Wallpaper and/as Art


A common concern when considering VJ as an active practice, outside the confines of the gallery, is the issue of the relationship between the audience and the performance work: the question of what constitutes "wallpaper" and what constitutes "art". This is an often contentious question; however, it is also spurious-a reflection of an established hierarchy between venues that has less to do with the performance itself and more with the status of the site where that performance happens. It is a question of whether (in extreme cases) the performer dominates the viewing situation or the audience dominates. In order to understand the dynamic where the audience chooses to see a work in a non-art venue as "art" requires a consideration of the audience's choices, rather than the demands of the performer.

The key question being posed is not a question about the definitions of "art" or "wallpaper"-although a great deal has been written about both in relation to VJ practice-but about the relationship between audience and the performance. Art can be transformed into wallpaper, just as wallpaper can be transformed into art. (There are many examples of both from art history.) However, aside from the literalness of Andy Warhol's Cow Wallpaper, the transformation is conceptual: it is a matter of how the audience chooses to engage with the work itself. It is a question of whether the audience engages the performance or consumes it. Context plays a role in framing the performance as something to engage or consume-a performance in a gallery-type setting invites engagement, while the same performance in a nightclub invites consumption, as do the performative strategies that invite one engagement over the other.

The question being asked, then, is what strategies tend to invite engagement rather than consumption of the work in question, regardless of context?

Context is a crucial determining factor for the conceptual approach most likely to be adopted in relation to a given work. Setting aside context has several consequences. First, it emphasizes the formative, internal aspects of a work. Second, it recognizes the potential for works whose underlying construction forces engagement no matter what their context is. Eliminating context from this consideration is important because context provides a foundation of assumptions that can prevent our recognition that audiences are always actively engaged in a work, making the decision moment-to-moment about how to approach it: either passively as consumer, or actively. Much of the distinction between a VJ performance called "wallpaper" and one called "art" depends on whether the audience decides the work needs an active engagement rather than the continuous partial attention a "wallpaper" performance receives. This decision is the difference between an engaged viewing and a consuming one.

Semiotician Umberto Eco's description of serial form enables the identification of what can cause an audience member to decide to change the category of their viewing. Eco states that spectators implicitly use an internal model derived from their past experience with other examples of type. Audience members' past experiences define their expectations, and it is these expectations that are either met or violated by the work in question. The spectator's interpretations employ frameworks created through previous encounters with similar types to anticipate and recognize divergences from established norms (Eco 1994: 90-95). It is important to note that when an audience member encounters something new, they quickly establish a set of expectations based on what they see while watching the work and then make decisions about how to watch based on these quickly-formed expectations; their past expertise with other visual media-TV, movies, etc. - also inform their decisions about how to watch the work.

Creating an actively engaged audience is therefore more complex than simply violating established norms of either common media viewing or those of VJ itself. It requires a dynamic engagement where the internal parameters of the performance itself shift during the performance: a break-up into distinct "movements" or "actions" whose relationship to each other, as well as to the audience's established expectations is not instantly apparent, but emerges from the organization of the whole. Blank spaces of darkness, counter-point rhythms, shifts in synchronization between sound and image, or the intrusion of the unexpected (a fire alarm for example) are all potential points of rupture that violate the expectation of VJ as background for other activity-these examples can prompt a shift in awareness from consumption to active engagement.

There is a tendency to ascribe to performative situations (gallery/theater) a high level of "art" simply through the dominance over audience these venues often provide; (this view is the converse of the idea that audiences in such venues treat VJ performances as art rather than as wallpaper). However, it is equally possible to see a reversal of dominance in the non-art venue (for example, the night club) where VJ performance is often treated as wallpaper: the question of encouraging a non-wallpaper response in such a venue can be seen as either a question of re-asserting dominance over the audience, or of "negotiating" an actively engaged viewing situation.

The choice to engage or consume (disengage) depends on the perception that the visuals are more than simply background (wallpaper). It is a decision that develops (in a key way) from the perception of there being an unseen human agent directing the visuals. It is the suggestion that there is a more conscious relationship between sound-image than mechanical synchronization or mere accident that is essential. The performance, to merit an engagement with it as art, necessitates the potential that it has an "intentional" component - the possibility that something may be communicated through the performance itself. Thus what matters in a performance is the perception by the viewers of an intelligence directing the work (whether such an intelligence is actually doing so is different than the audience reaching that conclusion).

There are three kinds of relationships between visuals and their audible accompaniment- synchronous, asynchronous, and variable. A synchronous relationship is one where specific images are linked directly to some aspect of the sound, most often it is the image changes on specific notes. Asynchronous is occasionally confused with "counterpoint" because it has no direct relationship with the sound, being instead an essentially independent entity that just happens to run at the same moment as the sounds. Variable relationships are the broadest group of linkages: any synchronization that is tied to musical phrasing, rhythmic structure, or other less-than-instantly apparent connection between sound and image. True counterpoint structures belong to this class of relationships.

What these three descriptions provide is a general framework that allows a consideration of greater complexity in the performance; multiple levels of relationships running through a performance at the same time are the most likely to provoke an active engagement - i.e. constructing a performance that uses synchronized, variable and asynchronous elements together, and which brakes the performance into sections where the "rules" that govern the audio-visual relationships change, forcing a re-engagement by the audience in order to understand what is happening.


Eco, Umberto. "Interpreting Serials", pp. 83-100, in The Limits of Interpretation, Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994.