Amsterdam Based Artist Mirjam Debets Walks Us Through Her Wild and Colorful Visual World
IF: Can you start off by telling us a little about your background and how you first became interested in the world of VJing?
MD: I studied 2D animation at the HKU (Utrecht University of the Arts), where we mostly worked on making short films. I liked it, but I kind of struggled with the format of a narrative short film. I never really knew how to express my ideas in 2 minutes, or my concepts ended up being too big or too abstract. So the second half of my studies I started looking for a way of creating visual arts that felt less rational and more intuitive to me. That lead me to combining animation with music, because simply listening to a song has always created an infinite flow of visuals in my mind. That same time I went to an EDM festival in the Netherlands, where I got a bit of an idea of what most VJing was like. Then It felt like I just had to try it!
IF: How would you describe VJing for someone that perhaps has never heard the term? (Maybe imagine trying to explain your art to your 45 year-old Uncle who works at the Post Office)
MD: I’ve had to explain this quite a bit to my actual uncles and aunts, but I think I told them something like ‘working at concerts and using small clips of video and trigger and mix them to the music that is playing, which the audience can see on the screens’. I’m often a bit cautious with saying the visuals are there to complement or amplify the music, as I think in the ideal world those two strengthen each other equally.
IF: It seems that VJing is most often associated with DJing, particularly in the EDM world. What are your thoughts regarding this seemingly inevitable connection?
MD: I guess that makes sense, as the biggest VJ scene is probably still in EDM, but I think it’s starting to get bigger in other genres as well.
IF: Are you interested in working with DJ’s at all? Do you feel there is a strong difference between working with a DJ versus a band? (Particularly regarding the crowd and how they view / interact with with the visuals)
MD: I’d love to work with DJ’s! I think working with my band was actually quite similar to working with a DJ, as the focus wasn’t so much on the performance of the musicians. When working with a band there’s usually someone very charismatic up on the stage, or the dynamic between the musicians to look at. With a DJ you can create much more than just a ‘visual backdrop’, because you’ll have a lot more of the audience’s attention.
IF: Do you feel that live visuals ever cater to or even evoke the idea of drug use at a show?
MD: Hahahahaha well… when we did our first show with Synth Niklas a lot of people told us afterwards that it felt like a total trip without being on drugs. So maybe yeah? But I think often when people say something looks ‘trippy’, they’re really just saying the aesthetic or theme seems a bit abstract or associative. Personally I don’t necessarily need drugs to appreciate this, but I’m not opposing that some people do sometimes.
IF: Can you tell us a little about living in Amsterdam and how it has shaped you as a person and influenced your art?
MD: I’ve lived in amsterdam for about 5 years now, but since I was a teenager I’ve been going to concerts here and exploring bits of the city. I guess the best thing about Amsterdam is how it’s the biggest mix of cultures and people you’ll find anywhere in the Netherlands. There’s obviously a variety of art, music, food and events available, but sometimes just walking down my street and noticing a very well designed poster or someone dressing really eccentric is even more inspiring.
IF: Anyone that has worked in video, especially in animation, knows that the process can take time. What is your workflow like? Do you ever find it difficult to get your ideas across sometimes in the animated realm?
MD: Because I was schooled in making animated short films, I think I’ll always have a bit of a narrative or arc in the back of my mind, but I’m trying not to hold on to that too much. I really enjoy working on something when I don’t have a very specific outcome in mind, and just see where it goes along the way, sometimes lead by the material I’m using, a bit of music or a specific technique. I think that worked out pretty well so far, and allows me to keep a very playful feeling towards the things I animate. The biggest compliment I’ve ever had is still my mom saying she could really see the joy I had in creating my work, by looking at the final product 🙂
IF: Much of your work consists of white and or neon lines against a black background. Are you drawing things by hand on black paper and animating them afterwards?
MD: I do draw everything on paper, but I invert it Photoshop afterwards, so it’s actually just black lines on white paper. The animation is a combination of both: usually I’ll do the specific (character) movement on paper, but the more general motion is done digital.
IF: How do you choose the colors you are using in your work?
MD: That happens quite intuitively. I personally love very bright colors and strong contrasts, but lately I’ve been trying to study how to get a little more balance in tones and shades. Apart from that I always prefer totally ‘unrealistic’ colors when it comes to designing something.
IF: Are programs such as Illustrator or After Effects a big part of your work flow?
MD: Basically my workflow is something like this: animating a loop on paper, scanning it and editing it in Photoshop, and adding additional movement, effects and color correction in After Effects.
IF: The objects in your animations are very free flowing and often appear to resemble different aspects of Nature? If this a conscious theme you try to work with?
MD: I think my work is often just a big mix of (maybe seemingly) random things that I am currently interested in or that fascinate me. But animals and nature are definitely a big part of that. When I was 4 or 5 years old my uncle gave me a subscription to the kids magazine of the WWF and most of my drawing as a kid was just copying the photos of Frans Lanting, so I guess that love for nature goes way back haha. I think often adding animal traits to human characters or the other way around feels like a way to make the character’s expression a little more abstract and in that way maybe a little less intimidating.
IF: What kind of software and hardware are you using for live performances?
MD: For VJing I use Resolume and my MSI notebook, and whatever projector is available at the venue. For the shows with Synth Niklas there was actually a lot more hardware involved: we had smaller screens on the stage as well, so two more projectors and because some of the visuals were triggered by midi also a massive amount of cables, midi interfaces, contact mics, etc. It’s always quite a challenge to get it all working before the show!
IF: Last year you connected with a band and did a run of shows with them doing live visuals. How did you hook up with this band and what was the experience like?
