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VJing hits the mainstream.   ]

Eric Redlinger aka ecume de jours, Electronic Jedermann Saturday, June 7 2003

If you have gone to a progressive bar or club in the past year, the type that really cares who their DJ is, chances are increasingly likely that you've also seen some sort of dynamic visuals being projected on a nearby surface and some nerdy type with a powerbook G4 lurking around the DJ booth with their own personal labyrinth of wires and cables and fader boxes. Nerdy because up until relatively recently, composing live visuals on a computer in real-time required the use of one of a number of arcane software titles, a certain amount of programmer know-how, and a top-of-the-line Macintosh computer. A recent trip to the east village's realtime performance Mecca, the weekly SHARE party at Open Air, reveals that things have really changed. Although many of the people mixing video on one of Open Air's many screens are still using high-end Mac portables, there is a definite feeling of openness and playful experimentation. Part of the transformation of VJing from nerdy sideshow to expected party accoutrement is due to the demystification and increasing visibility of the genre, but also the widespread availability and decreasing cost of video-capable laptops, both Macs and PeeCees.

In addition, video mixing tools of every conceivable kind and specialization are now available at different levels of complexity and cost (over 200 are listed on the site audiovisualizers.com alone). Happily, many are also free. The resident VJs at SHARE, many of whom started out by looking over the shoulders of their now colleagues, even maintain a server with video clips for the aspiring Video Jockey to get their start with.

The real eye-opener, however, was the diversity and maturity of the work on display. Gone are the days of merely scratching John Wayne and kung-fu clips in rhythm to the music. Instead, screens were full of sophisticated interplay of various source material using high-end non-linear digital film editing techniques such as luminance and chroma-keying, all being composited on the fly (and yes, sometimes also in rhythm to the music).

In the span of just a few minutes I caught glimpses of scenes from Tarkovsky's Stalker, images from the infamous homeland security website, recruitment texts from the CIA, clips from the stellar online compendium of post-WWII Americana, archive.org, as well as a fair amount of abstracted patterns and swirling digital pixel noise.

What's great about this (and why I chose to write about it for the Observer) is that media technology is finally outperforming itself. Using these tools the average computer user can revisit classic and contemporary imagery and finally begin to start deconstructing the propaganda of decades of national and corporate media monopoly. Even at SHARE this process is hardly overt, often aleatoric, but nevertheless clearly present. At a recent live performance, the digital art trio screenmemory displayed the statue of liberty, digitally removed from her perch and then used as a sort of digital paintbrush to fill the screen with hundreds of additional statues of liberty which then faded into murky crimson shadows. Later, the passing suburbia reflected in the rearview mirror of a vintage Buick sedan slowly melts away revealing a squadron a fighter planes from recent Iraq footage. The frantic motioning of a civil defense volunteer from a 60s propaganda film on chemical attacks shares screen real estate with statistics on new auto sales, pictures of satellite dishes and diagrams on how to choose a new home. About half of these stunts are planned, says screenmemory's ecume des jours, the rest come about as a natural result of montaging and effecting the source material. Ecume adds: "It is great to be prepared for a performance but the unexpected is what makes realtime video special."

In contrast to the previous standard VJ setup of video decks and a mixer, new software tools support not only many more simultaneous input sources but even allow multiple artists to manipulate the same material at the same time via internet based client/server protocols. An artist in Frankfurt can point her camera at a TV set while an artist in New York mixes in images from a website and a third individual contributes a running text commentary. Through the magic of the internet, everyone gets an identical version of the same montage on their screens and can react and interact immediately. It's a brave new world of democratic media making.





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