s and early 90’s and the popularity of video clips. This now common combination of DJ's and VJ's in clubs is a recent form of synaesthetic performance.

Synaesthesia is the recreation of a sensation through sounds, scents, the visual, the physical the word and all other sensations. The British theoretic and critic Josephine Machon describes the synaesthetics as a performance in which different artistic forms, principles and techniques are brought together in a way to evoke an emotional response by the viewer. Looking at the history of the live image it will become clear that the DJ/VJ performance is another way to try to get people through Alice's Looking Glass into another world. To fully understand the importance of the intertwining of sound and image in clubs it is seen that the DJ/VJ show has its roots in performance art and therefore deserves special attention when describing and analysing conceptions of contemporary performance art.

1. From miracle plays to magic lanterns

The first experiments trying to transmit sensations to a public can be found in the early days of art and theatre history. As soon as the clergy recognized the value of the image that would educate and influence their public, churches were being painted and people were led into a world of wonder. Outside people were treated to plays that could last for days while being performed simultaneously on different stages.

The camera obscura was one of the first devices that presented imagery without religious meaning. Although it was our old mate Aristotle who first recognized the possibilities of the machine, the camera obscura was not actually developed until the end of the Renaissance. At first it was used as a drawing device to see the world in perspective, but soon it was also used as an instrument for artistic and miraculous events. Special rooms were built to let people see and wonder at the miracles of life.

Also from the official arts like painting people tried to impress the viewer. Renaissance painters used mathematical rules of perspective, through which they created endless spaces. Painters from the Baroque surpassed these rules and created a benevolence and density of imagery and narration, which were nevertheless best visible from one single point of view. The work of the Panorama painters at the end of the 18th century was a breakpoint in art history. For the first time, details in a painting did not aim for one central focus point, but they were rearranged and held together by the whole horizon. The Panorama painting caused for a democratic way of looking in which the viewer decided what their focus was. The goal of the Panorama painters was to create an image that reflected nature and reality as close as possible. The illusion of an active experience of space was used to give the viewer the sense of being in two places at the same time, that of the painting and of the real space. This idea is similar to that of artists building on concepts for a CAVE environment or VJ performance. Another comparison with the CAVE and VJ performances is the narration of multiple stories in one image. This density of narration, which according to 25 theorist Lev Manovich was already visible among Dutch landscape painters from the 17th century, can also be found in the work of today’s VJ. By accumulating and changing the images multiple storylines are created in which the viewer can choose its own path.

When the first boom of the Panorama passed, the Diorama caused for a new up rise. In 1822 the Frenchman Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre was the first to present the diorama. Large screens were placed in front of an audience of 300 people on which every fifteen minutes the image changed. During the changes of the setting the public marvelled at the use of smoke-, clouding and light effects accompanied by music. The first synaesthetic performance was a fact. A real use of staging of lights and effects came with the invention of the magic lantern.

The first lanterns had already been invented in the 17th century. And although they struck the audience, who thought of it as sheer magic, they came to their true development in the next century. This was mainly due to the heavy and impractical size of the apparatus. With technical improvements the lantern became more transportable and therefore their popularity grew. The lantern projected images on smoke or mirrors that gave a feeling of transparency and immateriality. At the turn of the 19th century this lead to a whole series of especially ghostly performances.

Through the rest of the century special buildings were built where different performances were held. Accompanied by music, these performances can also be seen as among the first cinematic experiences. To improve the illusion different lenses were developed for the lantern which made it possible to project overlapping images that gave the impression of movement.

There were also different approaches with regard to connecting music and light. In 1725 Louis Bernard Castel writes about a 'clavcien oculair'. This ocular harpsichord (later better known as colour organ) would consist of two coloured discs that were connected to a harpsichord. Castel investigated the analogies between light and sound and with this organ he wanted to paint with sound. Although he never managed to build his organ, various people picked up on his writings. Castel based his findings on observations in the field of physics, but the psychological and philosophical implications form the essence of his research: "Not in dreams, but especially in the state of dizziness preceding sleep, or after listening to music for hours, do I feel the correspondence between colours, sounds and scents. It seems as if they all rise mysteriously form the same ray of light and, subsequently, reunify in an amazing concert. The scent of deep red carnations above all has a magical effect on me".

He wanted to use the organ as a means to paint with light. Although he never actually managed to build his organ, to this day his writings are still popular with many artists that are looking for ways to (scientifically) make a composition by using light.

