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VJ Kicks

Video Artist Thomas Gieselman Turns His Editing Chops Toward House Music’S Dance Floor

Christopher Myers

By David Morley | Posted 8/3/2005

It’s early spring, jacket weather, on the late Friday night streets of Penn North. At Club 1722’s Sugar night, scores of dancers move to locally produced house music at the weekly party hosted by club diva Ultra Naté. She and Lisa Moody—the Sugar Girl Squad—spin records while people file in amid smoke and flashing lights.

On the south wall of the club, dancers are joined by a video projection of break dancers from Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, moving in looped time to the music. It’s funny seeing these dated figures dancing in the club, and after 30 seconds they’re intercut with elderly women in leotards who start doing leg lifts in time with the music, heightening the absurdity. As the DJ fades into a new record, one with a horn section, the break dancers and golden girls are supplanted by clips of Louis Armstrong, who blows in sync with the track, and M&Ms falling ad infinitum into a vat of liquefied candy coating.

At the helm of the video display is Thomas A. Gieselman—who goes by his initials TAG—a 6-foot-something, 27-year-old white guy among a predominantly upper-30s African-American crowd. He dances in place before his PowerBook G4, almost more into the music than the work at hand, a set of headphones over one ear, held in place by his left hand; his right hand works a mouse.

Gieselman maneuvers a few settings on his notebook, and Napoleon Dynamite spastically drinks from a bottle in 4/4 time. Gieselman takes his headphones off to chat briefly between sips of Red Bull. “What I’m doing is not all that different from what a DJ does,” he says.

Gieselman is a VJ—a video jockey—and not the kind that spins music videos. He strings video clips together from a variety of sources and incorporates them into his repertoire. He says his VJ work is a social commentary, a use of commercial images to convey an isolated and somewhat humorous perspective. But his video work also complements the house music at Sugar and of his other regular gigs at Shorty’s in Highlandtown, Sonar, and an occasional stint at Club Buns downtown.

Scenes from movies ranging from Tron to Singin’ in the Rain, shots from commercials, and appropriated clips from an online database form Gieselman’s repertoire, the short snippets a video homage to the early days of audio sampling. The images are familiar, but the performance takes on a different feel after watching Gene Kelly splash in a puddle and spin around a light pole a few dozen times.

Though it’s not his full-time gig (he works as a freelance video editor), Gieselman has been working to promote himself as TAG up and down the eastern seaboard, playing gigs at New York house party staple Shelter, and at Miami’s annual Winter Music Conference in March. He landed a residency at Sonar in June and gigs at Artscape and Sonar’s daylong Starscape festival at Fort Armistead Park.

While the higher-profile performances at Sugar and Sonar keep Gieselman at a certain distance from his audience, Shorty’s low-key atmosphere allows for casual conversation. After a few Yuenglings, he goes into a little more depth about what he does and why. And how.

The software he uses is one he co-wrote with his roommate, Steven H. Silberg, while Gieselman was completing his master’s in fine art in photo and digital imaging at the Maryland Institute College of Art (his first master’s was in digital arts). On the computer screen, his virtual display looks like a DJ’s setup. Instead of two turntables, he’s crafted two video monitors into which he drags and drops various video clips. Inside the monitors, Gieselman manipulates the start and stop points of the clips, as well as the speed at which the program plays them; the speed is modulated by a digital control that functions like the pitch shifter on a record player.

“There’s two turntables—or in this case, monitors—and a fader between the two,” Gieselman says. He offers the headphones to reveal a digital metronome that he adjusts to the beat of the music—this determines how quickly the clip plays through its length. “It’s just that I have different controls over what people see.”

He takes the headphones back and cues up the same M&M clip on Shorty’s four television screens at the back of the bar for its weekly Wednesday party, Primitive Sound. “Some clips are like some records a DJ plays,” Gieselman says. “You know that people will like it.”

A self-coined “bedroom DJ,” Gieselman admits his own flaws at spinning records. “I can’t beat-match to save my life,” he says. “Being a VJ allows for error in beat-matching,” because people aren’t dancing to the video.

Gieselman came to Baltimore with a love for house music and a hunger to make his contribution to the scene. “I’ve taken my two loves and I’ve put them together—house music and video,” he says. “It’s strange; [house music] isn’t a religion for me, but it’s a huge passion in my life. I feel like I have to make a contribution to it. But I’m a visual person, so my contribution is visual, not aural. Each time I play, I’m trying to capture the emotive force behind the music. I’m trying to visualize house music for people.”

It is paying off, he says: His regular local gigs and in other cities are evidence of that. He says he even received his first fan e-mail after gigging at Artscape, though he took it with a grain of salt. “It talked about what a hot body I had,” he says. “So I figure it’s got to be some kind of practical joke.”

Practical joke or no, his work is innovative: Not many have taken a sort of visual performance-cum-installation art staple and applied it to the club scene, save forward-thinking experimental electronic acts such as Germany’s audiovisual group Bauhouse. “It hasn’t really been accepted as a form [of art] in this arena,” he says. “It’s so new, it’s just not thought of.”

And since what Gieselman does is, like a DJ, both entertainment and performance, the possibility of flopping is very high, but he enjoys that tightrope walk. “I love failure; I love the possibility of failure,” he says. “It goes with the territory. If you’re going to do something like this, you have to be ready to fail. I think it was Brian Eno who said you’ve got to be willing to crash a plane and walk away.”

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