To celebrate the release of Thump’s film on Melbourne's ‘90s rave culture (above), we caught up with one of the featured personalities and scene’s seminal figures. Adem Jaffers, otherwise known as VJ Mandala, has performed live visuals everywhere from bush doofs to New York nightclubs. At the forefront of technology, his work was experimental and cutting edge and still stands 25 years later. He first used an Amiga 500 computer and later video feedback, lighting, laser, lego robotics and projection to create wild and tripped-out VJ graphics and animations. Adem was also integral in the Cyberthon events, a series of live VJ marathons broadcast, guerilla-style, to live TV between 1991-1995. Seriously—check out his video archive and try not to get lost in some sort of Cyber Tekno Art wormhole. We caught up with Jaffers to ask him about raving his way through the '90s and creating one of the most successful AIDS awareness campaigns of the decade.
The Creators Project: How did you get into the rave scene?
Adem Jaffers: I was introduced to the rave scene through my brother Jeff. He was living with Ollie Olsen and Gus Till [from the electronic act Third Eye] around the time when he directed Third Eye’s ‘Real Thing’ clip. Acid House was already established in the club scene. Those guys took me to my first warehouse rave, Biology at the Powerhouse. The place was packed full of people dancing. There was lots of hugging, people were colourful, very friendly and unpretentious, and the music was off world! My most vivid memory was when I was lying up to my neck in a pool full of bean bag foam tripping hard when Burnie Burnie from Wrong Shop filled a garbage bag full of the foam and dumped it over the industrial fan, which filled the entire venue with what looked like stop motion snow under the strobe lights.
What lead you into creating visuals and VJing?
I believe that my first public gig may have been at the Karma II party in Richmond circa 1991, but I was introduced to creating visuals while working as a stills photographer on the Max-Q 'Monday Night by Satellite' music video in 1989. Jeff was animating background graphics for the clip using an Amiga 500 computer. When I'd witnessed what the Deluxe Paint software could do I was just blown away! Witnessing the collaboration between Jeff, band members and the other creatives involved during that clip—and shortly after on the ‘Real Thing' clip—I became overwhelmingly inspired, purchased an Amiga computer, and began animating profusely. I was also heavily influenced in the early days by the cut and paste computer art created by cutting edge artists Dale Nason and Troy Innocent from the seminal Cyber Dada [art collective], who also contributed to the ‘Real Thing’ clip.
Do you ever wish you could’ve been making rave visuals today with all the technology available now?
Looking back, the hard/software technological ability of today's VJ tools are everything and more than I had dreamed of. I both wish I could've had access to this kind of tech during my humble beginnings, and yet at the same time there is certainly a buzz to riding a primitive wave of the buggy computer revolution that we were at the beginning of. It was exciting and uncharted territory.
You worked on a government-funded video called 'Rave Safe', which ended up being one of the most successful AIDS awareness campaigns of the '90s. Can you tell us a bit more about this project, and how you came to animate it?
It was initiated by the NSW Users & AIDS Association in 1992, and funded by the Aids Bureau Department of Health and The AIDS Trust of Australia… The brief was to promote safe sex practices through the use of condoms, safe drug use by using clean fits, and [there was] a minor message of keeping hydrated whilst dancing all night. The language that we used to convey the messages employed the use of ancient archetypal symbols, as well repurposing modern government, national and mathematical symbols as they conveyed a contemporary universal meaning. In a classic rave style, we heavily appropriated commercial product packaging and redefined its meaning. Most importantly, we had to portray the AIDS/HIV virus itself. To do this we gave the virus, and condoms, a representational eye-candy presence. To paraphrase director Jeff’s brief to me, we needed to deliver the message without hitting people over the head with a sledge hammer…The animation component took approximately two months and was made on an Amiga 2000.
The 'RAW' video that you created for the Transport Accident Commission [TAC] Victoria was also great!
The video was broadcasted directly to most Victorian high schools periodically over several weeks. All the kids knew what the campaign was about, so I felt no need to preach a message about how to cross a road or drive safely when they got their license. My rationale was to purely try to mind-funk them with an audio-visual onslaught during their boring school hours and hope that TAC’s overall campaign message would somewhat stick accordingly. The 'RAW' video was animated and edited completely on the same Amiga 2000 that was used to animate Rave Safe.
I feel like government organisations wouldn’t be as willing these days to work with such experimental and avant grade artists…
I do believe that forward-thinking pen pushers in certain governmental departments were excited by what was happening with new technologies in the hands of emerging digital artists during the early ‘90s. Upon us all was a rather lawless aesthetic; the internet had come to life. I suppose it's all a bit passé these days.
The aesthetics of the era have come back into style in recent years, though. Do you have any thoughts about this renaissance and the nostalgia for early internet visuals?
I imagine that, in part, the comeback may be due to the fact that it’s now retro, old school, vintage… In a lot of ways, this generation [Gen Y and Millennials] will absorb and reinterpret their past, making it their own and then moving on; sort of passing on the baton and paying homage to the past. Similarly, in many ways the ‘90s rave scene itself—which many claim really exploded during the UK Summer of Love in 1987—regurgitated, was influenced by, and repurposed the ‘60s by way of its fashion, drug selection, large room parties with trippy lighting, impov synth knob tweaking, and film loops. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test parties come to mind.
Do you still go to raves now?
All good things come to an end, then get defribbed back into existence for a brief encore. Unfortunately I haven't been to a rave since about 2008. That last experience left a somewhat sour taste in my mouth—maybe it was all the amphetamines everyone was on—I don't know, but I know raves just weren't what I remembered. I understand that all things must evolve, for good or for bad. I do check out, and occasionally VJ at, tekno music clubs—for example, Machine at My Aeon—as I still love to listen, jam and dance to certain genres of EDM.
'Rave Safe' original collage art layout by Adem Jaffers