Descriptions of the sort as described above are also reminiscent of the effects of psychedelic drugs that were in use during the Romantic area and later in the second half of the 20th century. Another important influence in the history of synaesthetic performance was the German opera composer Richard Wagner.

In 1849 Wagner proposed the idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk in his article 'The Art-work of the Future'. Wagner believed that the future of music, music theatre and all the arts lay in embracing the Gesamtkunstwerk, a fusion of the arts. He used his operas as a vehicle to create an immersive experience in which, as Wagner wrote, "the spectator transplants himself upon the stage, by means of all his visual and aural faculties." A few years later he opened his own theatre, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany, where he reinvented the conventions of the opera.

It is not surprising that although the inventions were very influential, in their time they were regarded as outside the scope of Art. They were not regarded as representing reality in a true sense, but were merely deceiving and suggesting the preternatural. Only in Romanticism were they appreciated and seen as works of art in which you could dream and be overwhelmed. In the late Renaissance they had merely been seen as experiments and tools for artists and scientists. When the Realists took over in the early 19th century they emphasized the technical aspect to dismiss the inventions. The technological influence made them unreliable. Works of art had to be true depictions of nature and could not be touched by artificial instruments. In the minds of a lot of people the mechanization would lead to a decline in cultural values. Nonetheless their popularity grew.

2. New means, different ways

The technological progress that started in the 19th century could not be stopped. Eventually the far-reaching possibilities of print, photography, film and radio transmission lead to new ways of thinking. The technological improvements and the more ready access to different and new media influenced the making, perception and distribution of art. New things were possible because new electronic developments were taking place.

Different environments were created through new interpretations of light, image, sound and motion. Through technological inventions people could communicate more easily and express and exchange ideas on a broader scale. Old traditions were questioned and society itself came under interrogation. In the early 20th century all the insights of new ideals and developments came to an explosion. At the same time the rise of a mass economy started.

Counteractions showed themselves in the ideas of the Dadaists, the Symbolists, the Futurists and the Surrealists. These groups reacted against the massification of a changed society and especially against the institutionalization of art. Although these groups had different goals and used different means, an overlapping concern was to open the eyes of the public by showing them a different world in which art was merged with daily life. In some cases the audience was urged to take the setting into their own hands, by asking them directly to intervene in the performance or installation. All these efforts were intended to create a sensation and to make contact with the public through different means. Most of the undertakings failed; instead of getting away from the art world, the art world welcomed the new approaches and the efforts to shock were seen as refreshing new ideas.

After the Second World War actions to create a synthesis between performer and public were nevertheless intensified. In the minds of John Cage and Allan Kaprow the public itself had to participate in the performance to get the most intense experience.

In destroying theatrical conventions they anticipated the synaesthesia similar to discotheques and the experience of participating in mass spectacles. These happenings, performances or installations were new forms of art where the participation of the viewer was seen as a necessity. An important aspect of these Happenings was their role outside the art world.

The word Happening was chosen by Kaprow to underscore the role of these performances and to avoid any connotation with the art world. According to some new media theorists, it was this transformation in art that prepared the ground for the interactive computer installations that appeared in the 1980s. Moreover I would suggest they also set the ground for DJ/VJ performance that also came into development in the 1980s.

3. The influence of popular culture

With the introduction of television and video artists increasingly became concerned with bringing art and technology together instead of art and life. What were called ‘Intermedia’ events took the place of Happenings. The Intermedia performance is described as drawing from both theatre and cinema. By walking into the performance environment the audience would set off detailed film images and activate overlapping time projectors, thus changing the imagery and the time frame of the performance. Although this caused for a lot of suspense and excitement and was more than anything a sensory experience, it didn't call for a total illusion where the viewer would be absorbed into a different world. These

Intermedia events can be seen as variations on the early dioramas, magic lantern shows and colour organs. The performances were still linked to political ideals. Artists tried to wake people up, moving them from their couches and showing them what else could be done with the existing and growing mass culture.

