Theory in Motion: VJam Theory

Review of a book on the art and craft of VJing

VJ Theory (eds), Vjam Theory: Collective Writings on Realtime Visual Performance (Falmouth, UK: realtime books, 2008)

Performances featuring realtime manipulation of audiovisual material have a surprisingly long history. But the emergence of new technologies over the past decade has accelerated what was once an onerous and unwieldy business for the dedicated and seriously hardware-literate into a sleek digital affair. In many cases, prominent performers have been instrumental in developing new software, effects once painstakingly achieved with heaps of gear can now be outstripped with the stroke of a laptop key, and this has favoured increasing experimentation. There is still no rulebook, but a growing body of artisanal knowledge has been built on by successive generations of VJs. The old guard will always find willing customers for its random slideshows and psychedelic oil wheels, but there is no doubting that live digital audiovisual manipulation can now create sense and sensation in a controlled and meaningful way, using complex logics irreducible to those of cinema or TV.

With practitioners already racing to catch up with these infinite possibilities, Vjam Theory finds them also trying to sketch out theoretical frameworks appropriate to the new technologies. VJ Theory was created in 2005 by Brendan Byrne and Ana Carvalho as a virtual resource for realtime media performers, who often found themselves working in isolation and without common references to discuss their practice. In Vjam Theory – their first publication – the now extensive and diverse international collective engage in informal and wide-ranging discussions on the definition, the theory and practice, and the future of live AV performance.

The opening theme is that of a crisis of identity: Defining their practice through the element of performance or live interaction allows the participants to distinguish it from TV or film-making and from most audiovisual installation art; but this very ‘liveness’ immediately becomes a problem. The question of whether the VJ ought to be seen to be ‘playing’ live recalls similar problems with the performance of electronic music – it’s not always gripping to watch someone staring intently at their laptop, and yet the fact that one is experiencing a realtime performance rather than just playback undoubtedly transforms the experience of an audience. The difficulty for VJs, especially those working in clubs, seems to be that whilst affirming the ambient, immersive nature of the experience they are trying to create, they also crave some audience validation of the skill and individual style of their performances, which by all accounts are intense affairs: Among the most passionate and compelling sections of Vjam Theory are the enthusiastic descriptions of the experience of Vjing – the immersion in a space of infinite possibilities and virtual connections, the immediacy and urgency of a knife-edge visual ‘jazz improvisation’,[p.27] ‘fascinatingly complex and yet … primal’.[p.12] But this enthusiasm is accompanied by uncertainty as to whether this buzz is being communicated. Aiming at the ‘pure magic’[p.27] that occurs at ‘those absolute peaks, when it all really syncs in deep’,[p.12] the performers are never sure to what extent the audience appreciates the unique combination of rhythmic sense and technical intelligence that goes into making this happen (‘are watching images the audience’s main idea?’[p.13]; ‘can the audience tell?’[p.45]).

There follow some engaging discussions of how the club environment, and visual interventions within it, are ‘read’ by participants. Like DJs before them (a comparison which, one senses, haunts the whole dialogue), VJs find themselves trapped between self-assertion as creative artists with characteristic styles, and the anonymity of ambient cultural caterers in a generic environment. Indeed, the ambivalence about turning the spotlight on the VJ-as-performer may well stem from misgivings about the way in which a similar dilemma in the early days of ‘faceless’ musics such as house and techno was ultimately resolved in favour of DJs becoming ‘stars’, with a corresponding devaluation of the music itself.

The theoretical task at hand seems to consist in integrating the performers’ first-person phenomenologies with an understanding of how the ‘final product’ interacts with the collective dynamic of an audience; and further, in providing a speculative account of the individual subjective shifts that an audiovisual performance can effect, both in real time and after the fact. Much of the book finds the participants in search of various components for such a theory. This necessarily begins with analyses of what exactly it is that they do: How do the abstractions created through the sampling and mixing of images relate to the original artifacts used? What is the the role of rhythm in visual media? How are decisions made ‘live’, and what role do pre-programmed sequences or algorithms play? All of these suggest more fundamental questions about the medium itself, its linearity or non-linearity, its dimensionality, whether it is necessarily read as narrative or can be ‘anti-narrative’[p.33]; and about whether technology can ever be a neutral platform (if the medium is the message, what kind of message is the VJ constrained to transmit?)

Where Vjam Theory makes systematic attempts to define realtime audiovisual performance in terms of existing performance paradigms, it succeeds only in confirming how ill-fitting the latter are. Likewise, the various tentative applications of pre-existing theoretical frameworks (Barthes, Deleuze and Guattari et al) are less compelling than the multiple theoretical positions that emerge spontaneously from participants’ own experiences, and which express the singular logic of visceral human interaction with a mercurial time-based medium – sometimes, one senses, with time itself. Perhaps the best reference for this would be Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema books, whose goal was not so much a theory of cinema or an analysis of the content of various films as a philosophical expression of the inner logic of the medium, and the unconscious shifts in subjectivation that this medium and its attendant environment made possible. The latter part of the book tends toward this broader approach, reflecting on what the anomalous position of the VJ might teach us as to the contemporary erosion of traditional models of cultural authorship. Veterans of 90s postmodernism might well be wary of sweeping claims about the technological subversion of dominant narratives, but the participants make a good case for the potential of their practices to effect subtle shifts both in perceptual frameworks and in attitudes towards the ownership and authorship of visual media.

The realisation of such potentials, however, may depend on the resolution of a contradiction that is implicitly in play throughout the book: Having grown up, since the sixties, on the porous boundary between experimental art practice and the underground music scene, realtime audiovisual performance remains caught between the club experience as immersive, hedonistic entertainment and the deliberate aesthetic interrogations of conceptual art. This tension simmers away in the background here, the participants understandably more intent on building a collective identity than in questioning its basis. But one wonders whether the heterogeneous agglomeration of practices described by Vjam Theory is destined to diverge into household-name superstar VJs (Coldcut, Squaresquare …) and more experimental practitioners working in exhibition spaces (and who may well want to distance themselves from the associations of ‘VJing’). A noble aim for VJ theory would be to avert such a schism, maintaining this tension in a sort of plateau, allowing for experimentation that was not merely moving wallpaper for clubs, but which equally didn’t resign itself to the cheerless strictures of the art world.

Vjam Theory presents a freeze-frame of a culture in emergence. What may at first seem like a peculiarly retro exercise – compiling what were originally online discussions into a physical book – is validated precisely because it provides an opportunity for a slow-motion reflection on a practice that thrives on the high-speed potentials of new media. The collective nature of VJTheory makes it possible for these theoretical discussions to feedback directly into experiments ‘in the field’, which will in turn provide material for further dialogue. This reflexive circuit, passing beyond the raw technology and its bewildering possibilities, greatly enriches the potential harboured by VJ practice.