Making a movie to go with the soundtrack

According to Celeste Melody, VJing is addictive because "a sort of magic happens. You don't know what the band's going to play, but there's a moment when it all comes together like it was planned."

Watching the music go by: Ross Gentry of Villages performs in front of projects by VJ Megan McKissack at last year's Transfigurations festival. Photo by Michael Sulock.

Melody, aka GalaxC Girl, is also a DJ. She says she became a video jockey several years ago after many of Asheville's main VJs moved away and "We were like, 'Dang! We need VJs for our visuals!'"

A self-starter, GalaxC Girl first taught herself to use the equipment and programs and then, because she found she was collecting interesting sound samples to enhance her images, she started DJing, too. At the same time. "Before my first show, I just imagined it in my mind," she says. "I had the video stuff but not an audio mixer. I was only able to realize my idea of how to do it when I went to the club and plugged into their mixer."

That DIY spirit is shared by Megan McKissack, who has been VJing for two-and-a-half years (for a time, as part-mastermind behind the cult classic URTV program Mount Dungeon). "My friend was doing shows, and I was really impressed and wanted to get into it," she says.

McKissack is a graphic designer, so working with images was nothing new. But she had to teach herself to use the laptop technology. "It was a little intimidating," she says. "You have to learn what VJing is, and learn the software at the same time. It took a few months."

These days, McKissack says she works with a modular program so that "every time I think it gets boring, I can add stuff." Everything she needs for a show fits into a backpack. Though she could upgrade her tools, "I like my simple setup because I'm comfortable with it. I do like outside controllers because it looks like I'm doing something. Otherwise people think, 'That girl is at every party just checking her e-mail.'"

That VJs and DJs both can work mainly (if not solely) from laptops makes their work utterly portable, but also sort of confusing to the uninitiated. And when the VJ or DJ is female — as is the case with an increasing number of local performers — they can baffle some spectators. GalaxC Girl says, "People are set in their brains that only a guy can control gear." But that perception is changing, as the local scene grows.

Both GalaxC Girl and McKissack agree the scene has mushroomed in recent years, though the two tend to work with different bands and venues. McKissack does a lot of shows at BoBo Gallery and she likes Grey Eagle because "they're so nice about letting me set up." She VJs with Asheville's Headway Collective, which she describes as "more drone and ambient," but has also worked with national act Prefuse73 and will do a totally different type of visual media — an installation as part of a group show organized by local artist Alli Good slated for later this summer.

GalaxC Girl's penchant is for "the fresh stuff that's all super bass-y and dance-y." Her main venue is Club 828, which she digs for its three "humongoid screens." Besides her own shows, she's created visuals for Chronicles of the Landsquid, Umphree's McGee, Toubab Krewe and Quetzatl, an electronic musician who (unlike a DJ) "actually makes all his own original music and performs it live which is really rare and special."

VJs tailor their visual sets to suit the sounds of the band or DJ on stage, a process GalaxC Girl calls "riding the wave of intuition." But there's a lot of personal style and preference involved, too, from looped and repeating images to digital motion graphics. McKissack explains that, instead of scoring a film, a VJ can "almost make a movie to go with the soundtrack."

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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