Andy Warhol was one of the first artists to bridge the gap between popular culture and art. In 1966 he created the show 'The Exploding Plastic Inevitable' (EPI) to introduce the music of The Velvet Underground & Nico in the United States. This show can be seen as the first step towards what we now call a DJ/VJ performance. During the whole show there was a synaesthesia of music, image, colour and light. The cinematic homage to the EPI by Ronald Nameth managed to capture the experience in which form and content became synonymous. The film was made in the tradition of synaesthetic cinema, a tradition in which one is made
aware of the process and effects of perception; that is the phenomenon of experience itself. Synaesthetic films are made out of different layers and fragments in such a way that one image is continually transforming into other images. Images are being orchestrated in such a way that new realities come out of them. This process was later used by many VJ’s. In Warhol’s own ‘club’ called the ‘Factory’ parties were given where performers and public mixed, the one being indistinguishable from the other. These parties and other newly opened discotheques were linked to the psychedelic movement that also started in the 1960s.

The psychedelic movement is mostly know for its experiments
with hallucinogens, but more important, it also helped to shape a
real ‘youth culture’. At the time immense changes were taking
place in America's culture and political field. The civil rights
battles, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the rising anger
over the war in Vietnam caused a lot of distress. Especially the
younger generation was turning against the system. The younger
generation was beginning to create for itself a sense of identity
and empowerment that was unprecedented. They were trying to
make their own lives and rules, different from the conventions of
the mainstream culture. Drugs were becoming a means to escape,
their hallucinatory effects were creating a new consciousness far
away from the conservative society they lived in. Pop and rock
music played an important role in the liberation process. The
music was largely inspired by mind-expanding drugs like LSD
and marijuana. The psychedelic rock movement continued to
expand during the ‘70s, but it lost most of its hard core after the
early ‘70s when rock groups toned their music and lifestyles
down. It returned however in the late ‘80s and ‘90s when a new
sound - techno and electronic music - was performed at what
came to be called House Parties. Once again the music was
intensified by the taking of a new drug, MDMA or Ecstasy.
With the arrival of cheaper equipment which facilitated the
production of visuals, next to the DJ there was also a VJ showing
abstract and surreal visuals that reacted to or fused together with
the beat. The origins of the House movement lay in a belief, a
belief in the self: "It was a personal liberating experience with a
slow, primal beat and rhythm. ‘My house is your house and your
house is mine.’ House culture was family."

Although the House Movement was very similar to the psychedelic movement
in the ‘60s, life itself had changed, influencing the meaning of
these new 'raves'. Taken over by the commercial world, the
intentions and feeling of the parties changed. As the parties in
the ‘60s were driven by an inner ideology to broaden selfconsciousness,
the raves in the ‘90s were a reaction to a
deteriorating society. The raves were a place to get rid of the
anger and frustrations of everyday life.

4. The shift to music

Going back to my initial argument that the DJ/VJ act is a recent
form of synaesthetic performance, I would like to describe a few
examples of Dutch DJ/VJ shows that have been very influential
in the last years. By exploring these 'new' performances the
resemblance with earlier examples will become clear. These
performances are not only similar to the ones before, moreover
they also seem to follow a similar path. Not long after the first
real discotheques opened up in the ‘70s experiments with light
and visuals appeared. People used liquid-slides, disco balls and
light projections on smoke to give the audience new sensations.

Some of these experiments were linked to the music, but most of
the time they functioned as decorations. These first experiments
are very similar to the early history of the live image as described
above. As the clergy did hundreds of years ago, now again people

tried to lure an audience into their world by affording them new
sensations. It was not until the late ‘80s however that an intense
relationship between sound and image occurred. This was mainly
due to the availability of cheaper equipment like projectors,
video cameras and players and the arrival of affordable computer

The fusion of image and music coincided with the arrival of new
sounds. 1977 marks a time in history when a new technological
tool - the synthesizer - was introduced, and becomes
paradigmatic for this shift in attention. In that year bands and
singers from different musical backgrounds began making use of
this new technology. It was a German group, Kraftwerk, that
bridged the gap between the rock music of the ‘60s and ‘70s and
electronic dance music of the ‘80s. With regard to synaesthetic
performance the music was more than ever calling the shots from
that moment on. The year 1981 marks another important step
that was of importance for the intertwining of sound and image
and the future of video. Music television station MTV (followed
a few years later by others like TMF and the BOX) started nonstop
broadcasting of music-video clips. These clips were
intended to boost sales on the music charts. In the meantime the
clips also provided the singer or band with a more profound
image. By overturning traditional conventions regarding imagery
a new visual language was created which reached thousands of
people at the same time. With the coming of digital video editing
this became even more apparent. Regardless of all that can and
has been said about the advantages, disadvantages and meaning
of this new phenomenon, the fact remains that it did lead to a
stronger connection between music and visuals. A number of
VJ’s today still say they were inspired by all the visual
manipulations and effects in music-video clips.

