I had a third eye once. It rolled off my forehead at a ’93 rave in an abandoned Detroit airplane hangar and across the huge cement dance floor, barely missing getting squashed by hyperkinetic Canadians and nitrous-giddy kiddies swarming after an airborne fleet of inflated latex bananas. People wore bigger shoes back then, so I panicked slightly and gave chase. A kaleidoscopic Marble of Ethos, my third eye led me huffing and puffing past the ecstatic hordes thronging DJ Tommy Tomato, along a vibrating line of indoor porta-potties, and straight to the back of the building, where an ancient water main had burst right above the chugging generator that powered the big-screen visuals.
Uh-oh. I had seen the future, and it was either blown up or electrocuted. Eek!
Beyond any possible medical emergencies, the situation also posed a personal dilemma: I was the party’s host, and violent death was still, like, totally goth. If something awful happened to the partygoers, would I ever be worthy of my fuchsia JNCO jeans and "Snap, Crackle, and Rave" Freshjive T-shirt again? I launched into damage-control mode. Through the creative use of several rolls of duct tape, a swaying 50-foot ladder, and reams of shocking profanity, I managed to keep the eye candy flowing and my fragile rep intact. Thanks, bodhisattva or whoever! Every time I see a white lady with a rolled-up yoga mat sticking out of her purse, I think of you.
I never really dug rave visuals much. Too many mushrooming acid blobs, clips from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and primitive Max Headroom avatars flinging their awkward limbs across the blurry cosmos. But the whole rave thing was about much more than the music, thank goddess, and if I had to suffer through 15 hours of mighty morphin’ neon fractals for the cause of "community expression," so be it. Besides, the use of goofy visuals in Clubland has been around since its modern beginning, when Andy Warhol’s Plastic Fantastic lava-lamp projections glanced off silver cloud balloons. It’s historical.
But now that wild optical shenanigans seem to have migrated from the dance floor to the screen saver, conceptual-art gallery, Burning Man shade structure, and stadium JumboTron, I mostly notice them by their absence. The current vogue for projecting pornos onto club walls doesn’t count far too easy and don’t get me started on horrendous video bars. Bleh. Even the freakin’ LoveFest skipped the visuals this year, though the music went far into twilight.
Still, there’s a devious little visual world opening up in the clubs these days, one that goes far beyond simple VJs, and, curiously, much of it’s coming from young kids who have no background in rave at all. The most ubiquitous of these new projectionists goes by the name of 3 and claims installation art, noisecore, and Pink Floyd as influences despite working his overlapping-image magic at many house and drag venues, such as the Endup, Underground SF, Trannyshack, Pink, and Supperclub.
"I escaped my extremely conservative family I’m a recovering Pentecostal and wound up at 5lowershop," a noisecore artists’ collective, the 27-year-old 3 told me over the phone. "I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I had no idea what kind. I started taking pictures of people’s artwork, overlaying the images two at a time and adding a found image of my own that I thought knocked everything to another level. Three images into one, thus the name. I got a handle on the technology and started projecting at friends’ parties a few years ago. People seemed hungry for club visuals. Even though I know almost nothing about electronic music, I love adding another dimension, to jump people’s minds off the musical track."
Although self-taught, 3 can get pretty deep with his visual knowledge. He particularly admires the psychosexual design philosophy of Dr. Jallen Rix and the software wizardry of Spot Draves, who created the Electric Sheep communal screen-saver program. Taken from a laptop-stored image bank of hundreds of thousands of manipulated photos and clips and mixed live with Resolume software, 3’s work can seem electrifying in a typical rave-visuals way at first glance (trippy flashback effects, flaming Maori poi twirlers, etc.), but subtexts peek out: a tart-eyed deconstruction of vintage gay photographs in his huge projections at the Castro’s Pink Saturday party, for example, or a tiny yet virulent stream of social commentary splashed across a performing drag queen’s splayed angel wings. And 3 has a knack for dropping startling film clips of Hitler Youth and Vietnam napalm-bombing campaigns into sets designed around softer themes.
"The visual medium is so incredibly powerful right now," he told me. "The world is basically videos. We can’t look away. I hope some of my stuff shakes people up, forms a bubble and then bursts it. That may be strange on a dance floor, and that’s why I do it.
"But in the end, I really just want to make everything pretty," he continued. "I want to take this thing as far as I can go, get incredibly famous, and make the whole world beautiful. How egotistical is that?"