Seeing is believing

Outside the bars and pubs of Nottingham, A-boards jostle for position. Clawing at ankles, they flash their wares: “Large-screen television.” Turn up, tune off and flop out. I consider the Sky, decide that it has reached its limit and wearily wander on. Arriving at The Loft on Mansfield Road, I look left, then right. Spying no lurid, wooden pimps, I climb the stairs. Pint in hand and mouth in pint I reach the bar’s zenith. To be confronted by a large screen. But unlike its ground-level counterparts, this screen is not plugged into the audio-visual mainframe. Instead, a pixel-face beams light-waves that bombard the senses. Hypnotic, platform graphics give way to pool-playing canines, engulfed air-travel and meticulously prepared, domino-style chain reactions. In-between sequences and short-films, the word Plug bounces around the screen’s borders. Did the editor forgot to mention something?

Staged once a month at The Loft, Plug is fed by the experimental hands of Toby Rolph and Barret Hodgson. Concocting ocular journeys, they work under the name of Visualab. “It’s a collective of people,” says Toby. “It’s not an exclusive thing. That’s why it’s called Visualab, it’s an open place for people to explore.” People have been exploring the potential of capturing moving images since at least 1867, when William Lincoln patented The Wheel Of Life, a device that showed animated pictures. The roots of what Toby and Barret are doing go back a long way. But speaking with Toby, there seem to be two periods in the last century that stand out. At least, that’s how it seems to my ill-educated mind.

In the late 50s and 1960s designers and artists such as Charles Eames and Nam June Paik began to use film to stimulate different ways of thinking and seeing things. The Guggenheim website says of Paik, “No artist has had a greater influence in imagining and realising the artistic potential of video and television… through a vast array of installations, videotapes, global television productions, films and performances, Paik has reshaped our perceptions of the temporal image in contemporary art.” Talking about his films, Toccata For Toy Trains and Tops, Charles Eames has commented: “They’re not experimental films. They are not really films, just attempts to get across an idea.” In the early 1990s, Chris Allen had an idea and formed The Light Surgeons. For the last thirteen years, Allen and his collaborators have toured the world, bamboozling eyes with their live, visual displays; either on their own or with artists such as The Propellerheads, Cornershop, DJ Food and Unkle. The British Council website positions The Light Surgeons as pioneers of VJ culture. Experimenters with film? VJs? I’m trying to explain what it is that Visualab do. Perhaps I should leave it to Toby and Barret.

“To be honest, I don’t really like the term VJ,” says Toby. “Radio One are currently running Superstar VJ. Why do you have to be a superstar? It’s about showing visuals, whether it’s a narrative or a flashing dot.” Toby is not alone. Eclectic Method – who came third in DJ Magazine’s poll of top VJs for 2005 – released a DVD this year titled We’re Not VJs. The term VJ is understandable, as many modern visual manipulators work with DJs. Visualab are familiar with the club arena, having played at Stealth and the all-night event, Spectrum. Toby explains how he puts images to sound when playing live. “When hearing a sound you think, what’s the emotional attachment? And then you go through your brain for films and clips – something that connects. Playing live, I have video boxes, clips in folders. So when the music starts to deviate I can start to put a different feeling to it. Images can drive the emotion, they can be very powerful. I like to think that I put stuff in because people will like it, use images that are appropriate. But then it depends on the night. If it’s a Bush and War night, then a whole lot of other images might be appropriate!”

But not all of Visualab’s work is in dance clubs. They are becoming regulars at nights hosted by Cardiff-based group, VITO. And using images in different contexts opens up new possibilities. “We’re working towards having a narrative in the imagery,” says Barret. “In the club scene, I think the spontaneity needs to be maintained. But with bands, songs are much shorter and structured, with lyrics etc. It’s got to be pre-thought. We see how loosely we can work within set parameters.” Barret also gets involved with dance and theatre performances. “It’s another extension of using the technology,” he explains. “Visualab are brought in as a freelance outfit, generating some kind of original material. It’s a mixture of film and graphics, worked uniquely into shows. I get my head down with the director and performers, who have usually got some idea of what they want but then we’ll take it a number of steps further.”

Toby is keen to point out that Visualab is very much in its early stages. However, his ambition is already driving towards future projects. “In the 60s, at an exhibition similar to Ideal Home, Eames created a multi-screen, interactive projection wall,” he states. “It was amazing. I guess these are the things we are looking up to.” Listening to Toby talk about the communities that exist, such as the global VJ Central and Nottingham-based NAN, it appears that, far from being aggressively competitive, visual manipulators are very open with their work and techniques. And it seems that Visualab are keen to join the growing number that are using their skills to provoke thought amongst a wider public. “We’re also really into experimenting outside, using different surfaces other than a screen,” Toby continues. “There are so many blank and bare surfaces that are not used for much. And the new technology makes it easier to do this. There’s not as much effort involved as there is lacing up film. If you’re doing guerrilla projections you need to be able to set up and get out quickly.

“I could drive up the A1 now and project flames onto the angel of the north, and the people in the surrounding area would have a completely different view. It can instantly change things, make them mean something completely different for a period of time.” As I’m writing this, I get the feeling that Toby could be in his car right now. But as Barret explains, there may soon be opportunities nearer to home: “There seems to be a buzz around outdoor projection at the minute. In Nottingham there is talk about projecting onto the theatre royal from the corner house, a foundation for artists to show their work. There is also talk about hosting a screen in the market square. The technology is becoming much more accessible.”

Clubs. Gigs. Theatres. Outside. Visualab have started, or are planning to access many spheres of public life; perhaps blurring the clean-cut lines between safe but stimulating entertainment. And uncomfortable, confrontation. But what do they do? I called Toby a few hours after our first chat: “I forgot to mention a quote I really like,” he said. “It’s from Nam June Paik: ‘TV has been destroying our lives. Now we can attack it back.’ I like that,” Toby finishes.


About this entry