From ears to eyes: VJing today

Whenever the word ‘concert’ is mentioned, a few key images will inevitably come to mind. A musician or a group up front, backed by a band or a troop of dancers and if we’re talking an international act, there’s a high chance a few pyrotechnics are involved. When the words ‘DJ’ or ‘electronic artist’ are mentioned however, the collective image is still largely that of a lone individual tweaking dials behind a deck or two of wires, screens, and other electronic equipment, topped with a set of headphones. Of course this is not the case.

As South Africa’s electronic scene becomes increasingly popular through the realm of live performance, the theatrical element to the genre is as important as ever. You need only look back to recent festivals such as the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival to get an idea of the live visual element to the genre. But who is responsible for the fanciful shapes, hypnotic graphics and eye catching imagery? That would be the VJs of course.

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VJs, or visual jockeys, are essentially to visuals what DJs are to music. Using sampled imagery or created graphics, VJs are responsible for creating the theatrical element of the performance, complementing the sounds and tempo of the music itself and creating a holistic audio-visual experience for audiences.

Today the tools of the trade come in a few forms, namely laptops, controllers of all kinds, or even iPads which allow VJs more mobility on stage. A few years back, it was a different story. Gear was mostly analogue and visuals were sourced from VHS tapes, old 8mm slide projectors and live projections. Peter Robson, largely considered one of the pioneers of SA’s VJing scene, explains that when he started out, electronic music was still in its fledgling stages and that when it came to accompanying visuals, experimentation was everything.

“When I started out, I was really inspired by a guy who worked around Cape Town in the 80s called Matt the Lighting Wizard. He had this psychedelic show going with analogue equipment like oil wheels, slide projectors and mirror balls. It really helped transform the environment, which was usually some loft or big empty space, into something much more theatrical,” he explains.

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With a background in sound and lighting for live productions, Peter later teamed up with a friend in the mid-90s to start a regular gig called ‘The Gel’ at Cape Town’s Long Street Theatre. Although they featured live bands, the events mostly came in the form of DJs and electronic experiences, showcasing genres such as techno, rave and drum ‘n bass to the local scene.

“The venue was a big empty basement with black walls, and the stage lighting was pretty sparse compared to the flashier club set-ups, so we had get really creative on the visual side,” he explains. “Luckily, the one cool thing we had, was a big three-gun Sony projector that filled an entire wall with. We started mixing up VHS, computer graphics and the likes, along with slide shows and home-made effects.”

Fast forward a few years and VJing is still a niche market, but one that’s growing exponentially when it comes to the technical side of things. Inka Kendzia, better known as The Grrrl, is a VJ who’s worked with the likes of PHfat, Mix ‘n Blend, and of course, Mr Sakitumi. Her entrance to the profession came by way of a mentorship of sorts by Peter himself and since starting out in the early 2000s mixing VHS tapes with a MX50 mixer, she’s now made a name for herself as one of SA’s most well-known VJs, bringing visuals in the form of hypnotic graphics, pulsating, cartoon like characters and even 3D mapping for both musicians and visual artists. When it comes to Inka’s process, she explains that often she’ll run through an act’s sound and setlist if she can, getting a feel for their music and how it’ll translate visually, but that sometimes, doing it on the fly results in the best performances.

“I recently played for Goldie for his set at CTEMF, which was decided a few hours earlier. Before his set I spent an hour or so adding clips to my media bin that I thought would work for his style and set up some FX chains and then just jammed…it was a complete trip!” she says. “I love that kind of mixing, as I am on a journey with the musician just seeing where the music takes me and expressing it with whatever images that immediately feel right. It’s a bit like meditating and just flowing with the senses, from ears straight to eyes via my OHMRGB controller and VDMX and a ton of visual treats.”

VJing is still a largely overlooked and undervalued profession, meaning VJing often comes in the form of a side-project for many. Anthea Duce, commonly known as Duce Duce is a VJ who also applies herself to artist management, graphic design and illustration, and even events management. The Cape Town based bi-weekly Cold Turkey events organised by Anthea were one of the spaces she felt she could truly experiment with and platform the profession.

“I think VJing is a great expense to promoters and party organisers, and so it’s a serious consideration to have VJs present at an event, and often but not always we aren’t reimbursed for the work we do (which is labour and time‐intensive and quite an expensive job!),” she explains. “I wish there were more platforms for us. I love doing it and ended up creating my own platforms to perform through events at LB’s lounge, and my party Cold Turkey. Without doing this I wouldn’t have been able to practise as much or feel out my craft or develop my own style.”

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So where does the future of the craft lie? As electronic music makes an increased move offline and into the live music scene, the onus is ultimately on the fans to come through to events and support the local scene. Danielle Clough who also goes by Fiance Knowles, explains that in a growing visual world, VJs should be highly sought after, but that promoters also need to realise the value in the profession.   

“I think we are so visually saturated all the time with media and advertising that our primary source of communication is images. It makes sense that music would use this as the next layer to live performance, and I think that promoters are catching onto this slowly,” she explains. “There will always be VJs coming in and out of the game, because you can’t sustain yourself purely on a VJ income, but in the last few years the community is growing, it works in waves.”

While VJing isn’t currently as economically accessible as its musical counterpart, DJs and VJs are ultimately in the same boat. Both professions rely on live performance and all of the elements that come with that, right down to the venue’s setup, artist budget and customer market. VJs need audiences as much as musicians do and as The Grrrl so simply puts it, “Like all things, it comes down to passion, price and how much we can give to it all. So support artists, support festivals and support events of all kinds. Show your love.”

Photos by Jonathan Ferreira, Mik Motola, Makhulu, and John- Henry Bartlett from CTEMF 2015. 

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