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A remix of preoccupations

Camille Baker

Database video art, Performance Video, Live Cinema + VJing

One of my recent interests, perhaps even preoccupations, has been investigating live or performance video, both as an artist/producer and as a curator. This form of video art has its roots in the rave culture of the late 80’s and 90’s and I have been aware of it since the late 90’s as I was getting into video production and film making. But it really peaked my interest and became more intriguing to me, when I became the lead curator for the 2003 and 2004 New Forms Festivals here in Vancouver.

VJ Central states:
“The word VJ is also used to represent video performance artists who create live visuals on all kind of music. It originates from a parallel with DJs, although most VJs nowadays have more to do with musicians than with DJs. Often using an analog vision mixer, VJs blend and superimpose various inputs over clips. In recent years, musical instrument makers have begun to make speciality equipment for VJing. The evolution of computers has allowed for VJ-specific programs to be produced and has allowed for easier accessibility to the art form.”

As background, audio/visual performance in recent years has had a greater and greater incorporation at international festivals and film festivals, as it own art form, integrating generative new media tools for sound, images and video. As well as bridging electronic music, new media art/ installation and experimental film and video, adding to the live component of performance, audio/visual performance is coming into its own as a medium outside the party context.

For example, at the Montreal annual electronic music festival MUTEK, during the last two years the festival has added extra, discreet programs, with unique themes and styles for the audio/visual performance or “live” cinema” stream, and in 2005 there were three different audio/visual performance programs, in addition to their regular music performance events. As this performance visual art form develops, if more forward thinking art institutions got involved in nurturing this hybrid, art genre-bridging form, it might get more of the credit its due.

For one of the 2004 New Forms Festival events, we presented a night of performance video or audio/visual performance, as it was called. I assisted the curators of the event, Ed Jordan and Stephanie McKay of The nomIg. Collective, in producing the event within the context of the rest of the festival. The event was still so new to Vancouver audiences that we didn’t know how to properly promote it to reach the different types of video art and electronic music cultures, who might appreciate the works. Yet there were some stunning works from the Montreal artist team skoltz_kolgen (Herman Kolgen and Dominique Skoltz) and local filmmaker Velcro Ripper that year, as well as in 2003 by The nomIg. Collective themselves and the French Canadian film artist Jean PichĂ©.

Last year, I managed to get to Mutek for Montreal’s annual electronic festival, to check out their audio/visual program (which I was told was not their best year for this type of work, but intriguing in any event). I’ve since been trying to make time in my life to get more personally acquainted with this practice in my own work. I’ve also incorporated an introduction of this new video art practice into my 2nd year video art and production course, Moving Images, in order to try inspire a new crop of performance video artists.

In the Jan/Feb issue of RES magazine there was a feature on VJ artists moving more into the art sphere (sadly the article is not available online) and getting better exposure, recognition and respect. It discussed how they are reinventing themselves, as they move away from the electronic music and party scene onto the street and into galleries, showing their performance installations and exploring new ways to present themselves to the world beyond the late-nights.

The following are quotes by the artist/curators team, The nomIg. Collective, of the new genre/format/ art form:

“…manipulate audio and video samples live, as DJs would manipulate their records. Here, however, Coldcut transcends the traditional material manipulations of the DJ and move into the limitless realm of digital exploration where sound and image can truly become one.”

“… the creation of works where the audio and video components are composed and performed together with an awareness of each other’s inherent compositional characteristics. This … requires that neither the audio nor the video serve the role of accompaniment, but that they work together to form a synergy of audio and video; of sight and sound; of music and cinema.”

“The sound and video are presented as a single, coherent thought.”

the simultaneous creation of sound and image in real time by sonic and visual artists who collaborate to elaborate concepts on equal terms. The traditional parameters of narrative cinema are expanded by a much broader conception of cinematographic space, the focus of which is no longer the photographic construction of reality as seen by the camera’s eye, or linear forms of narration.”

Stephanie McKay and Ed Jordon of The NomIg. Collective

I’ve also recently discovered an adaptation of the live VJ / Visuals activity online “WJing or web jockeying” although what I’ve seen so far is not live online, a European group has cropped up to develop a system for WJing and are doing workshops on the software all over Europe. The system seems to create live performances that are wirelessly streamed online. The Rhizome artbase recently promoted it, stating:

“While the DJs and VJs of the world remain tethered to the remix of sound and image, WJs (web jockeys) have at their fingertips an infinite and diverse pool of material–sound, image, text, code, web cams, blogs, and more–all constantly changing and expanding. A new software development, WJ-s, offers artists a tool to create live multimedia performances from this digital soup… the world of artistic algorithms, and computer art in a live performance. WJ-s was conceived…. to create ‘a strong cybernetic experience, captivating, sensual, and shifted where [….] the flow and the extreme pleasure of surfing are moved into a performative framework…” Helen Varley Jamieson,

Although not really a new thing, as I’ve known The nomIg Collective to do such live online performances several years ago on PirateTV, which were basically live streams of VJing, it is intriguing and I hope to see more on this particular manifestation of live performance cinema.

Another area of interest and somewhat related to live video performance, is the new works in non-linear, non-narrative, ambient or generative video projects and the software and database systems that have been developed for them. In my research for courses I’ve been developing, I discovered that many artists and filmmakers are trying new ways to generate narrative or non-narrative cinema online for ambient backgrounds in homes, using computer databases and programming to display random film clips and audio. In this way, they are always creating something new and “live”- which is primary to the work of new media cinema artist and theorist Lev Manovich in his work on the Soft Cinema system.

Lev Manovich is more often cited and known for his book The Language of New Media, where he attempts to contextualise new media in terms of film theory, history and form, but also as a new form that will find its own language, which he tries to create the beginnings of (since I have only browsed through the book itself, forgive me if I have oversimplified or mistaken its overall intent).

With his Soft Cinema project, Manovich is continuing his investigation of new media film. On his website he states:

Soft Cinema consists from large media database and custom software. The software edits movies in real time by choosing the elements from the database using the systems of rules. The software decides what appears on the screen, where, and in which sequence; it also chooses music tracks. In short, Soft Cinema can be thought of as a semi-automatic VJ (Video Jockey), or more precisely, a FJ (Film Jockey).” Lev Manovich

Manovich also claims he is exploring four ideas:

1.First is Algorithmic Cinema: which is the writing and implementing a script and a system of rules, that are defined the creators or as he calls them authors of the cinema clips, the software then controls what the screen layout is, including the number of windows and their content. Then the author/videographer can choose to have minimal control letting most of choices to be made by the software, or they can determine which clips the viewer will see at specific points in time. However, the actual editing is done in real time by the system and the video clips and sound can run continuously without repeating the same edits.

2.Then there’s Macro-cinema: where the computer user uses the various windows sizes and dimensions within the larger frame.

3.Next is Multimedia cinema: where the video is meant as only one type of representation, with others being 2D animation, motion graphics, 3D scenes, diagrams, maps, etc.

4.Finally, he explores the concept of interest to me, that of Database Cinema: where the media elements are randomly selected from a database of clips and sound, to create virtually limitless (limited only but the number of clips and media elements themselves) combination number of video elements or different versions of the same film. His approach to using a database is as a new representational form in and of itself, in order to research the different ways to display the ambient cinema database. So its an exploration of database versus narrative structure or recombinations for various narrative effects.

Camille Baker is a media curator/ producer/ artist/ instructor living in Vancouver –
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