Interviews

How VJs Create Immersive Experiences for Concerts

Hyperallergic sits down with artists who have produced video work for Kendrick Lamar, MGMT, Childish Gambino, and more.

From 2n Design’s video for MGMT’s Little Dark Age tour (courtesy 2n Design)

VJing is the art of projecting video for an audience witnessing a musical performance. While it has different practical limitations than video art, or more broadly, experimental film, it shares a distinct relationship to them. In the 2005 foreword to Video Art: The Castello di Rivoli Collection, curator David A. Ross remarks that “video art” is not a historical category, but simply a medium. With this in mind, the work of the video jockey deserves some missed critical attention.

Light, the primary medium of the projection show, has been one of the foremost tools of visual artists, alongside the performative tool of time. VJing manages to marry the two without an imperative for narrative. It has also been a formative part of the techno club and underground party scene, where projections and flashing lights are used to supplement both the trance of the music and the drug use common in these venues. Video jockeys largely remain behind the scenes, supporting the artists they perform with. Yet by responding to the work of a musician in real time, they co-create the experience for audience members. Freed of the need for lengthy editing, they instead focus on the moment of a performance.

I interviewed several VJs to better understand how they approach their work. JR Scola and Max Nova of Optical Animal have worked with MGMT, Sufjan Stevens, and Childish Gambino. So has Jeremy Thompson of 2n Design, who has also worked with Annie Leibovitz and Jeff Koons. Yaya Xu designed the iconic visuals for Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. tour. Each of them had differing perspectives on the craft. These separate interviews have been edited and combined for clarity.

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Hyperallergic: How did you enter this line of work?

JR Scola and Max Nova: We attended film school at NYU and gravitated toward experimental film and animation. Filmmaking, for us, was less of a way to tell a narrative and more of a way to create art. We started creating visuals for DJs and bands we personally knew. 

Jeremy Thompson: Our history goes back to co-founder Alejandro Crawford, who began VJing for MGMT in 2009 while attending grad school at NYU’s ITP.  We’ve been working with bands and other clients designing interactive experiences ever since.

Yaya Xu: As a visual artist and motion designer, I’ve been establishing my visual language. Good Company studio saw my work online and asked me to help with the visual development of Kendrick’s performance at Coachella 2017 and his DAMN Tour.

From 2n Design’s video for MGMT’s Little Dark Age tour (courtesy 2n Design)

H: How would you briefly summarize the history of VJing? 

JRS & MN: You could say the first examples of visuals being used to accompany musical performances were the huge, elaborate stained glass windows in cathedrals during the Middle Ages. From there, things started to pick up in the 1960s with the Joshua Light Show performing with the Grateful Dead. A lot of other artists experimented with tungsten projectors and oil, water, and dye. I believe the Eameses were doing some of the first projection mapping installations around the same time. But relatively speaking, the field still feels like there isn’t that much history to look back on, which is exciting.

JT: On the one hand, there’s Wagner and his Valkyrie projections. In terms of artists exploring the visual scoring of music, you have people like Oskar Fischinger, John Whitney, and industry pioneers like Joshua Light Show. Perhaps, though, the real VJ culture comes from ‘90s club and rave scenes (Light Surgeons), and also new media scenes (Emergency Broadcast Network). 

YX: Art has always been connected with time and technology. Andy Warhol and Nam June Paik pioneered experimental videos in the early 1960s. That was also the time when the modern conception of popular music emerged. In 1964, The Beatles made the first music video, and later used ten films to promote their album. By the late ‘60s, rock bands had been using special effects for their concerts. But the big LED screen video art started in the 1990s, when computers became able to control timing. Nowadays the entertainment industry — especially electronic and experimental music — has been very avant-garde.

From Childish Gambino’s PHAROS tour (courtesy 2n Design)

H: What connection do you see between VJing and video art?

JRS & MN: It’s one of the evolutions of video art. The fact that VJing is creating in a live setting is what sets it apart. But both are modes of communication, as is making music.  