Around 1985 the House movement and House music arrived in
The Netherlands. At first it was only popular with a small group
of people and it mostly got played in clubs in the west of
Holland. After the second Summer of Love in 1988 things
changed and the new Acid House became widely accepted and
very popular. The spirit of the House scene was - as elsewhere -
one of togetherness, happiness and peace. This was reflected in
the staging of the events. The House Parties were large
gatherings of people who came to enjoy the music, there was no
band or anything to watch, just a pile of electronics with a DJ
mixing other people's music. To give the parties a more profound
look, a face or even an icon, the VJ came into play and
complemented the music with visuals.

5. The second half of the ‘90s

By the early ‘90s House music had become more than just
something to dance to. It was the gateway to collective euphoria,
a huge shared secret and a massive in-joke in comprehensible to
the mainstream. A whole generation was in on it, meeting at
motorway service stations in the middle of the night to follow
coded directions to illicit parties and dance until dawn. The
police and local government officials hunted down these outbreak
of outlaw spirit that spurred hundreds of thousands of people to
break into warehouses and set up sound systems in remote fields.
But in the mid-‘90s by then the more generally termed ‘dance
music’ retreated back into the clubs, opting for constraint and
control, and in the process created its first generation gap.

The art of the VJ of the second half of the ‘90s had become as
diverse as the different styles in music. In the second half of the
‘90s everybody seemed to work with digital technology and
everyone could be a DJ or VJ. The emphasis on the space and the
context of the presentation, things that were still important to the
early VJ's, was replaced by large screens that hung around the
dance floor. This stands in sharp contrast to the Happenings and
Intermedia events, when visuals were projected onto the people,
which caused the audience to connect with each other. The
background of the VJ had also changed. The pioneers of the
Dutch scene were artists who had been trained in art academies.

The second generation of VJ’s formed collectives with people
from different traditions. Some had their roots in computer
programming while others in graphic design, film directing or
sound. These collectives were the perfect example of the crossdisciplinary
collaborations that found their heyday in the mid-

Just as all of the dominant music genres (trip-hop, drum and
base, big beat, ambient, etc.) depended heavily on technological
progress, many VJ's now started editing their material live on a
computer which could change and recompose the material in
many ways. Jeroen Hofs (Eboman) was one of the first to make
full use of the possibilities of the computer. By using samples of
rock, house, funk hiphop and jazz and mixing these together to
connect them into a new sound, he created the ultimate form of
cross-over. He applied the same principle to video. Like the
sound, the images were in stereo; the result was a total
immersion in the story. He also connected sensors to his arms
which would allow him to trigger sounds and images with the
movements of his body.

A collective that used found footage and other film material to
tell their story was Captain Video. The collective consisted of a
3D animator, editor, graphic designer, director and a multimedia
designer. When they just started they primarily used graphics to
impress the audience; the faster and more colourful their images
were the better. Noticing that this strategy was not very
satisfying, they returned to the use of pre-recorded video
fragments. Out of this existing material they made new stories,
sometimes commenting on the mass media other times to spread
a message. Their way of working very much reflected the ‘90s
postmodern culture that was reworking, recombining and
analyzing already existing media material to make sense of the
world. Coming into the new century Captain Video moved to
creating live movies out of existing material that developed
together with the music of the DJ., showing new ways of telling a
story. It is an approach that can also be found in experimental
cinema, video- and computer games and internet.

Pips:lab is a collective that use the computer to combine and
connect different disciplines in a new way. One of their main
goals is interaction with the public. They are not satisfied with
mere projections of visuals that react to the music or vice versa.
They work in the tradition of John Cage and Alan Kaprow in a
way that the success of the performance depends on the
participation of the audience. But whereas during the
Happenings the audience was merely seen as material, Pips:lab
gives the viewer tools to interact directly with the performance.
The player has to perform actions to move the visuals and the
narration of the ‘play’ forward. The public gets to decide in the
end what it does or does not want to see. It is not surprising that
a new incentive has tried to involve the public. Developments in
computer based media have transformed the viewer into an active
user. An image became something a user would actively go into,
zooming in or clicking on individual parts. The image was no
longer static but had become interactive. The performances of

Pips:lab remind us of theatre plays where the staging and
technique orchestrate the viewer's attention over time. But
instead of being spectators, the public have now become

