The Mercury Boy VJs are Cal-TV, 3-Pin and Yeager (John Callaghan, Leon McCarthy and Tim Duggan). Their speciality is large scale audio-visual spectacles such as when they used the office blocks in George’s Dock IFSC as huge projection screens for the Dublin Fringe Festival launch in 2007.
They started off as a media art collaborative in 2005, but now now also produce music videos, commercials and video podcasts such as The Bubble.
They weren’t free to do an interview together for What The Fuck Is VJing?! back in October, but John and Leon very kindly offered to respond to my questions via video podcast instead. Here’s the transcript:
WHAT IS VJING?
JOHN: It’s when you listen to music and you close your eyes and you start imagining scenes or visions. That’s what a VJ is doing with music.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN VJING?
LEON: Individually, as 3-Pin, I’ve been VJing since 2004, and collectively with Mercury Boy, we’ve been together, running events and performing as visual artists, since mid-2005.
HOW DID YOU START VJING?
JOHN: How did I start VJing? The first thing that kind of peaked my interest was Coldcut’s Timber video. I started going to a couple of festivals that (had) a lot of VJ emphasis, like the Big Chill, stuff like that, and I saw Hexstatic. I thought “Well, I have to give this a go,” and I was interested in the more audio-visual side of it rather than just the VJing side of it. I thought that the way guys like Coldcut and Hexstatic were doing things was just clever. And it was working on a dance floor, but it actually had a meaning to it, rather than the more wallpaper-y visual stuff.
DO YOU THINK VJING IS AN ART FORM? WHY?
LEON: Do I think VJing is an art form? VJing can be an art form, yet it can also be a form of entertainment. If a VJ plays generic video in a nightclub, as a form of wallpaper for a DJ, well then it’s entertainment. Yet if the VJ produces audio-visual media to stimulate thought in the viewer, then it’s an art form and what else is art but that which challenges you to engage?
WHAT MAKES VJING DIFFERENT TO OTHER ART FORMS?
JOHN: What makes VJing different from other art forms… I think the way it’s constantly evolving and also the way it takes elements from so many other disciplines like computer programing for generative visuals and illustration and graphic design and CGI and 3D and all these different things.
WHAT WOULD YOU SEE AS OBSTACLES TO VJING BEING CONSIDERED A VALID ART FORM? OR A PARTICULAR VJ SET FROM BEING TRULY ARTISTIC?
LEON: What obstacles are there to VJing becoming a valid art form… I suppose primarily those challenged by it, those afraid of engaging with the technology, with the subject and the content matter. Of course those who VJ badly also give the genre a bad name, but I think in general it’s an art form that’s valid in it’s own time and space, culturally and currently.
WHAT DO YOU AIM FOR IN YOUR VJ SETS?
JOHN: Something emotive the audience responds to, something original. I don’t think it ever… A VJ set isn’t working if the crowd isn’t looking at it and talking to their friends and pointing at it. Otherwise it’s kind of pointless I think. So I always try and grab people’s attention and get a bit of engagement with the audience. Also, synchronicity and having things happening in tune with the music is important.
DESCRIBE WHAT YOUR VJ SETS ARE LIKE.
LEON: Describe what our VJ sets are like… Our VJ sets would vary greatly depending on the venue and the event and what equipment we’d decide to bring along. We’ve moved from the straight up nightclub set-ups where we would run possibly two laptops, some MIDI controllers, lots of external hard drives, vision mixer and then a live camera on stage, and that allows us, along with a DVD player, to layer backing footage over either live footage of the performers or live motion graphics over other content that we’d key in under the top layers of footage.
Stylewise… I think we always tend to come at an event with a direction in mind and an orientation as to what tempo and what density the content’s gonna be at different stages of the evening. And then behind that, I suppose we try and back it up with certain messages that are important to us, at that point in time.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE VJ SCENE IN IRELAND?
JOHN: What do I think of the VJ scene in Ireland? It’s much bigger than it used to be. I think over the last two or three years it’s exploded, but I think it’s still if you want to make a career of it, it’s not really a viable thing to do. Mainly because, if you want to create good content and original stuff, which takes so long, and you can’t afford to, y’know, spend your whole time creating content when you’re getting paid like €200 to do eight hours work a week. It just isn’t economical.
THE ISSUE OF VJS MAKING THEIR OWN CONTENT VERSUS SAMPLING OR DOWNLOADING CLIPS… HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THIS?
LEON: You’re asking me the issues regarding whether VJs should sample or should download or should produce their own material. I think the viewer is discerning. So should the artist be. And as with DJs, people have now become uninspired by the same old DJ set and when that happens with visuals, I mean only the fittest will survive. But in the end, it’s VJs who create their own content that do so for their own satisfaction and the VJs who solely rip samples and play it safe do so for their buzz, and in the end I think we all get what we want out of it.
Mercury Boy: http://www.mercuryboyinc.com
The Bubble: http://www.thebubble.ie
What is VJing? VJing is… It’s different styles for different people, but for me is kind of complementing DJs, complementing bands with a specific style of visuals, like specific to my kind of style, but also kind of taking into account the style of music that you’re playing for and trying to adapt your style for that kind of music.
