To see the starry night or to travel through the galaxies, at a planetarium, is surely the most common event presented in dome architectures spread all over the world. As an architectural form, Buckminster Fuller made the geodesic structures widely known by connecting their shape with the concept of alternative habitats inspired in natural shapes.
The contemporary interest in dome architectures within the arts was brought to evidence between the late 1950’s and mid-1970’s through the Vortex Concerts and the Movie-Drome. In 1957, the musician Henry Jakobs and the artist-filmmaker Jordan Belson produced the series Vortex Concerts at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco. Taking advantage of the visual and sonic conditions of the space, the Vortex Concerts became well known for presenting visuals in dome shapes performed to surround experimental music.
“(…) enveloped the spectator in wall-to-wall electronic sound and overhead light effects (…). The assault against the boundaries separating one art from another became an attack on the barriers between “art” and “life”. Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome, a construction developed throughout the 1960s, in Stony Point, New York, became known a place for events constituted by multiple projections and live music, “a spherical theater where people would lie down and experience movies all around them”.
Immersive environments presented in domes have been more than entertaining or educational journeys through the untraveled space. In the last decade, domes have been more often than ever places for experimental audiovisual works by sound and visual artists continuing to explore the possibilities of the projected surfaces and resonances of sound.
Pedro Zaz, with whom we made this interview, is a VJ, a musician and a fulldome enthusiast. In his own words, he is neither a producer, although he makes production, neither a director although sometimes that is what he does. We met in Lisbon, on his visit between a tour with the Hypercube installation through the UK Summer festivals and heading off to Moscow to be in the judging panel for a VJ competition during the International festival of lights. We wanted to know more about his work both solo and as part of different AV groups but specially about his main project United VJs, the return to the domes as spaces for art making.
Ana Carvalho: Why the interest in working with domes?
Pedro Zaz: Well, they are fascinating, I used to go to the planetarium once a year as a kid and always fell asleep. At the Expo’98 Lisboa – there was a Virtual Reality Pavilion (Pavilhão da Realidade Virtual da Expo’98) it had some wacky 3D graphics and a fulldome theatre, the artifact room. This was one of the first fulldome systems ever built. Ten years later in 2009 when I was doing an R&D for GaiaNova in London and I came across with the person who built it, Richard Zobel, and in few emails, he enlightened me to many questions around the industry. This was when I first realized that there were simply no real time fulldome systems anywhere, so I couldn´t VJ in domes and that was very sad news.
Experimental art in domes is not a new thing, Vortex Concerts and the Movie-Drome are truly inspirational because we can easily relate to their struggle. Stan VanDerBeek was the first digital artist and also a “dome head” experimenting with everything possible. Henry Jakobs and Jordan Belson attracted a crowd that the planetarium management did not appreciate and we can also relate to that today. It is an impossible mission to get into any planetarium in the world still because they are all science based but it wasn’t always like that. My generation is the one putting the pixel on the dome surface because these structures have been around for thousands of years and they will not disappear anytime soon….
Ana Carvalho: Fulldome can be related with your work as part of the United VJs. Who are the United VJs?
Pedro Zaz: I met the incredible VJ Spetto in Manchester in 2004 and almost immediately started touring for the following couple of years with VJ and music. In 2007 we decided to create a group with the incredible talented VJs we kept meeting around the world. The Overture Ceremony for the Royal Festival Hall in London with GaiaNova, it was when we had the chance to prove that our VJ-style-working-method with others like-minded artists from all over the world would work. This is how the United VJs were born.
We are based on a multidisciplinary, international team of digital artists who have strong individual careers. In the past ten years, we have created hundreds of video mappings shows, opening ceremonies, stadium shows, TV shows, developing fulldome software, making video art, a few stage designs, and of course alot of VJing with an incredible team that hat we admire and have been with us for many years and are part of our history for ever: VJ Ortega, VJ Erms, Roger S., VJ Robson Victor, Helmut Breineder, Optika VJ, Viktor Vicsek, Thomás Mena, VJ Sorted, Jodele Larcher to name just a few.
Ana Carvalho: What is the reason behind developing your own software?
Pedro Zaz: We see software as an art form and one of the ideas behind the creation of Blendy Dome VJ was to solve the problem that any VJ always have had with the high price of equipment because it is normally developed for the film industry. We followed the intrinsic philosophy of the software for VJs that there shouldn’t be too expensive. We have developed our software in response to the planetarium industry astronomical prices. The only chance for a VJ to develop work forfulldome was either a not-real-time-planetarium or would have to write many lines of code.
The Blendy Dome VJ (we made a point by putting “VJ” in the name) is a real time fulldome mapping software for VJs, with the price for VJs, and who is not a VJ pays double. The big purpose of this software is to open a door for realtime artists into the fulldome industries because it was simply not fair. The DIY attitude from the VJ scene together with Blendy Dome VJ is one of the reasons VJs are in the domes today. Obviously, not because of us but because of their own individual talents. We have only made an accessible doorway for everyone with our software art.
Ana Carvalho: Shifting the focus of our interview to understand better your personal development, how did the meeting with VJ eyeskill / VJ eyepersonic took you to VJing?
Pedro Zaz: We experimented at that time (1997), with the VJamm software designed by Matt Black – Coldcut. It was a gateway for many people but, to use it we needed to have a computer and that was very difficult at the time. This software came on a CD-ROM together with TIMBER, a great video clip AV about the Amazon Deforestation. This was a great inspiration. During that period the webcams became a revolution in the world of VJs because we could build digital stop-motion animations with them: you moved an object, took a picture and by animating the sequence you could do a VJ loop.