With the beginning of the 21st century a renewed interest in the
olfactory surfaced. The VJ collective Barkode wants to create a
synaesthetic performance by triggering the subconscious. Their
show is a succession of encounters, chance meetings of words,
images and sounds. Many transparent layers overlap, leaving the
viewer lost in time, space and emotion. But as time passes, more
story lines develop, which make it even more unclear: does the
spectator find the plots or are the consecutive images and sounds
leading up to something? Barkode describes their shows as
‘confusing constructivism’, inspired by the subconscious. By
using smell they augment the atmosphere; pleasant smells
heighten the experience, and by employing foul odours a feeling
of disgust is triggered. Their performances are a postmodern
version of the experiments done in the Romantic area and in
Sensurround films of the early 20th century, when smell cards
were given to the audience to accompany the sensations in the

The potential of the Internet is used by a group of VJ's who call
themselves Snowcrash. Through live streaming Internet
connections, participating musicians and VJ's world-wide are
connected to a live stage. Their play is mixed with the music on
the stage and the visual input is projected onto various screens.
Special developed electronics assure that everything is
synchronized. To still be able to unravel the different cultures
and to grasp the global effect they ask the participants to
comment on specific topics, ranging from political statements to
examples from their popular culture. The musical and visual
battle is played out on stage and can also be followed live on the
internet in the confines of the living room. Snowcrash
exemplifies how the VJ experience of today is not just a fusing of
different disciplines, but is also an expansion of national borders.

The underlying concept rested on fact that the video mix was not
conceived as an extension from the world of music or art but,
rather, was developed as a form of progressive social
communication. However, as culture has become more and more
commercialised, the social messaging which permeated the
initial period of video mixing has been replaced in great part by
the flashings of the individual VJ.

As I said before the art of VJ has gone into many different
directions, both content wise as well as form but the experience
also crossed many borders. Every club in the world has its own
VJ or team of VJ’s, it will go too far to mention the differences
or similarities between the various countries or people. What is
striking however is the influence of the technological advances.
These developments have offered every country of the world new
and profound possibilities for intercommunication and
interactivity. As a result of this progress, an absolutely vast
number of dance clubs have sprung up in every conceivable
corner of our planet. In one form or another (primarily due to the
Internet), every one of these countless number of clubs is also
directly connected to another, meaning that there is, in fact, an
established connection between every club in the world. Such a
structure is unprecedented in history. To an extraordinary degree,
the predominant social philosophy within the youth of these clubs
transcends the individual socio/political directions of their
respective governments, allowing for the possibility of an
enormous and unified global voice for social reform.

Striking in this respect is the influence of the so-called 2nd and
3rd world countries over the 1st world countries. This is not so
much by means of new visual languages or graphics that are
being shown, but more importantly a new vibe seems to surface.
Coming form a very different background and cultural status the
attitude is very different from the established 1st world VJ’s.

This also effects the audience watching the performance. The
resulting performances carry a very special, underlying electricity
that is simply not present in 1st world performances. An
experience that is totally invisible. But totally visible. Hopefully
this will provide a significant, positive influence and renewed

8. The future of visuals and sound

By going through history I have tried to shed light onto the
phenomenon of VJ culture. Every now and then I also briefly
hinted to the influence of VJ on other disciplines, but foremost I
tried to show the history or the origins of the synaesthetic
performance. When looking at recent trends in VJ it would not be
an understatement to say that VJ indeed is a new form of
synaesthetic performance, a form that might develop in
interesting ways. At times it may be thought that history is
merely repeating itself, the only difference being a new medium.

But as I have pointed out, one thing has changed dramatically
and calls for new research and interest in this area: the audience
is not composed of a few insiders anymore, but the whole
synaesthetic experience is massified. Although there is no telling
where the VJ performance will lead us, already questions arise
which call for further investigation: What is the influence of all
this media circuitry on existing disciplines, on the position of the
performer and of the audience? What will happen with the
influence of performers from non-Western countries?

When looking at the speed of technological implementation,
activation in the development of a new, positive, contemporary
consciousness seems necessary if we ever want to step out of an
ever-expanding Looking Glass. One important area to focus on is
the club scene, as it has always been the environment where
youth culture gathers together most consistently and in its most
significant numbers.

Grateful thanks to Synaesthetic Performance In The Club Scene
By Annet Dekker - reproduced here.