Mixing up a visual storm

Special to The Times

A white sheet hangs from the club’s wall, and images of a river run through it, followed by a river of images: A Venus flytrap closes on an aphid. Birds soar over sunset-lighted water. Shirtless Southeast Asian worshipers fill the makeshift screen. As two electronic music performers tweak laptop computers for a live performance at the Knitting Factory’s weekly Twine e-music showcase, their heads and neck are covered with projected visuals, framed and inspired by dreadlocked VJ Michael Allen. He’s more than just the eye-candy man: He’s part of the show, a performer who unleashes staccato nature scenes that he manipulates so they shift beats and tones.

In the mid-'90s, pundits proclaimed the vinyl-spinning club DJ to be the next pop superstar (and with million-selling acts such as Paul Oakenfold, it was a prophecy partially fulfilled). These days, VJs like Allen have become a staple at most DJ-driven mega-clubs, while VJ gear, including laptop-powered video-editing programs, is cheaper and more accessible. Thus the VJ -- in this case more of a “visuals jockey” than a mixer of music videos or an MTV-style host -- has been elevated to a club staple and occasional standout in the dance scene. Look out DJ, here comes the VJ.

Vello Virkhouse, a.k.a. VJ V2, has made a career of VJing alongside major acts Korn and Stone Temple Pilots, e-music group Electric Skychurch and trance stars Deepsky. He’s also helping satisfy the growing demand for value-added CD-DVD hybrids that fuse DJ-mixed music compilations and VJ-produced visuals. Dance label Moonshine Music launched Moonshine Movies last year in part to pioneer the new format, and the result has been a modest success, with 10 titles so far selling between 5,000 and 12,000 units each. There are plans for 10 more each year, including a Virkhouse-driven “Happy2bHardcore” DVD out this month, says Moonshine co-owner Jonathan Levy.

German superstar DJ Paul van Dyk’s latest mix, “Global,” was released this month in a double-disc package that includes an audio CD and a DVD with nearly two hours of VJ-style videos and footage from tour stops in Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo and Mexico City set to his trance tunes.

“I wanted to make it a special package with the pictures that capture the worldwide success of electronic music,” Van Dyk said. “It was our first DVD project -- and I’m sure it has a future.”


Diverse roots

Club VJing clearly has its roots both in the ‘60s psychedelic light shows presented by San Francisco concert promoter Bill Graham and the art-music fusions of Andy Warhol and composer Philip Glass. Today, more than a few young VJs admire the celebrated video art of Bill Viola. Dutchman Peter Rubin is considered one of the first true VJs, displaying his wares in clubs starting in 1979 and moving on to become the resident visual artist at Berlin’s annual mega-rave called “Love Parade.”

In the early ‘90s, raves featured music-triggered “intelligent lighting” along with film loops and the liquid oil projections of the bell-bottom past. The VJ scene today is still split between art students and psychedelic warriors -- although sometimes these schools merge in the form of one artist, such as L.A.-based Allen, an art-school graduate who enjoys giving club-goers “something to trip on, even if they’re not trippin’.”

By the mid ‘90s, British electronic music acts such as Coldcut, Future Sound of London and EBN helped push visuals to the forefront during their performances. At the same time, Coldcut members wrote and released Vjamm, one of the first software titles specifically for VJing (now VJs also use ArKaos and Apple’s Final Cut). Coldcut member Matt Black went on to help found, a nonprofit, government-funded VJ-support organization that shows how the U.K. is ahead in the VJ game. England’s Light Surgeons VJ crew, for example, is widely cited as one of today’s best visual acts.

The West Coast is clearly a U.S. stronghold of VJ culture, if only because many of those who call themselves visual jocks subsidize their hobby with day jobs as Hollywood film editors or Silicon Valley computer engineers. “The dot-com bust helped fuel the VJ boom here in San Francisco,” says the VJ Culture. “When all the dot-coms were going out of business, projectors were going really cheap. Then you had tech-savvy kids who lost their jobs. Some of them embraced the VJ scene.”

A lucky few rely on the music industry in Hollywood to find clients for their visual assaults. Virkhouse is a star who broke out of the e-music underground to produce visuals for Korn’s live tour last year and for a forthcoming Jay-Z TV special. “It definitely started in the underground scene for me, but limiting yourself to the electronic scene is a bad move,” Virkhouse says. “The electronic guys don’t have the budget to do shows.”

