Volvox Always Moves Towards The Light

  • interview
  • Emilie Engbirk
  • photography
  • Bastian Thiery

Making a living as a touring DJ Volvox raises the question of the ethics and value of a DJ’s work when most of the colleagues found themselves unemployed for an indefinite period. Can their online musical input be valued as much as hours and hours of music they deliver to people dancing in clubs and festivals? Can they count on the support of their audiences when dancefloors are empty? Even in the toughest times for the community and herself, Volvox keeps moving forward. That’s probably because her artist’s name refers to a group of single cellular organisms that move towards the light in a way described by scientists as dancing.

Emilie Engbirk: How have you and your work been affected by the lockdown?

Volvox: I feel that everyone has a story like “My life was normal, and then everything stopped.” I was very excited to head out on my spring tour, it was the first big one with my new agency, Triangle. I took a big bag of records to Europe to open what turned out to be the last Berghain Klubnacht on March 7th. Opening Berghain is a special experience, and it was my first time so I wanted to do something that really indulged my deepest loves. The following weekend I left my record bag in Berlin and went to Istanbul, planning to return back to Berlin. Then things started to get serious and I managed to get me an emergency flight back home directly from Istanbul to New York, and my records got trapped in Berlin. Now it’s all stuck there till I can get back to Europe. Since I got home, I have been taking breaks off social media, gardening, reading, and working on music when I feel motivated. Being in New York felt strange for the first couple of months, I have barely been home since 2016. Mostly I’ve been excited to nurture my plants and meditate on what comes next.

volvox, berlin, 2019 © borshch

EE: Have you been supporting your local community in New York since the BLM protests intensified in the past few weeks?

V: The BLM protests are certainly righteous, and the police response has been horrifying. In the first weeks, I spent many days and nights glued to my phone, keeping up with the latest news from the streets, doing my small part to make sure local politicians were made aware of the outrageous behavior of the police in New York State. It seems now that the police have stepped back and are indeed shaken by the people’s overwhelming response not just in New York but in the United States and around the world. In June, I participated in a march of 15,000 people all dressed in white in support of black trans lives. It was indeed a beautiful sight. In the short run, some key laws have been challenged and changed. But what I think is important about this moment is that the discussion of historical racial inequality and defunding the police has now become a topic of daily discussion in households across the US. I don’t see this as a struggle that has a clear ending. It is ongoing so long as racial injustice still affects our communities.

EE: And what about your anti-racist awareness campaigns in the music industry? You’ve participated in a couple of streams to collect donations and support the BLM movement. What results have you and your music community have reached? And what other musicians and artists have you worked on these programs with?

V: In June, United We Stream decided to launch their first-ever US-based stream in New York, filmed at Basement with myself, Xiorro, Rachel Noon, Mike Servito, and Anthony Parasole. I was excited to do this not only because it was the first time I returned to a club in months, but also because I believe that due to the global pandemic American artists will suffer longer and harder than our European counterparts. Now that we are blocked from entering Europe this feeling rings even more true. It’s important for us to keep reminding Europeans and the world that the multifaceted crises the United States is facing are not almost over or even improving, really. It’s important to keep up awareness and support for the BLM movement and coronavirus safety in general. I think it’s important for artists to use their platforms to help direct donations to organizations doing the groundwork in these struggles. In August, my label Jack Dept. will launch an EP by NYC-based newcomer Jorge B. 100% of our first month’s sales will be donated to the Black LGBTQ Migrant Project.

EE: What do you think about the online gigs that have been going on since the lockdown started?

V: As soon as the lockdown started, my inbox filled up with podcast requests! There seems to be this accepted philosophy or belief in techno where we do podcasts for free because they are considered advertisements for our shows, right? Well, what does that mean when shows no longer exist? How do DJ mixes fit into the fabric of the industry? And what rights do DJs have to do their art and to make money from it now that the main source of our income is indefinitely shut down? I’d like to see companies that have advertised in electronic music in other ways sponsor a mix-series so that working DJs can be paid a fee for a mix. They would essentially pay DJs to make their art, and you as a DJ are not necessarily selling the mix — the mix is for free to the public — but you get a fee to make this work of art. That would be a great way for companies to show support while we are unable to work.

EE: Lately you’ve been expressing interest in VJing and working on other visual projects. What brought you to this idea?

V: I’ve been seeing more creative streams coming up, people figuring out how to add visual elements to their work. That, of course, led me directly to the idea of getting some VJs involved. I asked on Instagram who everyone’s favorite VJ was, and I learned a lot about the world of live video art by asking my fans. What I discovered brought me to the point of questioning: “You would never expect this VJ to work for free, would you?” I mean, you can ask, but they might be like, “Why?” Well, why should DJs’ work be for free? So that is the moral quandary I have been asking myself to try to understand what is the step forward.

EE: And what’s your previous experience with the visuals?

V: I went to art school, and I have a degree in sculpture and fine arts. For me, it is very important to marry an original visual concept with the music to feel full as an artist and a DJ. So this idea of controlling my own show’s visuals has been on my mind, but I hadn’t had an opportunity to move on with it until now when I realized that I don’t want to be filmed DJing in my home.

