Interview: Video Artists Undervolt & Co

Johnny Woods on what it means to be an experimental label and their upcoming performances at VIA Festival


Now in its fifth year, new media festival VIA in Pittsburgh (where both video artists and musicians are the headliners) has grown to be a platform that showcases boundary-pushing art, technology and creative exploration, in an approachable setting. This mood of inclusivity, in which the community is there to contribute and engage and play and just be inspired, is perhaps VIA’s other distinctive feature; the program is entirely volunteer-run, and all workshops and lectures are free and open to the public.

The upcoming 2014 VIA Festival (on 1-5 October) will be the first year to include simultaneous events in Chicago, which will happen in collaboration with Them Flavors, Rogue Agency and LVL3 gallery. “VIA was intended from the start to be a flexible entity that could take many forms for IRL/URL events—discrete or simultaneous,” explains co-director Lauren Goshinski. “It’s obviously a point in time where people are less limited by location than ever.” As the festival and organization continuously shifts and mutates to highlight the ever-changing creative culture, their staple event format, “AV Showcases,” is still the main building block.

“Festivals have never been driven by visual art,” Goshinski tells CH, so she was stoked to offer young experimental video art label Undervolt & Co their own showcase. The highlight of the festival will be their performance on Saturday 4 October, as each video artist is paired with musicians like L-Vis1990 & Traxman and Cakes Da Killa. The artists are not playing back pre-made videos, but doing a live production crafted on the fly, in conjunction with the music. And, as it’s new work specially commissioned from VIA, it’s going to be a one-time, live-in-the-moment experience.

We spoke with video artist and Undervolt & Co director Johnny Woods to learn more about the unusual label, founded by Yoshi Sodeoka.

What was the impetus to start a video label?

The label was started largely to fill a void for the dissemination of certain types of video work. Sometimes, artists want to create a body of work with a cohesive focus that is meant to be viewed all at once. Streaming sites aren’t really ideal for this type of practice, so we came up with the idea of “video albums.” With the demise of VHS and DVDs, we wanted to establish a model that could fill that void, digitally, using the highest possible quality format.

How are you similar to a record label, and where do you differ? Do you find yourselves being compared to an art gallery as well?

We are similar to a record label in that we have a roster of artists, and we sell media that they create. We do, to some extent, represent them in terms of putting together exhibitions and screenings (like VIA!), but we don’t have any agreement beyond works they specifically make for the label. I know that relationship can be different in the music world! I suppose that is the same with art galleries as well, where there is a structured, exclusive relationship. Our artists are usually involved in a lot of other projects, and we like that Undervolt & Co is something they can do in addition to those things. Sometimes I think we are more like a publishing company than anything else.

Where is Undervolt & Co based?

Technically, I would say we are based on the internet. Yoshi is in NYC, and I’m in Los Angeles, but our artists come from all over the world. That’s part of what makes this exciting. Collectives no longer need a specific geographical identity.

How do your video artists usually approach the audio side? Do they feel like their art is separate from the audio, or something synergetic?

It’s an absolutely synergetic relationship. In fact, this is incredibly important to us as a label. We don’t really believe in supporting a certain visual aesthetic, but one of our main criteria when deciding to release work is that it has a strong audio-visual relationship. Some of our artists do make their own audio, but even those who work with other musicians maintain a strong sense of connection between the images and the sound.

We tend to think the ultimate goal is to find as broad of an audience as possible. We like to make the work accessible.

Are the works you sell limited editions?

Our works are not limited editions and, in fact, that is in many ways what sets us apart as an organization. Video art has long been considered more important, or more valuable, if it is presented in a limited edition. We tend to think the ultimate goal is to find as broad of an audience as possible. We like to make the work accessible. You can own a piece of video artwork for as little as $5. In the future, we would like to offer limited editions as well, but we will always feature affordable downloads of the work we present.

We’re trying to figure out how to make this work have a comfortable home, where it can be valued for what it is, and appreciated by those who love it.

What type of people have you noticed are interested in owning video artwork?

We don’t really keep track of who is interested in owning video art. Our main interest is in promoting our artists and the work that they make. We try to make it easy to own, so that it can find whatever audience may be interested in owning it! Video artists have always had a hard time. It doesn’t quite make sense in the fine art world, or in the film world. So, we’re trying to figure out how to make this work have a comfortable home, where it can be valued for what it is—and appreciated by those who love it.

What are you guys planning specifically for VIA?

There are a few things we are presenting exclusively for VIA. Four of our artists (Birch Cooper, Brenna Murphy, Jennifer Juniper Stratford, and Johnny Woods) will be in person, performing alongside musicians in Pittsburgh. We also have A. Bill Miller doing the same for the Chicago edition of the festival. The Pittsburgh crew will additionally be giving a talk at CMU about the label, and the issue of distribution and digital art. Yoshi Sodeoka and Sabrina Ratté will be contributing additional material for the performances.

Another venture we are super-excited about is the first Undervolt & Co compilation release. We have asked the organizers of VIA to curate a collection of local, Pittsburgh-based video artists. These videos will be packaged, and available on our website, free-of-charge, concurrent with the festival.

Undervolt & Co artists will be giving lectures and performances throughout the week at VIA. Tickets to VIA showcases and screenings in Pittsburgh and Chicago are available online.

Image of VIA 2013 performance courtesy of VIA