(visual performances in the dark)
Originally published in Sublime arte + cultura contemporánea, nº 18, Madrid: Empatía Ediciones, 2006.
Live videos, practised by the so-called VJs, is nothing new. There is virtually no club, event or night-time cultural reunion that does not include in its programme the projection of videos as yet another artistic attraction. These activities are no longer a mere fashion, but a fully established part of our everyday culture. It is therefore essential to pay heed to this variety of performing art, if we are to understand the influence of this innovation within the field of cinema, and appreciate its relevance to contemporary art within the same.
Both underground and technological, a paradigm of the fragmentary, noisily repetitive, vehicle of a post-modern trance, the phenomenon of the VJ appears to have begun around 2003, although its origins go back to the advent of “club culture” towards the middle of the 90s. Some people, such as the VJ Flunchpunk, have claimed that the caves of Lascaux are the remains of prehistoric raves, and whilst we think this statement is rather risqué, there is no doubt that our present-day club parties, bringing together groups of people hypnotised by music, repetitive images and substances with chemical effects, one could easily be reminded of a tribal dance. In any event, it is historically speaking undeniable that images were used in entertainment. Leonardo himself took charge of the decoration for the parties thrown by his sponsor Ludovico The Moor, and even used primitive light screens in his décor. In the XX century, with the birth of youth culture in the 60s and the psychedelic parties that this brought with it, images and music began to follow the same path.Tom Wolfe describes in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test the discovery of strobe lighting and the first oil projections which accompanied the concerts of the Californian group Grateful Dead. Meanwhile, on the East coast of the U.S., Velvet Underground were up to the same thing in the legendary Factory of Andy Warhol, and on the other side of the Atlantic, Mark Boyle was livening up the UFO club in London with his light shows. Later on, the appearance of the video-clip made it impossible to conceive pop music without the accompaniment of images. (This would be the subject of another essay, which, for obvious reasons, we will not go into here, the image of pop music being a fundamental ingredient of success in the industrial culture market, owing to the dynamics of a system in which the image of the product over the product, the sign over the function, prevails). It was in fact in the early days of MTV that the presenters of music videos began to be called video jockeys, although in time, this term came to refer exclusively to “scene artists who create live images to accompany various styles of music in different environments”, to quote SOLU, a visual agitator and cultural activist who lives in Barcelona. (1)
SOLU, author of one of the few texts to be found about the subject, writes: “VJs normally mobilise vision, which implies continual camera movements in order to produce a sensation of displacement and mimed hallucinatory experiences with non-lineal abstraction, piling up and manipulating images as if they were sounds. VJs project stories about contemporary culture, juxtaposing fragments taken from television, videos, films, magazines, cartoons, video-games, video-art, politics, etc. to feed off them and put a new context on the great visual manipulation which we experience in our daily lives”. Like the DJ, the VJ artist does ready-mades, makes use of the old vanguard technique of collage, creates a new visual reality based on the fragment, constructs “Frankenstein” colour displays to be used and enjoyed by an audience whose sole object is seeking pleasure. If the material is made up of images related to contemporary culture, employing the set-up technique, software is the usual tool used. The technological nature of these new visual manifestations are its very essence, to such an extent that some of these artists actually develop specific software adapted to their own necessities. This practice has come to be considered software art, although we consider it unlikely that the construction of a tool to generate a kind of image could qualify as an artistic activity, as this would necessitate the tool constituting the end and not the means.
Dunja Kukovec, art historian and independent commissioner, states that the VJs art bears a symbiotic relation with sound, to an extent similar to the dependence adopted by sculpture and painting with architecture in the past. (2). In this sense, any statement relegating VJs to an inferior level simply because they are subordinated to electronic music would lose face. Everyone knows that the privilege of being raised to the altar of Fine Arts depends in the last instance to the agent acting within the field at a determined historic and cultural time. Today nobody would suspect a functional discipline such as architecture of being a minor art; in the XVIII century the “cultural jurisprudence” of academics and critics had already condescended to consider it (after five thousand years of existence) an art form. Blondel included it definitively in the group of Fine Arts in his treaty Cours d’Architecture (1765) (3)
The situation of the VJ shares the same series of problems as fashion, design, creative gastronomy or video-clips. Chris Cunningham’s videos are not interpreted by the critics and praised by commissioners and gallery owners and considered art until they find their way into the museum. Only when David Delfin shows off his creations in the area of the market-institution, and there is talk of nothing else in the press, and not when Bimba swanks along the catwalk, then and only then do they become art.
The definition of art constitutes an aphoria for philosophical reflection. Umberto Eco noted, ahead of Danto, the impossibility of finding a universal definition within the field of aesthetics, pointing out the definitive effects of historical contingency (4). Having conceptually analysed the crisis caused by the ready-made, or what in practice is the same thing, what makes one particular toilet, out of thousands of other toilets, worthy of being shown as a work of art, Arthur C. Danto, who approached this subject in reference to Warhol’s contemporary box of Brillo pads (5) as the forerunner of the death of the definition of art, he dared to launch the next one onto the heap of throw-away theories. For Danto a work of art is an object that has something to say for itself, which means something. The problems this semiotic view involves are manifold, and the author himself confronts several of them in his writings. We would argue that, if, as the structural semiotic tradition taught us, all objects have meanings, we can find no way to justify a different artistic category for the objet d’art based on this far-fetched statement. In any case, Danto’s idea is a starting off point to construct the institutional theory of art described earlier. George Dickie presented this theory in the middle of the sixties, and it was also taken on board by sociologists such as Howard S. Becker (6) and is certainly related to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of fields.
In order for something to be considered art, there must be sufficient consensus amongst specialists in a certain field of art. Dickie aims an accurate shot, but his obsession with the weapon used finally leads him to the non-recognition of the oral, and shall we say, non-material works of Robert Barry (All that I know / but am not / thinking at this moment/ 1:36 p. m., 15th June, 1969) (7). Therefore the VJs synchronised visual art will move into the field of contemporary art insofar as these artists place their cultural products in the appropriate environment and obtain the backing of agents acting within it. Collective groups such as Nortec (8) de Tijuana or Forward (9) in Madrid, are working in this direction. Both the Mexicans, with its visual photography feeding on everyday pop realism, and the Madrid team, tangled up in highly impacting Baroque graphics, carry out activities within and outside institution art. And they are not the only collective bodies of VJs on this path, as there is an undetermined number of direct video artists all around the globe, creating, showing, experimenting (10). In the words of Hexstatic, ex Coldcut VJs “The VJ of the future will have to entertain the spectator, make him think and even annoy him”. Contemporary art?
- The culture of the VJ: from the loop industry to the real time scenario. http://www.zemos98.org/IMG/article_PDF_article_45.pdf
- Dunja Kukovec. VJ in Contemporary Art. http://www.alcayata.com/la_comision/investigacion/vjing.htm
- Isabel Campi Valls. On the artistic considerations of industrial design: A sociological perspective. http://www.arteamerica.cu/6/dossier/campi.htm
- Umberto Eco (1955-1963). The definition of art. Destino. Barcelona. 2002.
- Arthur C. Danto (1981). The transfiguration of the common place. Paidós. Barcelona. 2002.
- Howard S. Becker. Art Worlds. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1982.
- George Dickie (1997). The circle of art. Paidós. Barcelona. 2005.
- At http://www.vjspain.com a good number of groups of VJs may be found.