So I decided to focus on projects which offer a visual element. I did a stream via Twitch with a bunch of kids from the NYC underground. I found a lot of classic computer art from the late 70ies and early 80ies and other art films that are even older, and I took that footage and created a two-hour video mix that went along with my stream. The idea is to transport the viewer. So I am trying to find ways to replicate the entertainment quality of being in a club — lights, colors, hazy images that make people think in certain directions but aren’t too literal. I found footage of carnivorous plants, and what is beautiful about it is that it is film. Film has this specific texture and color quality that instantly lends character. I think it has this quality of reaching into your subconscious mind because it is not so crisp and clean. You do not just see a thing, you are experiencing color and shape. During my research for this, I was very excited to discover some incredible works of abstract art, such as Yantra by James Whitney (1957).

Following that project, I got the opportunity to work with a very talented Paris-based video artist called Orthodox. His work has a high-fashion editorial look to it, and I think he did a great job of creating a very intense, beautiful and engrossing experience. This is definitely the level of creativity I am looking to continue exploring for these sorts of products moving forward.

volvox, berlin, 2019 © borshch

now that the main source of our income is essentially offline indefinitely

EE: What about the art of filmmaking is inspiring for you when you think of new ways to transport people into different worlds?

V: I watch a lot of films that try to convey emotions without necessarily being narrative. I am very inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky and these sort of magic-adjacent films. I recently saw something absolutely incredible that really inspired me — a film from 1998 called Lucky People Center International by Johan Söderberg. It is kind of a music video, and it basically connects the commonalities between different spiritual leaders’ teachings, but also takes these video clips and audio clips of gurus’ speaking and mixes them into techno tracks. I am interested in moving in this direction, taking these lessons from metaphysical surrealist directors, and trying to express esoteric ideas using visuals and music, but no words.

EE: What message would you want people to receive with your art?

V: The message is to allow yourself to get lost in the music. The conclusion of the film [Lucky People Center International] is that what makes us human is the fact that we dance and sing. And something I came to as a personal conclusion, which makes me feel secure in my choice of job calling, is that dancing is one of mankind’s most original and essential activities. People dancing to repetitive drum music is one of the oldest things that we have done with these bodies that we have. So I feel very validated and very secure in that. I feel that I am involved with an essential human activity. I was raised in an environment focused around alternative medicine and all these hippy-dippy Waldorf school sorts of philosophies. The education that I was exposed to growing up gave me some tools that help me communicate in these ways and as part of my practice as a DJ.

EE: These days many producers and DJs collaborate with visual artists, for both live visuals.

V: I think that unfortunately for some reason, the aesthetic element of techno music seems to have stalled in the 90ies. Back then Techno was a creative revolution: it was a new sound, it was a fashion style, it was a video look, it was just a whole new world of aesthetics. I feel that since then we have lost a lot of the revolutionary nature. I am always interested in exploring new ways to visualize techno because techno can seem to be devoid of overt meaning and reference because it is so minimal by nature. Of course, now with Instagram, many other DJs have kind of gotten that, but that is something I have always been personally interested in and pushes me to develop new ideas in techno aesthetics.

EE: What examples from the past have been most inspiring for you?

V: Detroit-based Underground Resistance is the group that I am most inspired by. They brought the whole package: militant attitude, in-your-face graphics, and mysterious personal presentation are part of the UR formula. Slovenian industrial band Borghesia is another big inspiration for me. Having backgrounds in an alternative theater, they presented live video art animations with all their shows in the mid to late 80s featuring heavy BDSM and magic-related content. Belgian EBM act Front 242 also must be mentioned for their strong visual aesthetics across all their albums, videos, merchandise, and in their stage outfits as well. This idea of total music art was pretty unique at the time.

volvox, berlin, 2019 © borshch

when people, especially women, start to age, our connection to nature starts to become more pronounced

EE: What are your primary goals as an artist at the moment?

V: I feel I am reaching a new level of understanding of who I am as an artist. I am formulating a lot of creative reference points that exist outside of what people may have already seen in techno. In the last few years, I have gotten more involved with gardening. This is just another personal philosophy, but I think that when people, especially women, start to age, our connection to nature starts to become more pronounced. My mother also is really into gardening, and so I feel like maybe the whole Earth mama side of myself is starting to become more prominent. So my references are becoming more related to nature, my core organisms, science. I mean, my name Volvox is a name from science.

EE: I was just about to ask about that, can you explain what it means?

V: Volvox is the name of a colony of single-celled organisms. These organisms only exist as a group, which I think is really cool. It is interesting how volvox is a community of single-cell organisms that rely on each other for their existence. Volvox can reproduce sexually and asexually, so I think that there are really interesting reference points there related to queer culture and who I am within this queer culture world. Being a plant-based life form volvox always moves towards the light, which has a cool spiritual-adjacent vibe. And their movement is described by scientists as dancing because they roll and tumble in the water, gently bouncing off each other. It’s a beautiful thing to see.