It’s a common mistake to mix-up the terms VJ and Visual Artist, as it happened sometime ago when people tend to mistake electronic musicians with DJs. Are those different things? Yes, indeed, and that’s why I wanted to write this article and share my opinion about it. As I found myself sometimes labelled as VJ, or having to explain to musicians what I do and clear out the mess (nope, I don’t just click “play”).
But it’s a common mistake because even within the community of visual arts you find artists defining themselves (or others) as one thing when their work is clearly the other one. How is that possible? I believe that the recent boom of live visual tools and the proliferation of introductory workshops related to this field is creating a big army of future visual generations, mainly based in the tool and rarely digging into the concept and purpose.
Before I start giving my own definition, I would like to point out that this article is not in favor of one thing over the other. It’s not a question of valuing what’s best. I believe that only by sharing and spreading knowledge we achieve our best and we can push forward any artistic discipline. And also, even though I define myself as visual artist, I do VJ-sets and I have fun doing that.
Music as example
VJing and Visualizing are both deeply connected with music, so I usually take music and its own definitions to explain my work to others. Also because I found a lot musicians (or people related to this scene) that assume and ignore the essence or the relevance of our work. And if we aim for proper recognition, we should explain ourselves.
So, a DJ usually mixes songs and samplers from different artists, the key is in a good selection that keeps the vibe and the audience dancing, but also the art in mixing, making it a one long soundtrack that goes smoothly through your ears directly to your soul. Some DJs add effects to the mix, or sample parts of songs in order to make a more creative and unique set. Meanwhile a musician (talking about electronic live music) plays his/her own music, his/her own creations, sometimes sampling (could be from other musicians), sometimes mixing and adding effects, but in the essence is his/her own trip, the key here is his/her own message, style, universe.
Now, going to the visual side: a VJ mixes videos or video loops, could be his/her own creations but usually sampled from movies, music videos, commercials, animations, etc. The key is in the mix and the correspondence in style with the music that is being played. The same way that a DJ set could be a great miscellanea of styles and moods, the VJ set works similarly… That’s why I would suggest that for club sessions with DJs it’s better to hire VJs, because they will match far better one with each other.
And then a visual artist is more like a musician, playing his/her own compositions, sometimes sampling, but the essence here is also his/her own trip, with his/her own message, style, universe. So, in this case I would suggest that if a musician is looking for some visual companion is better to hire a visual artist, work together or at least speak out the direction of the live set. So both artists can find a common ground, shift a bit their work in order to create an effective audiovisual experience.
In few words: Musicians / visual artists are more into displaying a personal work, while DJs / VJs are more about creating an entertaining and pleasing show for the audience, still personal (of course!). It’s the same that happens between a graphic artist and a graphic designer, where you have to take in consideration what is more important: to please yourself or to please the costumer / audience.
[Exceptions to this rule: Of course there are DJs and VJs that are so creative with their technique that the result becomes a work of their own. The same way that there is musicians and visual artists that base their work in the sampling culture, making a mash-up of everything. In those cases is hard to draw a line. But those are exceptions.]
Going more into details
Beside this general overview, I would say there is a lot of details that make a difference, but I guess those details are in some cases a personal choice. So, I could not state the next points as a categorical definition of one or another. Still, these are important aspects that I take into account in order to explain my work, so maybe it could be also relevant facts to define a visual artist’s work:
- Sound signal: For my work it’s mandatory to receive the sound signal, so I need an audio cable coming from the musician to my set up, in order to analyze and use it. Without it you are kind of half-blind (or half-deaf), you can improvise and try to match the music by hearing it, but if nowadays technology is able to give a proper sound-analysis, why not using it? I believe that a perfect synch between audio and visual channels is essential for a good live show, and it upgrades the live experience for the audience.
- Place of performance: If you are playing live in combination with a musician, then you are another element of the whole show. You express your emotions not only through the screen but also with your own performance and attitude, and the audience feels that. Therefor, if possible, I prefer to play side by side with the musician (on the stage or wherever the music is being played). It’s not only a question of image, both sides are doing their best live, but also a question of communication (verbal and non-verbal) between the people performing, like a synergy, a feedback system where all the elements in action push and encourage each other. I also believe that music and visuals are best performed standing up, instead of sitting in a chair, the energy flows differently, it’s a more active and less relaxed attitude, but that depends on the kind of set you are doing, of course.
- Live generated Vs video footage: As commented before the sound signal is a key element in the generation and modification of my visuals, let’s say it’s a 50 – 70% of the data I use in my visual performances. I prefer using live generated visuals than fixed video loops because it allows me to improvise much freely and still be synched with the music. but still, I use video loops to complete the whole image. And of course you can modify those videos in real time through effects (synched or not with audio data). I guess in my case it’s also a personal challenge, as sometimes I played a whole set with 1 static image and 1 channel only, pushing it to the limits of its own expression modulating it live.
- Software set-up: The most common desktop set-ups from softwares like VDMX, Resolume, Modul8, etc. are mostly designed for a classic VJ-set (library of clips, 2 or more channels placed in parallel position, crossfaders to switch between channels, etc.), but for live visuals I prefer to start with an empty desktop, build up a complex main channel, and only add more channels in case is necessary to complete the scene. Absolutely no mouse (tablet or touchpad) for live, I try to design my set-ups so all I have to do live is triggered with a MIDI controller. Why? Live is meant for live, for fun, for action, so having all mapped into a controller allows you to “play” instead of “work” and that influences in your own performance and the perception of the audience.
VJ and live visual scene is constantly evolving, by influencing and infecting each other. VJs are as important to the scene as visual artists, the same way than DJs and musicians. At the end the important is to create a unique experience for the audience, to send a message, something that touches them in a way they will remember the day after, or still years after.
Last but not least, I like to imagine the future of music and visuals as a unified artistic audiovisual expression, where visuals are just another element of a band / project, as important as any other instrument / member, with the same recognition and integration. That’s my aim.
Thanks for reading!