Deepsky, however, has made it a priority to have Virkhouse work his two-screen atmospheric magic that sometimes recalls Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi.” Virkhouse “allows us to provide the fans with a completely immersive experience,” says Deepsky’s Jason Blum.

Sasha and John Digweed employed Hollywood visual-effects team Imaginary Forces to create tribal images for VJs to manipulate on the duo’s Delta Heavy U.S. arena tour last year. And artists ranging from abstract hip-hop impresario DJ Shadow to British techno stars Orbital don’t travel far without a VJ.

“It has operatic overtones, telling a story through staging and music,” says CalArts media professor Tom Leeser, who directs CalArts’ Integrated Media Program, which encourages film and music students to interact on audiovisual installations that dance on the artistic edge of VJ’ing. “It’s an event.”

A trove of film

Allen, 29, got an associate of arts degree from the Art Institute of Dallas and soon found himself touring with Texas rock group Trippin’ Daisy until its demise two years ago. That’s when he moved to L.A. and found full-time opportunities on the club scene, including his five-nights-a-week VJ residency at Hollywood spot Star Shoes and occasional stints at Twine. Six years ago, he purchased the Fort Worth Independent School District’s 16-millimeter educational film archive for $1 a reel (the district moved to VHS). He ended up with 2,900 films -- the basis for his projection-based installations.

At Twine on a recent Wednesday, Allen used two projectors to place images on four hula hoop-sized screens on stands while a bedsheet was the centerpiece canvas for digital video projection. In the same way a DJ uses two turntables to blend separate songs, Allen used a TiVo hard disc recorder as one source and a DVD player as another as he mixed images onto the sheet using a Panasonic MX-12 digital video mixer. Colorful balloons were released into an icy sky, while earth-tone scenes of fall rolled on the nearby set of hoops, accompanied by the words “autumn across North America.” The result was sublime. “I’m all for educational videos from the ‘60s,” said one club-goer.

Virkhouse, also 29 and a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, prefers “100% original” video creations, including 400 hours of digital animation from his own animation studio. His work ranges from rainbow psychedelia to chromatic skies and photograph-sampled realism, which he pumps out through two Dell Inspiron PC notebooks and blends using a Panasonic MX-50 digital video mixer. He is also the rare VJ who has his own digital video projector, courtesy of sponsor Sharp Electronics. (The projectors are prohibitively expensive -- sometimes reaching into the six figures -- so most rely on the house to provide them.) Virkhouse, in fact, is a virtuoso of the sponsorship game, exchanging brief, sometimes nearly subliminal flashes of advertising during his shows for goods and cash from the likes of Ben Sherman and ESDJ Co. clothing firms.

“I consider myself a master of non-intrusive marketing,” he says. “Sometimes it’s completely psychedelic or abstract, sometimes it’s completely narrative.”

To CalArts’ Leeser, Virkhouse’s advertising campaign foretells the continuing mesh of ads and art. “There’s a dialogue with the commercial world that younger people feel more comfortable with,” he says. “You almost can’t avoid it. If you want to get something off the ground, you have to come to terms with a Faustian relationship there.”

There is much hope that the VJ can make the leap to DVD sales in the same way DJ culture hit the mass market in the early ‘90s by turning hip-hop’s beloved mix tapes into money-making CD compilations. Already, the “Weekend Vibe” television show (carried locally by KNBC at 4 a.m. Sundays) is showcasing hip-hop’s visual answer to the mix tape with a weekly top 10 countdown of videos digitally mixed in rap DJ fashion At least creatively, Leeser thinks music-visual DVDs “are going to be huge,” especially with PC-based DVD burners hitting the market, sometimes for less than $200. CalArts is planning a DVD burning center, he says. But others think DVDs will have the same problems that CDs have today.

“We will absolutely release a DVD version of an upcoming album containing video and audio,” Deepsky’s Blum says. “As for DVD being the solution to file sharing, that’s hardly the case. Even today, DVDs are pirated and traded.”

“I’ve seen some really great visuals DVDs,” says Tony Edwards, a.k.a. DJ VMX (who says he created the term “vmixing” to describe what a VJ does). “But I ask myself, where are people playing these things? Maybe at a house party. I think that video art, whether it be at a club, a gallery or even a museum, is best enjoyed outside the home.”


Michael Allen

Who: Michael Allen and fellow VJs Tom Fitzgerald, Fan, TV Sheriff, Anna Lee Lawson and others.

When: Tuesday, 9:30 p.m.

Where: Star Shoes, 6364 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.

Price: Free.

Contact: (323) 462-7827.