AV is easily understood as Audio-Visual but as a defining term is as broad as Electronic music. Ian Andrews is a theorist and AV artist whose work as a member of Subvertigo VJ collective melded video surrealism with a playful activism present to this day throughout independent dance parties and cultural festivals like Electrofringe. He defines contemporary audio-visual art as a live performance practice that, while culturally informed by the parallel history of experimental and expanded cinema, is structurally and conceptually derived from developments in sound and musical practice through the twentieth century.
Although the terminology “audio-visual” suggests that sound and vision might share equal importance, AV derives its “language” from music. In most cases AV work is concerned with formal compositional structures, of time and rhythm, which are closer to music than to specifically cinematic or visual art codes. (Andrews, 2009)
While AV works may address the performing body, the narrative text, the image in motion or stasis and structural / spatial definitions both virtual and actual, a focus on the consistent application and deployment of repeatable patterns and structures separate AV from Theatre, Dance and Cinema. Media objects in AV work often consist, of looped sections of sound and vision, deployed in a structural pattern or stacked to form an audio-visual collage. As with electronic music performance, this structure allows the composer to direct their material towards a near infinite number of stylistic choices.
Contemporary audio and visual practice also share a material status; the electronic signal in wire, or data. (Andrews, 2009) Bill Viola concurs, stating in ‘Sound by Artists’ that the video camera “as an electronic transducer of physical energy into electrical impulses, bears a closer original relation to the microphone…” than the mechanical / chemical process of film. (Lander & Lexier, 1990, p. 49) This notion of transducence, a transfer from one energy form to another, is central to a definition of AV as it is a modern, digital practice where analogue input, no matter the form, is converted to data. The focus is placed on the signal, both the source and result of the data, not the performer, who engineers the real-time manipulation of aural and visual data into an output. This projected output is not merely the by-product of a mathematical process; it suggests a third signal, a communication signal or meaning. The source data can be pre-rendered and streamed or transformed and received in real-time and could be representative of anything at all. The Semiconductor duo use seismic data as a source for their “Earthquake Films” and “Strata” (2007) and Steina Vasulka has developed the performance work “Violin Power” over 30 years, with the constant source being that of her violin. The contextualisation of both works feature a visible or pre-empted demonstration of the specific transformative process. The source signal and resultant signal can also be looped into one another, in a feedback system similar to anyone who has pointed a video camera at a live monitor of itself. This trait has been explored and extended by Steina and Woody Vasulka in the 1970’s and in the present day with the closed circuit work of Botborg.
This focus on the transforming signal is another point of departure from related performative media; one that often problematises the nature of AV performance. Weiß contends that the “…narrow contemporary definition [of visual music]… emerges live in public venues” and is not a product of the studio. Where audiences identify a performance by the movement of performers, an expectation is readily shattered when the focus of performance is not a human body, but a transforming signal. The clash between embodied and disembodied modes of performance exists also for the live “electronic” musician and some AV performers employ musical controllers as performative enhancements, in order to extend their ability to transform the signal, and as a way of physicalising their interactions for the audience. The video itself has been used as a way of distancing the performer from traditional performance as well. Via email correspondence Tom Ellard explains: the “visuals distracted from the people on stage. We were against people looking at us ‘performing’ which seemed a bit ‘rock’.”
Perhaps the closest cousin to AV performance is that of the Video Jockey or VJ. Arising alongside the growth of Rave culture, they share a parallel history and many artists, like Tom Ellard, cross over between modes. They certainly share a number of performative elements and the emphasis on improvisation in VJ form has moved the form towards sophisticated use of musical and non-musical controllers, controlling the construction of pseudo-narrative texts in an emergent form that is evolving away from its DJ origins, towards ‘Live Cinema’.
At this point the primary distinction is that AV performance has its foundation in live and composed audio practices, and in the manipulation of sound and video objects. Ian Andrews contends that VJs are concerned with a visual foundation and the interaction their visuals have with a DJ or predefined musical track. As a performance practice it draws less from musical practice than from live broadcast television; the original VJ movement sourced their gear from discarded remnants of broadcast Video editing equipment. The influences stem not so much from Cage, Varese or Wagner but from the work of video artists, like Nam June Paik and the Vasulka’s, who also contributed to the development of various enhancements in broadcast television including the use of video synthesisers as a means of generating motion graphics.