Scratch video owes it origins to a British video art
movement from the early to mid-1980s. It is usually characterized by the use of
found footage, often from amateur, public-domain, or historical sources, that
is packaged and combined through fast-cutting and multilayered editing
techniques. Similar to detournement, scratch video is decidedly an outsider art
genre as opposed to a mass-media archetype, and it frequently contains images
of a violent, shocking, or sexual nature.
Scratch video is usually designed as a decorative or ambient backdrop element, sometimes referred to as video wallpaper, and, more often than not, scratch videos are intentionally created without an included audio track or sometimes include an audio track that is optional. The popularization of scratch video found its roots in nightclubs, discos, and, later, raves, but, in each case, the detournement style of scratch video acted as a backdrop to the venue in which it appeared.
The 1980s London club culture introduced a new and exciting mixed-media environment that for the first time, incorporated video offerings along with the standard disco strobe-light fare. One early adopter of scratch video was the Fridge, a nightclub in the Brixton area of South London, founded by Andrew Czezowski, who managed the legendary Roxy nightclub during the infamous London punk years of the mid-to late 1970s. The Fridge was at the center of the early 1980s new-r omantic music movement and featured such acts as the Pet Shop Boys, Eurythmics, and other successful bands well before they ever became famous.
Peter Boyd Maclean, trained as a painter, and Rik Lander, a techie video engineer—together, better known as the Duvet Brothers—were early superstars of scratch. Their Scratching for a New Texture, shown at the Fridge on August 11, 1984, featured music by Gang of Four, New Order, Torch Song, and Sid Presley. The Duvet Brothers are best known for pioneering multiscreen scratch exhibitions using between nine and twenty-five video monitors and mixing original video with “appropriated video” shot directly off of TV screens tuned to television broadcasts. Their work typically includes a narrative of sorts—for example, commenting on President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars initiative, they combined images from Star Wars, the movie, mixed with footage of War Machine, a popular British program that fetishizes weaponry for interested prime-time audiences. This might be the first video described as using “machine-gun edits” or rapid-fire repetitive editing techniques.
Their work has appeared in more than thirty venues, including video installations for the 1986 20th Century Fox movie Less Than Zero and the London Scratch Video Happening at Ohio University in 1987.
The introduction of scratch video into music performances led to many of the original MTV music-video styles and was widely adopted by such bands as Test Dept, Nocturnal Emissions, Cabaret Voltaire, Psychic TV, and others who prided themselves on the televisual shock value of guerrilla imagery. Record companies commissioned sanctioned videos by the Duvet Brothers for MTV releases of such songs as Don’t Look Now by Torch Song, Just Wanna by Blue in Heaven, and Big Decision by That Petrol Emotion.
The term video jockey, or VJ, emerged from "happenings," including acid tests by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in 1965 and Andy Warhol’s infamous 1966 Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
Special New York city club nights, called the Andy Warhol Uptight, at the Film-Makers Cinémathèque on West 41st Street, featured a mashup of Andy Warhol films, dancing by Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick, lighting by Danny Williams, and music by the Velvet Underground.
In his essay “The History of VJ,” Michael Heap describes the event for us: "Andy, who was working one movie projector, now trained a silent version of Vinyl, his interpretation of A Clockwork Orange . . . on the screen. Superimposed on this by another movie projector run by Paul Morrissey were close-up shots of Nico singing I’ll Keep It With Mine by Bob Dylan."
The superimposition of multiple slide projections, film projections, and lighting effects combined to produce a mashup of visual imagery designed to evolve avant-garde film—principally, the abstract visual language of artists, such as George Barber, Ingo Günther, David Larcher, Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter, and Oskar Fischinger, as well as the cutup films of Bruce Conner.
The mid-to late 1980s saw a wave of psychedelic-inspired electronic dance music, including acid house and techno, that exploded onto the pop scene. In the early electronica London music scene, many used acid-house parties to refer to what we now call raves. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the term rave was not yet popularized; however, one intentional reference can be found in the lyrics of the song Drive-In Saturday by David Bowie from the 1973 album Aladdin Sane, which includes the line “It’s a crash course for the ravers.”
The word rave potentially owes its origin to an electronica music happening in 1967 at London’s Roundhouse, the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, an arts exhibit for electronic music and light shows created by promoters Binder, Edwards, and Vaughan. The 1960s technology of live psychedelic light shows spawned an entirely new art form that is alive and well today. Using overhead projectors with an emulsion of oil and dye sandwiched between convex lenses, these psychedelic image generators created bubbling liquid visuals that seemed to pulse in time to the music.
The lava lamp–styled projections were mixed with slideshows and film loops to create an improvisational moving collage that later evolved into video and film projections of a similar nature. The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave event exhibited the only known public performance of what has been described as an experimental sound collage that was created exclusively for the occasion by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, reportedly derived from experiments that were part of the initial Sgt. Pepper recording sessions. The work is known as the Carnival of Light recording.
