When Sight & Sound Collide | Interview: Vello Virkhaus

John Olive | Citizen LA

VJing is an art form that has been intrinsically connected to live music events since the 1960s. In its earliest incarnation, VJing was an atmospheric novelty. Since then there have been many video artists who have contributed to the expansion of this unique art form and have left and indelible mark on the entertainment scene as a whole. Vello Virkhaus is one such VJ that continues to leave his mark on many EDM festivals including this year’s Ultra Music Festival in Miami.

Back in the 60s, Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable was a series of happenings that successfully combined music and visuals. These events brought together interdisciplinary talent such as The Velvet Underground, Nico, Mary Woronov, Gerard Malanga and others who performed while screenings of Warhol’s films played in the background.

In the 70s, the performances became more tightly integrated. As low cost video editing equipment became available, bands like The Monochrome Set and Cabaret Voltaire began to create their own visuals for live shows. Venues such as the Ritz Riot in New York installed a state of the art video projection system which bands such as Public Image Ltd. used to project prerecorded and live video on the club’s screen.

In the 80s, media artist Merrill Aldighieri produced raw visual footage that was mixed in real time to accompany the music. Merrill débuted this set-up at the Hurrah nightclub in New York where he performed alongside the DJ. In this, Merrill arguably became the world’s first VJ.

As the Rave scene began to take root in the United States, VJs quickly became a key component for successful nightclubs and underground parties. Now large scale festivals such as Electric Daisy Carnival, Spring Awakening, Electric Zoo and Ultra Music Festival dominate the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) scene… and the VJ is still key.

Large festivals are a creative paradise for Vello Virkhaus who is one of the worlds’s most sought after VJs. This year Vello is once again poised to sit atop the VJ platform at Ultra, there he will deliver his brand of visuals to the masses while the biggest DJs on the planet (including Armin Van Buuren, Markus Schulz, and ATB) spin their magic.

Vello speaks to us while kickin’ it on the beach in Miami…

Citizen LA: Do you consider yourself primarily a visual artist?

Vello Virkhaus: Visual, but primarily focused on the video medium. A fitting title would be Video Artist.

Citizen LA: How was your experience at the Art Institute of Chicago?

Vello: It was definitely a fantastic learning environment; one that really allowed me the freedom to pursue experimental directions and be truly interdisciplinary. This was just fantastic because I didn’t want to be in one department. I was interested in traditional art, printmaking, neon, video and technology.

Citizen LA: When did you start VJing?

Vello: I moved to LA in 2000, but I started VJing in Chicago in ’92.

Citizen LA: So you were around in the early rave scene in LA? Like Double Hit Mickey’s and all that?

Vello: I started coming out to LA doing big raves in San Bernardino. I remember one of the first Electric Daisy Carnival events we did was the Hansen Dam Show in 2003. I think the first electronic show I did in LA was Paul Van Dyk in ’98 or ’99. It just seemed like LA was the place to be. In Chicago raves were becoming totally illegal.

Citizen LA: Yeah. They have that ability.

Vello: You know it.

Citizen LA: How has music changed your life?

Vello: Music is a huge inspiration for me. I’m always more interested in creating a music show experience than creating a commercial experience. Although my company loves the commercial budget, as an artist I get much more kick out of a music focused project. I guess I’m a biased CEO.

Citizen LA: I understand. What’s not to love about working a massive rave?

Vello: I’m a huge EDM fan I love all Electronica. Getting to work with Amon Tobin was one of the coolest things ever. I’ve been very fortunate to get to work with some great people. In working with them we kinda transform each other, transform a show, and cool things happen. All is good when you find that really amazing collaboration, that good synergy.

^ Vello Virkhaus @ Ultra Music Festival 2013
John Olive | Citizen LA

Citizen LA: How has VJing changed over the last 10 years?

