Introduction


01-05-2003


by Annet Dekker

'Let's pretend there is a way of getting through into it somehow, Kitty. Let's pretend the glass has gone all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it's turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It'll be easy enough to get through--' She was up on the chimneypiece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.'
from: Alice Trough the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll (1871)

In our daily life our various senses are under constant assault. Visitors in shops, cafes and even on the street get overwhelmed with beats accompanied by flickering lights, video and digital imagery, all of them trying to keep up with the music. These developments are most prominent in the club scene where the sounds merge with light, images, smoke and even smell. After the popularity of the Disc-Jockey (DJ) the Video-Jockey (VJ) entered the club scene in the late '80s. The term VJ was popularised in the beginning and mid-'80s by television broadcaster MTV. A few years before, the end of the 70s, the term was introduced by the crew of the Peppermint Lounge, a popular dance club in New York. The performers wanted to distance themselves from the stuffy video artists that were part of the art- and cultural scene in New York. MTV co-founder Bob Pittman appropriated the term for his MTV presenters.[ii] To this day the term VJ is still a disputed name.

At first sight the work of a VJ looks similar to that of a video artist. Using the same equipment, it has a similar aesthetics. But in contrast to most video artists the VJ only operates live. In this way VJ shows are related to performance art, especially the live creation of an experience where different senses are being triggered. Most VJ's see themselves having a direct link with the rise of House music in the mid-'80s and the popularity of video clips. In this paper I will show that the now common combination of DJ's and VJ's in clubs is a recent form of synaesthetic performance.

Synaesthesia is the recreation of a sensation through sounds, scents, the visual, the physical the word and all other sensations. The British theoretic and critic Josephine Machon describes the synaesthetics as a performance in which different artistic forms, principles and techniques are brought together in a way to evoke an emotional response by the viewer. [iii] Looking at the history of the live image it will become clear that the DJ/VJ performance is another way to try to get people through Alice's Looking Glass into another world. To fully understand the importance of the intertwining of sound and image in clubs, I want to draw attention to the fact that the DJ/VJ show has its roots in performance art and therefore deserves special attention when describing and analysing conceptions of contemporary performance art. Because the differences among VJ's are enormous nowadays, I will focus on performances that make a physical and psychological connection with the public through the synthesizing of various media like sound, image, smoke, smell, etc. These synaesthetic performances can be seen as the first attempts to create a virtual reality outside the confinements of the CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) [iv] or specially designed suits, in spaces in which the participation of the public is crucial to the success of a performance.

Before looking at contemporary practices I will briefly go into the history of the live image and its connection to sound, followed by the circumstances that lead to the introduction of the VJ.