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The Art of the VJ: The Origin and History of a Complete Art

Updated: Jun 1, 2019

VDMX screen capture

VDMX Screen Capture

With the constant inundation of audio-visual stimulation, it is difficult for the average person to go for more than a few hours, or even minutes, without the assault of electronic media. It is almost required that sound and image appear together; and, one without the other may be seen as ineffectual. People now expect that audio materials to be accompanied by images and visa versa. With electronic music commonplace, and the DJ now seen as a valid musical performer, something was needed to fill the void of watching actual instrumentalists, singers and conductors on stage. The art of the VJ or Video Jockey has taken this role and become a crucial part of electronic music performance. (Other explanations for the initials are video jam or visual jockey.)

The term VJ caught on in the early 1980s as a title for television presenters on the new MTV (Music Television) network. Yet, the modern VJ does not simply play video, he or she manipulates it in time and synchronizing it to music. The VJ creates a symbiosis of image and sound, mixing video just as audio DJs mix music. This live performance may take place in art galleries, on concert stages or in night clubs. Film-maker Patricia Moran, Ph.D. describes “Vj-ing” as the “smoke that unites stage and screen” for an audience of viewers and participants.


Video as art has permeated the art and commercial worlds simultaneously, leading some art critics to decry it and knock it down as a legitimate artistic field. VJ art can be seen as a tool for promotional events, such as for beverage companies or mobile phone providers. But that does not prevent some intellectuals from singings its praises. Kathleen Forde, curator of the Electronic Media Performing Arts Center in New York, believes that: “VJ-ing is no longer eye candy. Rather is a profound audio-visual art form that is distinctive to performance in a digital age.” Some scholars trace the art of the VJ back to artists like Steina and Woody Valsulka who searched for the “ground principle of the video image”. In fact connecting the spheres of image and sound even further, Steina received her formal training in music in the Prague Conservatory. Since VJ’s origins lie firmly in the hands of both fine artists and popular culture; it is a celebration of the best both worlds can offer.

However, this modern marriage of visual and aural is nothing new, since the ancient world intellectuals are acknowledged the link between the aural and visual senses. The Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras, originally defined harmony as peace and a general feeling agreement according to his mathematical definition of balance that pertained to musical intervals as well as colors. This idea prevailed in European and Islamic thought until the Renaissance.

Nineteenth-century Symbolist artist, M. K. Ciurlionis painted by following musical laws. He believed that melody could be created for the eyes with the movement of form. His exotic colors were the harmony, while the character of the movement of the color symbols created the rhythm. While his contemporary poet V. Bryusov predicted in 1899 that art and music would merge into a new art form. He wrote, “I have dreamt of a visual art similar to the existing audible art for the ears, about ever-changing combinations of features, colors and lights.” Bryusov’s dream has clearly come to life through the twentieth-century’s exponential growth of technology.

Image and Music: Beginnings