Vello: The field has rapidly expanded. Four or five years ago I did every artist on the main stage, all day long. I’d do a 12 or 15 hour set. And a 24 hour day was very standard. I would improvise, and come up with sets, for every artist performing. I witnessed the expansion of the whole immersive music video visual lighting environment. And it’s just found a great home in EDM. There’s been a ton of artistic growth, a ton of software engineering and amazing creativity.

Citizen LA: Do old school technologies like oil lamps and film loops still make it into your event?

Vello: Hahaha. Uh. Not anymore. Every once in awhile I’ll do an old school psychedelic oils video remix, but it’s rare.

Citizen LA: The good ‘ol days huh?

Vello: Those were my beginnings for sure. Film loops and slide projectors.

Citizen LA: Hahaha.

Vello: I think officially we were some of the first VJs in North America performing for a rave especially in the Midwest. There were other people in California and the East Coast, but we were definitely part of the first wave in the dance community.

Citizen LA: Do you prefer large events over smaller venues?

Vello: Yeah. I like the crowd energy. And it’s a bigger production. More ticket sales and bigger toys to play with. So, as the pilot of this airship, I prefer to fly an Airbus A380 versus a Boeing 737.

Citizen LA: How comfortable are you with taking big-risks?

Vello: Oh man, EVERY show is a risk. We’re on the fringe of technology at every event now. We’re running a totally experimental proprietary system we’ve created. This is about as risky as it gets.

Citizen LA: What does Vello think about when he sits alone quietly with his eyes closed?

Vello: Depends on the night. Sometimes I just can’t get my business out of my head. I just spin around and around with stuff like logistics issues.

Citizen LA: Do you have a hard time turning your brain off?

Vello: Totally. I have to meditate to switch it off. But some nights I do get to dream.

Citizen LA: Your client list is very impressive. But which projects have you turned down?

Vello: We turn down anything with and unrealistic budget or an unrealistic timetable. Like a 10 minute animate piece in a week. Life’s short and I work too hard as it is. Or sometimes it’s just not creatively appealing to me. Fortunately the demand for business is good. I’m thankful to have all these opportunities.

Citizen LA: What is the future of your company V Squared Labs?

Vello: We’re doing a couple of really crazy television shows and apparently the first ever dance music awards. I just got a call from Dick Clark Productions. We’re also doing EDC Las Vegas. But a big part of future is that we’re kinda turning into a technology company. In the next couple years we’re gonna release our performance software to the public. Right now it’s just too experimental, but we’re definitely gonna partner and release our tool.

^ Vello Virkhaus @ Ultra Music Festival 2013[/caption][/media-credit]

Citizen LA: How many years have you worked with the Ultra Music Festival?

Vello: 10 years.

Citizen LA: What draws you specifically to Ultra?

Vello: It’s been a lot of fun. Like big family. It’s growing every year and bringing in more interesting and talented individuals who work together focused on dance music. I love Miami and Russell Faibisch and Adam Russakoff and the whole Ultra team. They are just killer guys who are pushing the envelope.

Citizen LA: They must really dig your work.

Vello: They’re dedicated to VJs and I’m super loyal to them. They give me a chance as an artist and I put in the extra effort every year to take it to the next level. I believe in these guys. They’ve stuck with me through thick and thin.

Citizen LA: What makes Ultra special?

Vello: Well Miami makes it special for sure. The brand itself appeals to the Candy Raver audience, which I love. Also, it’s an international crowd. People from all over the world come to Ultra. There are so many flags waving in the audience. It’s beautiful.

Citizen LA: Miami is a magical place.

Vello: This whole synchronicity of Miami Music Week and spring break, that’s always made Ultra a really special time. This place brings a lot of really amazing international talent out. I meet video artists from all over the world.

Citizen LA: I’d wish you luck up there, but I really don’t think you’re going to need too much luck because you’re really good at what you do.

Vello: Thank you. I’m always excited to talk to someone who’s interested in the visual arts and electronic dance music.

Citizen LA: Rave on, my brother.

For more information on Vello Virkhaus or V Squared Labs visit http://vsquaredlabs.com/