MD: So when I decided I wanted to do a collaboration with musicians for my graduation, I actually just put a little music video with a message on facebook. I went for coffee with a few of the people that replied, but with Niek (from Synth Niklas) I noticed right away that we had very similar ambitions. We both wanted to kind of step away from the things that we learned in college (he graduated as a Jazz/Pop music drummer from the HKU) and create something that really put both our fields in a new perspective.
IF: You’ve mentioned that you enjoy experimenting. Do you leave much room for experimentation when it comes to a live performance?
MD: I think a lot of stuff that we do with my band is quite experimental, performance wise. We try to do a lot of aspects of our show in slightly different from the way people are used to, like playing around with the setup of the band vs. audience, projecting visuals in multiple directions, using more extreme lighting and making the visuals super synchronized to the music. For me this means I get to experiment with for instance video mapping, midi syncing and creating concepts that really fit the space or location where we perform.
IF: Is accompanying a band on the road something you see yourself doing more often?
IF: In what other outlets could you see your skill set and artwork being utilized?
MD: After getting away from short films at the last years at the HKU, I’ve been feeling curious to try it again. But in a really different way than I used to. I’ve been trying some sculpting as well, and really want to get into painting and other kinds of fine arts. I get bored using or working for the same medium quite fast, so hopping back and forth between different kinds of visual arts and combining them keeps me excited to make things.
IF: How do you find balance between making visuals that fit the vibe of the music while still expressing your style?
MD: I think I’ve been really lucky so far, for only having worked with people or doing animation jobs where people just wanted me to use my own style. But I guess that’s quite a luxury and I’ll probably have to work on assignments that are a lot more confined in the future. I do actually enjoy the puzzle of making something that’s really my own thing within the rules of an assignment too though, so I’m not too worried about that.
IF: How might some of your animations change or take form when being transferred over to use for a live setting?
MD: First of all, practically all the visuals I make for VJing are perfectly looping of course. Because I mix and layer them while VJing they often look best with high contrasts and I try to make the movements a little more extreme than usual, so it works well on a beat.
IF: While visuals can oftentimes be a huge part of a bands or djs performance, the person behind the art isn’t always getting the credit for it. Can you talk a little about how you feel being behind the scenes most the time. (Perhaps touching on the idea of watching people see your art but not knowing who the artist is behind it, unlike the band that is visible on stage.)
MD: When I’m performing with Synth Niklas I’m actually on the stage myself, so I guess I have more or less the same connection to the audience as the musicians. The other VJ gigs I’ve done were more from behind the scenes indeed, but it hasn’t really bothered me so far. I guess there’s always a lot of people ‘invisibly’ working really hard to make a show happen, so I think it’s a little bit part of the job… It’s really fun to be on the stage though, also because it can create a really cool dynamic between the musicians or DJ and the VJ, where I think those two often seem a little bit disconnected.
IF: Do you ever find this frustrating?
MD: Not really, but everyone of course deserves credit for their work one way or another! I guess if visual artists are bothered by this they could try to work with an musician/DJ who really sees the value of the visual side of music, or are interested in exploring this. I’m sure they exist! 🙂
IF: What are you up to when your not working on visuals?
MD: Lately I’ve just been enjoying living in Amsterdam a lot: cycling around the city, going out in new places, nosing around in thrift stores and art supply stores. I love ‘playing’ outside, chilling in parks, spotting birds and people. Apart from that I’m trying to learn portuguese and I’m on a serious quest to make the best possible cappuccino at home.
IF: Any specific visual art and or music that has inspired your work recently?
MD: Watching BBC’s Oceans 2 for sure -David Attenborough’s voice is so therapeutic it drags me through the boring dutch winters each year- and I’ve been listening to a lot of Latin american and african (inspired) music: e.g. El Buho, Chancha Via Circuito, Tribeqa, Sidestepper and Afriquoi.
IF: If you could do live visuals for any band who would it be?
MD: Definitely Glass Animals, although their artwork, music videos and even stage design are already so awesome I wouldn’t dare to. Making visuals for Nicola Cruz would also be a total dream!
IF: What if you could have any band play a live improv set to your visuals?
MD: I think dutch band Jungle By Night would be really cool! They make super eclectic jazz/afrobeat, and I think their music and my visuals go together quite well. They also play a show at night in Artis, the Amsterdam zoo, each year… I’d love to join that one haha!
IF: What are some bands from Amsterdam we should be listening to?
MD: Actually some of my friends have been doing really cool stuff. My friend Jade Welling, who plays violin, is working on an album with singer Elsa Beckman, making beautiful dreamy, folk songs. And my highschool friends, the boys from Leoparte (ska/worldbeat) just released their new EP. Someone recently made me listen to My Baby, which I really liked, and last summer I saw Gallowstreet for the first time (on a festival in Slovakia actually) which was really awesome!
IF: What about film / visuals / fashion / anything and everything worth checking out?!?
MD: I guess a lot of people who are interested in visuals probably already know them, but the girls from BBBlaster (Dalkhafine & Loup Blaster) make the coolest visuals and I’ve been super inspired by them ever since I first saw their work. I really like the music videos of animation director Tomek Ducki and I recently discovered australian tattoo artist Alexis Hepburn which now makes me want to spend all my (nonexistent) savings on getting inked.
IF: Do you have any big projects lined up for the future?
MD: We’re going to do a few more shows with Synth Niklas, in a kind of new setting: doing a 3 or 4 day residency at a venue or location and doing a show on the last day. Apart from that I’m hoping to travel to Brazil (hence I’ve been learning portuguese) somewhere by the end of the year with aforementioned friend/musician Jade, to do an artist residency program (and a lot of surfing) and create something awesome there!