VJ Culture

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 artand cultural scene in New York. MTV co-founder Bob Pittman appropriated the term for his MTV presenters.(i) To this day the term VJ is still a disputed name.


According to Dutch VJ Micha Klein "The difference between a VJ on TV and a VJ in a club is the same as the difference between a radio- and a club-DJ". According to many VJs, a VJ is again much more than just a club VJ. For these people the most important aspect of VJ-ing is the live connection between the sounds and images, be it in a club, theatre, exhibition hall or in small gatherings. But foremost VJ’s are often seen and regarded as a follower of the House and Techno scene. And the aesthetics are mostly compared with those of video clips that get broadcasted by different music channels on television.

a short history

In the late 1970 and start of the 1980s a new sound surfaces in both Europe and the United States. A sound that had its origins in disco. The early discotheque was not just a place were you could dance, it was a custommade environment, where the décor and the ambience were as important as the music. "[The DJ] experimented with lights and mirrors in the club, and saw himself as doing more than just playing records: his selections were responding to the crowd, controlling the atmosphere on the floor".(ii) With the arrival of new technology, the drum beat and the synthesizer, the disco sound changes and an electronic feel surfaces. This cleared the room for House, Acid and Techno music.

1977 marks the time in history when this new technological tool - the synthesizer - is introduced, which becomes paradigmatic for a shift in attention. That year bands and singers from different musical backgrounds start making use of this new technology. After the second Summer of Love in 1988 the new Acid House became widely accepted and very popular. The spirit of the House scene was one of togetherness, happiness: the gateway to collective community action and euphoria. This was reflected in the staging of the events. The House Parties were large gatherings of people who came to enjoy the music as one united group asserting their identity. Although some people claim that the VJ came into play to give the parties a more profound look, a face or even an icon, it was much more a new element, an addition to a culture. Parties consisted of music, lights, paintings, live shows and many other things. "At ‘Die Macht Der Nacht’ (1989/1992), we had hairdressers, still photographers, high wire artists performing over the dance floor while everyone danced below, fire artists - including fireworks artists!!, theatre, black light artists, as well as other assorted goodies I’m sure I’ve forgotten. To say nothing of all the little stands selling various products made by the culture. All these elements were totally secondary to the main element of the evening - the PEOPLE getting together and communicating with each other".(iii) These days House music was more than just something to dance to. It was a huge shared secret, incomprehensible to the mainstream. A whole generation was in on it, meeting at motorway service stations in the middle of the night to follow coded directions to illicit parties and dance until dawn. The police and local government officials hunted down these outbreaks of outlaw spirit that spurred hundreds of thousands of people to break into warehouses and set up sound systems in remote fields. But by the mid- ‘90s the now more generally termed ‘dance music’ retreated back into the clubs, opting for constraint and control, and in the process created its first generation gap.

The year 1981 marks another important step that was of importance for the intertwining of sound and image and the future of video. Music television station MTV started nonstop broadcasting of music-video clips. These clips were intended to boost sales on the music charts. In the meantime the clips also provided the singer or band with a more profound image. By overturning traditional conventions regarding imagery a new visual language was created which reached thousands of people at the same time. With the coming of digital video editing this became even more apparent. Regardless of all that can and has been said about the advantages, disadvantages and meaning of this new phenomenon, the fact remains that it did lead to a stronger connection between music and visuals. Many VJs today still say they are inspired by all the visual manipulations and effects in music- video clips.

Although visuals were seen in clubs before, it was not until the introduction of House music that visuals become aesthetically synonymous with the music. Different people started around the same time in different places, but all had the same goal: trying to create a real-time continuity between image and sound. The aesthetics, goals and material they used were as varied as the people producing them. Important to realise is "that this is a music that came into existence because it could, a way of life that has always stood at the very forefront of change. Designer drugs, drum machines, synthesisers, samplers, speakers, lights, lasers, motorways, mobile phones - dance culture has always taken the very latest technology has to offer and twisted it to its own hedonistic ends. But it has also been the forefront of social change. Clubs have always been places hidden from the everyday world, where we can experiment with new identities and lifestyles, where people forced out on to the margins could find space to escape, dance and feel free. Where they could transcend".(iv)

from raves to club to gallery

The first VJs in the mid 80s did not conceive of their work as an extension from the world of music or art but, rather, they regarded their work as a form of progressive social communication. Their goal was to develop new theories and practices regarding visuals, music and social ideology (i.e. how to best communicate social messages within the rapidly changing technological environment). At the heart of these experiments was the presumption that the power and scope of sound and image in perfect balance could best meet the needs of these latest challenges. As described above, a club was seen as an environment wherein one would not run away from reality but, rather, get the inspiration and renewed mindset to improve the conditions that exist within reality. However, as culture became more and more commercialised, the social messaging which permeated the initial period of video mixing was replaced in great part by the flashings of the individual VJ.