The phenomenon of acid-house parties ultimately led to a cluster of music by the same name. The music genre known as acid house was popularized by such groups as the Orb, Tetsu Inoue, System 7, Biosphere, and others. Acid house is a child of the house music genre that features a hypnotic melody overlaid with very repetitive, trancelike sounds typically incorporating audio samples including snippets of conversations, single words or spoken narratives rather than lyrics. Many attribute the birth of acid house as a musical style to a group called Phuture from Chicago, Illinois, which employed the now-recognizable Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer as a key element in the sound. In 1989, Paul Oakenfold started the popular acid-house night at Heaven, a predominantly gay nightclub in London.
Oakenfold’s acid-house night was one of the very first venues to feature a new take on projected visuals called ambient video, which shares a strong evolutionary DNA with the 1960s psychedelic light shows. Unlike the violent, shocking, fast-cutting, and multilayered imagery seen in scratch video, ambient video or acid video is based on op art; psychedelic animations; and Eastern religious imagery, such as Shiva and Buddha; and, in the new millennial decade, began to incorporate computer animation techniques, frequently employing fractal images and 3D. A yellow smiley face is considered the official logo or brand image identifying acid-house works and frequently makes appearances in acid videos.
Rave soon went international, thanks primarily to the club scene in Ibiza and the evolution of the goa-trance genre found in of one of my favorite destinations, the popular rave beach party scene in Goa, India.
In 1980, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group acquired Heaven. Early on, Branson identified the marketing opportunity for what he referred to as the pink pound, and the music programming at Heaven featured a close tie to the Virgin music portfolio. In 1998, Heaven was refurbished as a mainstream nightclub to compete with other clubs, such as Trade and the Fridge, all profiting from the flourishing popularity of house music. In the early 2000s, Heaven evolved into a more mainstream tribal house–and disco-based sound, but the various forms of scratch video, acid video, and ambient video have survived and proliferated, and the art form is now considered a core component of any well-appointed club.
There are innumerable examples of acid video and ambient video creations to be found on YouTube, as well as appropriated video from other related sources, such as visualizations and screensavers.
Visualizations and Screensavers .
The new millennia decade has further evolved ambient video with its own defined style of audio collages employing the club/DJ electronica style along with new forms of animation, film, and computer-generated psychedelic imagery that were not possible before the technology of the past ten years.
You’ll no doubt be familiar with software add-ons to popular computer media-player applications, such as QuickTime, Windows Media Player, WinAmp, and others that feature visualizations, or real-time software animations that respond to the music to reveal bouncing, morphing, and illustrative visuals that squirm and pulsate to the beat of your favorite song.
WinAmp has one of the best catalogs of visualizations, including the works of Ryan Geiss, a full-time programmer developing various next-gen game console projects for Microsoft and one of the core developers of the human-tracking algorithms behind the Xbox Kinect. Geiss' visualizations, known as plug-ins, such as Milkdrop, Smoke, and Monkey, have been downloaded by more than eight million users.
A purer form of contemporary ambient visualizations is found in what is commonly known as screensavers. One of the best is called Electric Sheep, created and released as freeware by Scott Draves in 1999. The name “Electric Sheep” is taken from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The sheep are abstract visual forms best described as colorful, geometric, animated, flowing patterns based on fractal flames, a particular algorithm created by Scott Draves in 1992, a version of the iterated function system class of fractals originally based on fractal geometry, which is best illustrated by visualizations of the Mandelbrot set.
Electric Sheep is a distributed computing project that uses the sleep mode of your computer to render sheep (animations) and upload them back to the server (the flock). Millions of sleeping computers running Electric Sheep are given a set of instructions, and each participating computer locally renders individual frames of high-quality video and uploads them back to the flock. The flock server assembles the individual frames together into short movies (new sheep are born approximately every five minutes), and the finished sheep in the form of .mpg video files are then distributed back to the network using BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file-sharing application that is included as part of the Electric Sheep application. The finished sheep animations are displayed as screensavers on the participating computers.
Anyone watching sheep on one of the participating computers can rate the sheep as good (happy sheep) or bad (upside-down sheep) by hitting a key on the keyboard. The official website states, “The more popular sheep live longer and reproduce according to a genetic algorithm with mutation and cross-over. Hence the flock evolves to please its global audience.” It is also possible to design your own sheep and submit them to the gene pool. Entire communities of sheep designers have created sheep farms, breeding labs, and wiki-style communities where users can direct an evolutionary process dedicated to improving the design of sheep.
Also be sure to check out the tabTV playlist AmbieScratch that has many of the above works as well as many more not found here.