We would spend the night making two loops that would be used soon after at parties. It was the normal progression accompanying the technological developments. VJ eyepersonic6 was a major influence for me in the making of software art and the concept creation. I´ve learned with him that the most important is not the technology nor the software but the idea and idea is the thing. Our discussions and brainstorms made a difference. Thinking about what the image is going to show helped me a lot in the beginning.
Ana Carvalho: Where did you started to do VJing?
Pedro Zaz: Here in Lisbon I followed the collective called DaStimulators – Digital to Analogue Stimulators (some videos can still be found on the Internet) of which VJ eyepersonic was the founder. In addition to the software he created to manipulate video8 in real time (1999), the group could express the drum’n’bass of that time through clips taken from silent movies: Scratching with Charlie Chaplin running away from the police fit perfectly into the rhythm of drum’n’bass and people were stuck into the visuals.
In the late 1990s, I went to Manchester, where I began my professional career. The AVIT, one of the first International VJing festivals, was a very important event to a lot of people. It had about 50 VJs, each one with a projector and their VJ RIGs – a kind of a spaceship with many controllers, surreal – and they were all VJing at the same time. There were 50 simultaneous projections. I went to AVIT with VJ visual_basiq (Rux-Rui Pereira), another super talented VJ that inspired me a lot, and that’s where I met VJ Palumbo giving a talk about the boiling Brazilian VJ scene and its attitude through political narratives. This aroused my curiosity and certainly one of the reasons why I am now in Brazil is because of that VJ Palumbo´s talk.
Ana Carvalho: How does the concept articulate with the resulting sound and image?
Pedro Zaz: For example, we (United VJs) did a videomapping at the Palácio dos Leões in São Luís do Maranhão, Brazil. After breaking down the brief, we always research and do the social investigation looking for clues and inspiration. The first draft creation to come out is the soundtrack for the piece. This way we make sure the artists composes the imagery to the beat of the show. Maranhão, in Brazil, has one of the biggest Reggae scenes in the world where they have these huge sound systems they call “radiolas”. From this we already have the motto for the soundtrack and a lot richness for the visuals.
I also have a project called Zaztraz, 100% live. In this project I play the audio, video and make a performance created with the contribution of the performer João Negro. This is my most personal project, which I do not control. Actually, it’s Zaztraz who controls me. I feel that stereo has been limiting us as much as the rectangular screen have. They can be small and restrictive. I hope to present this project more often using Spatial Audio (360º soundsystems) and fulldome projections.
Ana Carvalho: Audiovisual work involves constant research, conceptual but also technological. Who develops the hardware and software you use?
Pedro Zaz: In addition to me and VJ Spetto, United VJs also has the genius programmer Roger S. (Rogerio Sodré). We developed together a software for fulldome mapping: the Blendy Dome VJ. When it was released, we thought the software would sell a few dozen copies but it’s actually has been sold to more than 50 countries. Roger has developed many of the tools that we use like the Blendy 360 Cam for C4D and the Blendy VJ.
Ana Carvalho: Could you give me an example of a work with the Blendy Dome VJ?
Pedro Zaz: Inaugurated on the 1st August 2017, an installation for a business company in São Paulo consisting of three interconnected domes: a small one of six meters and two of nine meters. At the entrance, the audience would engage with an introductory videomapping, then entered another dome with a projection on a negative pressure screen with six projectors powered by the Blendy Dome VJ.
We created and projected a film 4 minute long about food throughout history. In the third dome I made sure that people would have a powerful reaction. A rollercoaster trip was projected and that was it, the audience screamed. From the outside, people could hear screaming, and obviously whoever was on the outside wanted to go in. As important as content, technology and software, is people’s experience. The theme, as it was proposed by the client, was cumbersome and so we included some entertainment of the genre fun fair and it worked.
So you can understand a bit about the logistics of this project, at one point, I went on Tour with Hypercube to a few English festivals while producing this and Spetto went to Turkmenistan to work on the opening event of the Central Asia Games after packing up all the hardware. Roger directed the setting up in two days with the assistance of two technicians and VJ Ulster, the VJ who stayed on the site during the twelve days.
We sent this team of four elements: the master who knows how to map the two domes, the VJ operator to understand how everything works because he stays there for two weeks and the stage technicians to look after all the details. Afterwards, a group of WhatsApp spreads out the reaction of the audience through social networks. Nowadays it is possible to make a production without being at the location.
If I want to talk about someone or a particular situation, if I want to use specific images or experiment with high pitch or aggressive sounds, I always have Zaztraz as an escape. I have another musical group, 3LIVE! together with Spetto and Phantazma. We make sound and video live, they have their machines and I have my Zaztraz system and each one plays a song at a time together with the images. Three different styles. This allows us to be quite experimental, going from junk to luxury and from luxury to junk in seconds.
 – Albright, Thomas (1985). Art e the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945 – 1980. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
 – Jurgen, Claus (2003). Stan VanDerBeek: An Early Space Art Pioneer. In Leonardo. 36 (3), p. 229.
 – The article “Parece que foi ontem (o primeiro VJ brasileiro)” (Seems like Yesterday (the first brazilian VJ) ) presents the central figures of VJing in Brazil and highlights the relevance of VJ Palumbo’s contribution: The platform VJs Brasil: https://vjsbrasil.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/parece-que-foi-ontem-o-primeiro-vj-brasileiro/