The House parties of the late 1980s and beginning of the 1990s shared parallels with the sixties. The starting years of club culture, 1988-1991, coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tianamen Square Student Protest and gave birth to the Love Parade, Mayday and Techno. The House and Techno scene exploded as a social force throughout the world.(v) The imagery of the VJs was mostly realistic, which engaged the clubbers into an involvement with life, and when it was abstract is was used as a means to give an alternative example to the processed MTV visualising of the day. A fundamental change started in 1991, when the DJ was placed at the centre stage. "It was because of the energy and excitement generated by the global House Nation that the industry decided to invade the club scene at the end of 1990 and throughout 1991".(vi)

1994-1995 marks the point were commercialism finally supersedes the idealism of the first generation. The new VJ was without politics. In the spirit of the House scene people in the mid 90s wanted to create beautiful images and create positive icons that are uplifting and will "give you a boost and a positive vibe for the whole day."(vii) There was talk of a new age, about opening new doors of perception, but everywhere you went these were nothing more than vague notions. "This was a movement about feeling, about friendship and fun rather than serious thought".(viii) People demanded more than the disco glitter ball of the 70s, a few flashing lights or liquid slides. They wanted a total experience, colourful images that bounced on the screens that hung at the side of the dance floor, multiple coloured lasers, fire eaters, magicians, exiting live acts and MDMA, pleasure in pill form, the instant escape.

The art of the VJ of the second half of the ‘90s had become as diverse as the different styles in music. Everybody seemed to work with digital technology and everyone could be a DJ or VJ. The more generally termed ‘dance music’ retreated back into the clubs. Many people abandoned the large (many commercial) raves to start their own experiments, leaving inclusiveness for constraint and control, but making their own decisions. In the process they created the first generation gap. The background of the VJ had also changed. The pioneers in the VJ scene were experimental filmmakers, people from lighting companies or artists who had been trained in art academies. The second generation of VJ’s formed collectives with people from different traditions. Some had their roots in computer programming while others in graphic design, film directing or sound. These collectives were the perfect example of the cross-disciplinary collaborations that found their heyday in the mid and late 1990s. By this time the differences between VJ’s are enormous, many VJ’s start editing their material live on a computer which could change and recompose the material in many ways. Some use found footage and other film material to tell their story others produce their own footage. The way of working very much reflects the 1990s post-modern culture that was reworking, recombining and analysing already existing media material to make sense of the world. At first the motto for the performances was to use as many colourful images as possible that would change fast and apply as many layers as you can. Noticing that this strategy was not very satisfying, many VJs started to focus on their own identity.

This forming of an individual style and identity brought about different performances. Many VJs left the clubs to perform in cafés, theatre shows, shops, art galleries and museums. Today we see a VJ playing in different locations and if it wants, the public can see a different style every night of the week, from graphics, video, found film footage, television show material, computer generated abstracts to slides. But are all these different people VJs? And do they still consider themselves a VJ? Looking at the diverse history of live interaction performances between sound and image, its ancestors and the ground that was shaped for the VJ to perform its task, it seems almost impossible to come up with just one term. VJs who are playing more outside than inside a club tend to see themselves not as VJ but more as a visual artist or visual performer. Also those playing in clubs are not fond of the association the word VJ has, as it often gets treated as a minor detail in the entertainment scene. So other names come across like visual jockey, visual performer, pixel jockey and visual mix artist. Hopefully these different names will do justice to a field that is as diverse as the images they create.

Annet Dekker, April 2005

Annet Dekker (NL, 1970) is a curator at the Netherlands Media Art Institute, Montevideo in Amsterdam, NL. She works in the area of new media: researched, published and curated media (art)exhibitions and debates. She presented at various international festivals / seminars and was part of the international festival jury’s. Currently she is also co-curator for Impakt Online and the Netherlands Film Festival. Subjects of interest are the influence of new media and popular culture on art and vice versa. Her current research is “VJ culture: a phenomenon in history, presentation and perception”.




Discussion in Kiasma Theatre on Saturday 16th, at 14:00-16:00






(i) Strikingly the term VJ gets still associated with MTV. On a well known VJ mailing list eyecandy Stefan G. tells a nice anecdote: “Funnily enough, when MTV were scouting around for ‘Presenters' six months or so before they started, they put out a call for VJs to send them demos – Everyone who was a working VJ at the time sent them MAD multilayered mixes thinking that's what they meant! They had to put out another press release clarifying that they defined VJ as an on-air personality not a visual mixer! Shows how corporations can co-opt & redefine our own terminology, 20 years later even VJs think that the term was invented by MTV...” (Stefan G. on eyecandy, Wed Mar 14, 2001, 7:49 pm, Message 7206).

(ii) Sheryl Garrett, Adventures in Wonderland. A Decade of Club Culture (London, Headline Book Publishing, 1998 – paperback 1999) p.6

(iii) Peter Rubin, ‘A bit of the past, a bit of the future,’ in: Localizer 1.0 The Techno House Book (Gestalten Verlag, Berlin, 1995)

(iv) Sheryl Garrett (paperback 1999) p.3-4

(v) “One of the most revolutionary aspects of House culture was that they were the first generation to truly begin to actively organize like-minded communities throughout the world via cyberspace. Up until 1989/1990, House culture looked at the computer freaks as weird nerds with big eyeglasses who did nothing but sit in front of their screens all day. The ‘nerds’ thought of House culture as ‘druggies, dropouts and losers’. Around the turn of the decade, the two finally joined together. Once these two subcultures began working cooperatively, an ever-increasing number of social experiments in cyberspace followed, which laid the foundation for any number of social directions which exist today (message list projects and events, blogging, coordination of international funding and support resources, recognition and communication with third world youth cultures, creating bridges between street culture and traditional art communities, etc. etc. In other words, the identification and coordination of the global House Nation movement”. Peter Rubin, July 2004

(vi) Interview with Peter Rubin, Amsterdam July 2004 (forthcoming 2005)

(vii) Jim Cook, “Shallow happiness never lasts”, in: Flash Art, October 1999

(viii) Sheryl Garrett (paperback 1999) p.112