So VJing, it’s mixing live. Like a VJ, where you’re mixing live video, everything is pretty much off the cuff. You have a general idea in your head of where you’re gonna take your set but everything is pretty much on the fly, you edit as you go along so I think it’s very organic, flowing and just kind of fun. I mean I don’t really think about it too much before I do a set. I just kind of take the clips that I have and edit them, mess about with them, add different effects, do different transitions, just mix and scratch as I go along, depending on the style of music.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN VJING?
Roughly about four years, but properly I’d say only for the past two and a half years.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN VJING? WHAT ATTTRACTED YOU TO IT?
Growing up, I was always interested in video editing. My dad was big into it, and photography as well. We had an old analogue editing suite that I used to mess about with a lot and do lots of school projects on so I was always interested in that.
When I was in college in my final year I got to do a project with Media Lab Europe with a guy called Michael Lew. He was working on a live editing system and his project was called Live Cinema, so he held interviews in the college for that and I went for it and I got the placement and got to do my final year project with Media Lab, and that’s how I kind of got into VJing. He kind of introduced me to it. He was very much based around live action and film and interactive media as well so he gave me a very good introduction to VJing.
Back then, especially in Ireland, it was very unknown and I didn’t know exactly what it was and I mean then when I was doing the project… Now I’d do it very different, just from the past experience, but that’s pretty much how I got into VJing.
When I started doing my first gigs, it was with a band, that was just a very specific style of music. I only started doing club visuals about two years ago.
DO YOU THINK VJING IS AN ART FORM?
Absolutely, it’s an art art form. I mean it’s expressive, different people have different styles, like we said, you have people who create their own stuff, people who sample stuff, people who use photography. There’s also abstract. There’s people who write programs and write scripts that would be the visuals being influenced by the music and tones and different parameters, so it can also be interactive. I mean, yeah.
WHAT MAKES VJING DIFFERENT TO OTHER ART FORMS?
I think in one way is the fact that it’s live. I mean there’s not in the general realm of “art” I suppose not many things are actually live. A lot of it is pre-done, like say for painting or photography or something like that, it’s always done in the studio whereas for VJing you pre-prepare your footage, but more of your editing and what people see, that’s all done live. So the final output, the final actual art form as you call it, is a live piece. I think that’s quite different, and that it’s always changing, it’s always evolving. It’s never usually the same thing twice, maybe same or similar content but you’re always mixing that content differently, so yeah, it’s definitely a very expressive art form. From that point of view I think it’s a lot different to other art forms.
WHAT WOULD YOU SEE AS OBSTACLES TO VJING BEING, OR BEING CONSIDERED, AN ART FORM?
That’s down to just people’s opinion. I see it as an art form. I mean it’s down to people’s styles on how people approach it but I think no matter what you’re doing or what kind of style you have I think it’s an art form.
I mean anything’s an art form. I’ve seen people sign their name to a toilet bowl and call that art. It’s really down to personal opinion. I see it as an art form and I know a lot of people see it as an art form. Other people don’t even really know what it is, yet, but that’s just the way it is in Ireland and a lot of places at the moment. It’s getting a lot better but yeah, I definitely see it as an art form.
WHAT IS YOUR ETHOS FOR YOUR WORK? WHAT DO YOU STRIVE FOR WHEN YOU’RE VJING?
The main thing I strive for is fun. I want my visuals to kind of engage the audience in just a fun way. A lot of the stuff I use would be sampled so I’ll sample stuff that people would recognise in almost a very kitsch kind of way or I’ll use clips that are usually based around a kind of comedy kind of sense.
I still have more ambient visuals that just kind of provide more background, more in keeping with some of the music, but for the highlight pieces of my sets, definitely there’s pieces that are sampled from movies or from commercials or just old comedy, archive footage, but it’s all really based around kind of trying to connect with the audience, make the audience kind of understand the visuals better.
I think one reason I use sampled footage a good bit is people will recognise scenes from different films, and then I’ve seen people where I’ve had say, Betty Boop dancing on screen and then they’ll imitate that on the dance floor – just different things like that I find quite fun. So mainly I just want it to be fun. I want it to be engaging. I don’t want it to be too arty farty, too high end, too serious about it. I want to have fun with it, I want other people to have fun with it so that’s what I strive for.
DO YOU THINK IT’S BETTER TO KEEP AWAY FROM OVER-INTELLECTUALISING IT?
I think that’s up to each person’s different style. I think people who maybe write programs for it and do all the kind of interactive kind of thing, I mean that’s quite intellectual in itself in doing that.
For me, I dunno, I just wanna enjoy it. I don’t think about it too much. I do things that are quite kitsch, sometimes quite crass, just fun, things that kind of engage people, sometimes shock people, but nothing too serious. I’m not trying to answer very deep philosophical questions. I just want people to have fun. I wanna have fun doing it so.
