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Some insights about the practice of VJing: An interview with Rossella Catanese

As part of the public lecture series This is Film! Film Heritage in Practice, devoted to remarkable projects in archival film re-use, Eye hosted scholar and VJ Rossella Catanese in May 2021. She performed an immersive VJ set, mixing and manipulating Eye’s unique Bits & Pieces collection. Anna Dabrowska, producer for Eye, spoke to Rossella about her work.

By Anna Dabrowska12 July 2021

still from the Bits & Pieces collection
still from the Bits & Pieces collection
portrait of Rossella Catanese
portrait of Rossella Catanese

About Rossella Catanese

Rossella Catanese is the author of the books Lacune binarie. Il restauro dei film e le tecnologie digitali (2013) and Futurist Cinema. Studies on Italian Avant-garde Film (2017). She is also a postdoc researcher in Film Studies at the University of Udine and adjunct professor at NYU Florence. Rossella was introduced to the concepts, frameworks and techniques of the Vjing by her partner, Piero Fragola, who organizes the MEFF, a modular synthesizer event fair in Florence. Rossella combines her academic carrier with the VJing in clubs that are specialized in electronic music.

slide This is Film! 2021 #5: Bits & Pieces and the VJ

Do you mostly use archival pieces for your VJ creations, and do they own a specific aesthetics that fits into VJing narratives? 

I have always tried to combine archival materials with abstract and graphic animation works. This makes the visual continuity sometimes difficult, but it is much more interesting in terms of creativity.

VJing does not have the goal of a historical contextualization, but the sole goal of creating visuals that trigger the audience’s experience. With regards to the archival film heritage, I use mainly experimental and avant-garde film, and especially the ones where you see the interaction with the human body. My favourite masterpieces, perfectly suit certain atmospheres in the club between abstraction and bodily movement. From Man Ray’s Le retour à la raison (1923) to Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s Ballet mécanique (1924), from René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924) to Hans Richter’s Vormittagsspuk (1928), from Maya Deren’s The Very Eye of Night (1958) to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s L’Enfer (1958), from Norman McLaren’s Pas de deux (1968) to Paul Sharits’ T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968).

However, I always modify them with effects that I apply live. Often they are not even recognizable and get mixed with other content. Graphic animated videos work very well when combined with historical experimental films, especially when they play with the effect of continuity, suggested by lines, shapes, or colours.

How was it, working with the Bits & Pieces collection of Eye?

I have enjoyed this experience very much because it was opposite to my usual work: normally, in clubs, the VJ set has to strengthen the music by enhancing the overall immersive experience of the musical event. Instead, this time, the Bits & Pieces film collection was the core event, rather than the music. The purpose of the music was to emphasize and reinforce these filmic treasures.

In regards to Bits & Pieces: the concept of valorising orphan fragments, whether fiction or non-fiction, as links to a time in the past, is fascinating to me as a film historian. The iconic values, the dynamic force, the colours and the interaction with the contingency (to cite a key concept from Mary Ann Doane’s theory of temporality in the cinema medium, in The Emergence of Cinematic Time) play a pivotal role in my enjoyment of these materials.

Image from a VJ set by Rossella Catanese at Tenax Club, Florence (Italy, 2016). The video source is the music video 5th Interval (Vlaysin Rmx) directed by Piero Fragola and Matteo Giampaglia – music by Avenir&Restivo remixed by Vlaysin. Courtesy of the artists.
Image from a VJ set by Rossella Catanese at Tenax Club, Florence (Italy, 2016). The video source is the music video 5th Interval (Vlaysin Rmx) directed by Piero Fragola and Matteo Giampaglia – music by Avenir&Restivo remixed by Vlaysin. Courtesy of the artists.

Do copyrights form an obstacle in your work?

This is a very complex question. I have downloaded many clips from the Internet Archive, material that was under Creative Commons license; I have also created a videoclip for a Techno-Industrial track by editing some of these clips and working with different effects and montage techniques. But most of the material that I use is protected by copyright. However, because my work consists of heavily manipulating material and modifying it through effects, it is allowed to be screened live.

Can you tell us more about the expanded form of a VJ performance?

We can say that VJs perform a certain kind of “expanded cinema”. Expanded cinema thrived in the ’60s and ’70s and was basically a film screening event that embraced different features of film and video art. Expanded cinema seeks the cinematic outside, to go beyond the typical screen practice of the cinematic medium and the film spectatorship. It is actually an old practice: Futurist painter, Arturo Ciacelli already created a show screening “shadowed films” on the body of dancers in 1915.