JT: Victorian light organs were an early example of engineering an instrument to score music visually. We actually turned the Guggenheim into a giant light organ with MGMT back in 2011. Then another immediate connection would be the role of VJ as a curator of video art, especially in the context of remix culture. Like the DJ, a VJ often brings a catalog of published or found source material to the gig, and of course, the act of live editing is itself the performance. This relationship, however, imagines a VJ who uses “video art” as their media bin, which is often not the case. While VJing is always wed to music, video art is free to do as it pleases, or is often more about the form of the media itself, or the documentation of conceptual or performance rigors, or it simply acts upon its own poetics.

YX: VJing is more about coding and live performance with music, while video art is wider. It could be all about timing or narrative structure or pure visual experiment without sound.

H: How does your work compare to narrative filmmaking? 

JRS & MN: Although we’re typically not too concerned with the mechanics of a narrative, storytelling is still at the heart of everything we do. Projection Napping, for example, is an ongoing installation we have which shows people curled up and sleeping in all of these outdoor corners around the city. Sleeping is something everyone does, so people can get into it. While it can be good to include symbols, themes, or lyrical ideas from songs in the visuals for concerts, usually a more compelling approach for us is for the visual concept to breathe new perspective into the songs performed, rather than being an on-the-nose interpretation.

From Yaya Xu’s video for Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. tour (courtesy Yaya Xu)

H: Does your art support a sense of narrative in the songs it accompanies?

JT: We think so. Maybe narrative as an amalgamation of flashing signifiers, textures, shapes, objects, colors, and dynamics.

YX: For the Kendrick Lamar concert tour, I collaborated with the director to establish a funky retro-Asian theme. Inspired by kung fu movies and vintage Japanese video games, the story consists of Kendrick on his journey to “find the glow,” which is derived from the Chinese classic Journey to the West. Variations of this are played in three sections during the concert. And there were videos for each of his songs which are more related to the specific music content.

Each part of the creative and production team worked very hard, and together we made it in a very short time. My goal was to use my visual language to create a unique and exciting experience. This project became classic movie meets avant-garde. The contrast between the retro kung fu and experimental visual art released so much excitement.

H: How does this work compare to traditional film? 

JRS & MN: We think VJing most closely resembles experimental film. Every time you do a show, there is an experiment taking place — or at least, there should be. In traditional cinema, film is often an escape, creating a new reality. Live visuals are an enhancement of our own reality.

JT: Traditional filmmaking obviously has a narrative objective, or rather, the entire grammar of the linear film edit is usually in service of this idea surrounding narrative. If VJing is the real-time performance of the linear edit, its principal strategy is then a kind of rhythmic montage, which aids in creating a sort of compounded, almost subliminal pseudo-narrative over the course of a performance. Most shows follow this logic of subliminal signifying chopped to the beat, wherein the arc of show — its specific suite of imagery — evokes rather than prescribes. 

But then other shows demand more concrete world-building. For example, for Childish Gambino’s Pharos, the show’s structure had us moving from one 3D world to another, like a ride, so already that gives us a cinematic framework. We didn’t want to create an overt sense of narrative, but we did spend a considerable amount of time adding little touches that hint at some sort of underlying mythos. Scattered throughout the lush worlds, you see evidence of the remains of a ruined civilization. The objective wasn’t to let any of the so-called narrative calcify into an overt story feeling, but rather to provide just enough in the way of recurring signifiers so that maybe somebody goes home after the show and makes one of those conspiracy theory maps, with all the pins connected by strings.

From Childish Gambino’s PHAROS tour (courtesy 2n Design)

H: Would you describe your work as cinematic?

JRS & MN: In addition to 3D, motion graphing, and generative animations, we are constantly returning to cinematic processes to create content for our visuals. Live footage of performers, landscapes, and other natural elements often find their way into our shows. “Live cinema” is a term sometimes used to describe such technique. In the sense that “cinematic” means you go and sit in a dark room, surrounded by strangers, and get to engage with and be moved by what you’re seeing — we hope so. 

JT: If cinema is a history of editing strategies, and VJing is the real-time art of those strategies in the context of musical dynamics, and if animation is pure cinema and VJing is real-time animation, does that make us twice as cinematic?

YX: I’m trying to avoid the production part of filmmaking. I want to focus as much as I can on concept and visual design, rather than acting and producing. That’s why my works are more conceptual and abstract. To me, human bodies or actors are good but not mandatory. My “cinematic” projects include my animated short film and fashion campaign films. But generally, they are half narrative and more expressive or emotional.

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