DO YOU FIND IT HELPFUL IN THE PROMOTION OF VJING IN CLUB CULTURE OR THE ART WORLD, OR WHATEVER, TO BENCHMARK/COMPARE OURSELVES TO DJS? DO YOU FIND IT HELPFUL IN THINKING ABOUT YOUR WORK?
I think comparing it to a DJ is usually how I end up trying to describe what I do to people cos usually when people say “Well what do you do?”
I go “I’m a VJ.”
“Oh right…” and they usually reply “You mean a DJ?”
… and I’m like “No, it’s like DJing but it’s mixing videos instead of music.”
And then you’re just like “Oh you mean you play DVDs” or something…
I’m like “No, I actually mix the footage.”
So I mean it’s a good kind of platform to jump off to explain to people but it can be quite different to a VJ. I mean functionally it’s very similar to VJing in a way that you’re mixing and editing different clips but otherwise I think it’s quite different. I mean the way we pre-produce our stuff would be very different to a DJ. They’re just sourcing tracks, unless they’re a producer as well, using their own music. For us we have to source… I think pre-production for us is a lot more.
WHAT ABOUT VJ GENRES? DO YOU THINK THAT WOULD BE HELPFUL? FOR SOMEONE BOOKING US, FOR EXAMPLE?
But that’s the same as booking a DJ. You book a DJ – a DJ could be completely minimal, could be experimental, could be charty, house music… I mean it’s still a DJ. I mean it’s up to the person who’s gonna book you to go and find out what’s your style and it’s up to you to promote yourself and what your style is.
I don’t think splitting up the categories would be at all helpful cos I think we’ve a hard enough time explaining the one category that is VJing without splitting it up even more. I think that would just completely confuse people, so I think for the time being I think promote yourself and the style you do and just kind of promote VJing as a whole.
I mean I understand the argument, but I mean self production of content versus sampling of content, but I think that’s down to personal choice. I mean I’d be like the guy where I see the benefit in sampling clips that people will recognise or sampling clips that I would find have merit within my style of VJing. Then I’ll use my own produced stuff and a lot of stuff I produce would be mostly in relation to the night or to the DJ that I’m performing with. I’ll do a lot of animation of logos and animation of very specific stuff for the club night or the DJ but you’re always gonna have the argument self-produced versus sampled so…
SO… HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE DEBATE OVER SELF PRODUCED VERSUS SAMPLED/DOWNLOADED CONTENT?
I know that some guys do it just for the sake of downloading content so as they can just throw it up on the screen. The problem there is, for me I download or sample stuff with purpose. I know exactly what I’m gonna use it for and why I’m using it, but I do know a lot of people would sample things or download clips purely for the sake of having clips to put up on the night.
You see a lot of people would put up clips that just bear no correlation in style to each other and they just don’t work together at all, they’re just basically putting it up to fill time so they’re not looping constantly the same type of clip. So I mean yeah, it’s very easy to go and download stuff and sample stuff but it has to be used in the right context. You have to use it the right way, you have to mix it the right way and edit it the right way.
DO YOU THINK VJ SETS SHOULD BE BILLED DIFFERENTLY ACCORDING TO WHETHER THE SET IS MADE UP OF THEIR OWN CONTENT, AS OPPOSED TO DOWNLOADED CONTENT? LIKE THE WAY YOU’D HAVE A DJ SET / LIVE SET, FOR EXAMPLE?
I mean that again, that’s down to the artist. If you wanna do just do all your own produced stuff, it’s a lot of work, but I mean it’s great it you can do it. I’d see a case for doing mostly self produced stuff as an exhibition.
I know a lot of VJs, full-time VJs, who have time to do it, definitely would produce most of their own stuff, very show specific, but then they have budgets to do that as well. Like they get paid to produce visuals for specific festivals, for DJs, for events and so that’s all funded.
For the likes of us at the moment, stuff like that wouldn’t be funded, so if we go and self produce stuff it’s off our own bat and the merits, and I know what you’re saying as well… You, like, making most of your own clips versus someone who samples most of their clips, but getting paid the same for a set. I mean yeah, there’s obviously some kind of unfairness there, but again it’s more down to style than to actually say “Well I’m doing this cos it’s cheaper.”
The thing with musical producers would be different cos they’re making money off the back of the music they’re producing through sales, so unless we’re a movie producer or do commercial work, do like ad campaigns or doing, I dunno, viral stuff, anything that’s actually commercial and we’re actually making money out of it, then we’re not gonna. Otherwise we’re just doing stuff for gigs so it’s very hard to get a budget from a promoter to do custom artwork for gigs.
DO YOU THINK LACK OF PAY COMMENSURATE TO TIME SPENT WORKING IS A FACTOR IN STOPPING VJING FROM GROWING?
As far as I can take it, most people I know, like us, we do it because we enjoy it.
It’s nice to get paid for it and it’s even nicer when you get paid well and people pay cos they know what amount of work went into it but I mean for it to grow it’s more a case of one, that we get paid more so we can invest more in our equipment and the time we take to produce stuff, but also in promoters and how they spec out the venues and just having things prepared for us, like having better visual set ups, having in-house mixers, things like that. They just make our lives easier.