This idea of expanding the deputed place of the screening has always been fascinating to me. My case as a performer is deeply rooted in the clubbing practice, where the audience is more focused on the music than on the visual. Although I have plenty of freedom in choosing arthouse films, I always have to interpret the atmosphere and suggest visual content that accompanies the music and the audience’s feedback. The usual context for Techno clubs is often a certain aesthetic atmosphere, which plays with black and white in a tendentially dark mood. In this case, the use of colour film must be sparingly measured, whereas House music, for instance, recalls a more colourful feast and party.

My sets build, together with the music, a visual experience that makes the people in the audience interrogate on the images and shapes that surround them, triggering their visual and cognitive skills in an “expanded” sensorial framework.”

What is your relationship with the VJ technology?

I started to perform as a VJ after 2012, when everything was already digital. It is funny that I have updated the software and implemented the hardware of my computer, but I have used the same laptop since that time! I have another lighter computer but the weight and solidity of an old laptop are an asset in a club, due to the vibrations of the console. This is rather odd, if you think that video making equipment is improved and implemented year by year. The obsolescence of computer hardware is a big issue for all users, especially in the field of the audiovisual industries. Even though I work with high-resolution-born videos, I reduce the size, so that they become lighter and easier to handle. Surely, the digital technologies and non-linear systems offer a very fast and facile way to manipulate and to manage the screenings, whereas analogue systems are more complex and time-consuming, especially for the selection and the real-time mixing.

still from the Bits & Pieces collection
still from the Bits & Pieces collection

Some women complain about the male-centred environment of the VJing. How is that for you?

Actually, the first VJ in history was a woman! In 1980, multimedia artist Merrill Aldighieri was invited to perform at club Hurrah, in New York. At the time, music videos were not that common and the video medium was mainly related to museums and contemporary art galleries. Aldighieri built a visual scenography which interacted with the music, so she mixed, in real-time, video clips to interpret rhythms and breaks of the music flow. Personally, I know many women Vjing in clubs. Also, a lot of important DJs, musicians, composers, and technicians are women. Therefore I have never felt my gender as a disadvantage in this context. Women are often less represented, but, based on my experience, I think that this happens more in the academic framework rather than in clubs.

VJing is mostly about sampling: a technique that was advantaged by the VHS in the ‘70s and now by digital technology and internet access. How do you perceive remix practices within a larger historical context?

In rock shows from the 1960s, for example by Pink Floyd and The Velvet Underground, coloured lights were projected over the bands, experimenting with oils, dyes, gelatines, smoke, and reflecting surfaces. After the 1970s, there was a rise in popular experiments in electronic music, thanks to Kraftwerk and a few others; the increase of visual effects was parallel to the use of new technologies in music instruments, such as synthesizers.

Of course, I am living in a very different era. I feel comfortable with the concept of “remix culture”. The term remix was born in a music context with the development of sampling: a compositing practice built through acquiring, recording and reproduction of an audio signal. Later, this definition took an intermedial turn, embracing all the forms of selection, sampling, and re-assembling of different elements from a variety of media. The definition of “remix culture” recalls the cultural practice of intermedia hybridization, with regards to the participatory dimension of the contemporary society, that I belong to. If I think of the current media landscape, that I consume both as an audience and as a VJ, I have to acknowledge how it is fed by bottom-up productions and user-generated content. The convergence of media, the idea of an international interconnection through the prosthetic extension of our senses, as the main media theories have stated in the last sixty years, are becoming more and more pervasive and part of our daily experience, so I cannot imagine myself outside of this world.

Bits & Pieces Collection

In the 1980s, inspired by the New Film History movement, Eye Filmmuseum (former Netherlands Filmmuseum) chose to move away from the canon and broaden its preservation and presentation activities to the margins of film history, basing its selection decision also on the aesthetic value of films. After that decisive turn, Eye’s collection and preservation policy has focused on the preservation of non-fiction films from the 1910s, the colours of silent cinema, and more in general, film materiality. Within such context, and under the direction of scholars and filmmakers Eric de Kuyper and Peter Delpeut, the tradition of compiling the Bits & Pieces collection was established. These incomplete and unidentified film fragments, that would typically end up in the trash, are preserved and compiled by Eye archivists, on grounds of their beauty and uniqueness.

still from the Bits & Pieces collection
still from the Bits & Pieces collection

This interview with Eye curators Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi and Mark-Paul Meyer by scholar Christian Olesen in the journal NECSUS gives more insights about the history and the photogénie of the Bits & Pieces collection.

Read the interview on the NECSUS website
still from the Bits & Pieces collection
still from the Bits & Pieces collection