Interview: Johnny DeKam

As a follow up to the recent blog post showing the history of VDMX through screenshots we have a special interview with Johnny DeKam, the founder of VIDVOX! See below to learn all about our early history that began twenty years ago...


I am Johnny DeKam. Many of you know me as the founder of VIDVOX and original creator of VDMX. Ever since I stepped down in 2004, I’ve been a video designer and director, working mostly in the music industry, as well as Fine Arts and a myriad of other projects. VIDVOX has now reached an epic 20 year anniversary! David and I thought it might be interesting for you to hear more about me, and the humble roots of VDMX that you all love. 

So let's start with a deep history. VIDVOX's roots grew directly from making art, and in this regard, has always been creator focused. I started VIDVOX alone, on a mission to build better tools for my own personal work... but how did it all begin? This is an origin story.

80’s

It was a bit a of winding river for me. Before I ever thought about being an artist or video, at the age of 11, I was programming computers at the dawn of the PC era and pre-internet. I had a TRS-80 Model II with 64K of RAM and taught myself BASIC. Later, I worked with the Atari 520ST and Amiga , with which I could draw graphics, sequence MIDI and make music. But computers were really just a hobby, because mostly I was interested in art. (so I thought at the time)

Early 90’s

By the time I entered college I was fully committed to being an artist, studying painting and printmaking in Detroit. I was most interested in the process of making art more than the end result, and approached painting as if I were building algorithms. This was the early 90’s so also I became deeply immersed with the culture of Detroit Techno which was at a glorious underground peak. This in turn brought me back towards computers, experimental music, and now, digital art. In 1994, I got my first PC, a 486SX, and I built my first website, a digital art gallery of sorts, which was authored for Mosaic (the 1st graphical web browser). I was making art both physical and digital, and quite a bit of experimental music, running an improv noise music night at the local club where I worked. I finished in Detroit with a BFA in Painting, and decided my next step would be to continue down the digital road at Rensellaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Entropy painting 1994, Johnny DeKam - Collection Benton C Bainbridge

Late 90’s

The Integrated Electronic Arts program at RPI interested me because 1) it was an art program situated at our country's oldest engineering school, and 2) they demanded an interdisciplinary approach. I immersed myself in video art, graphics, and computer music. I was introduced to Max (Now Max/MSP/Jitter) and I loved programming in a visual way rather than syntactically. Max was maybe the first programming environment out there built entirely for artists / musicians. What you could do with it for music was quite sophisticated, having its pedigree from IRCAM institute in Paris, but video and graphics were primitive.

Composed and performed in 1996, 33 1/3 involved drawing a series of scores onto paper strips wrapped onto cylinders. The drawings were spun on a standard turntable and tracked with digital video analysis, converting the drawn gestures into MIDI data to create sound. Johnny also mixes found audio collage and effects on a 2nd turntable.

I became enamored with iEAR's Grass Valley online video edit suite. Here, with multiple 3/4” SP video tapes rolling, I could program the DVE unit to spin and animate video live. Something clicked with me here. I now began to understand what it was like to ‘VJ’, to be performative, to treat video like it was a musical instrument. The problem was, there weren’t any good performance tools yet. I started working with software from STEIM in Amsterdam called Big Eye (the first machine vision to MIDI app every created) and Lissa (a very interesting real-time audio sampling app). I also started working with the first ARKAOS app, which is what really inspired me to write my own video software. These three apps, along with a lot of autonomous art processing scripts became the basis for my MFA thesis at RPI. By the time I finished, I knew the next step would be to create better tools for this sort of thing.

Arkaos was cool, but was very limited in resolution and quality due to its dependence on the Cinepak CODEC. I thought I could design something better that used a hardware accelerated, full resolution video CODEC. This was the genesis of VIDVOX.

1998

I had been working at a small graphic design agency, when I decided to quit my job and officially form VIDVOX, LLC. The first app I designed and co-authored with a young developer (Russel Clarke from Australia) was called “Prophet”.  

VIDVOX Prophet -- The app that started it all

At its core, Prophet used the new DV video CODEC tied to MIDI control with notes and CC messages to control a ‘jog shuttle wheel’ so that you could ’scratch’ the video. It was 'cuts only' and It worked beautifully, the quality was amazing. One of VIDVOX’s first customers was The Light Surgeons from London. At the time we used the ‘Shareware’ model for distribution, which was really the best way for an independent to work in those days. Remember KAGI?

2000's

Meanwhile, Cycling74’s Max was evolving at rapid pace, and an interesting Quicktime Video Engine was released called “NATO.0+55”. Created by the controversial collective calling themselves Netochka Nezvanova. This software opened up the possibility to do a lot more than just play movies. I began working on what would later become the first VDMX, which I purely thought of as an experiment for my own performances, but I soon realized that other people would like it as well.

VDMX 1.0 was officially released to the public,  Quickly after came version 2.0 and word started to spread. I started to be asked to festivals to perform shows. I also started to get interest for bespoke versions such as the Ferrari Factory Store in Italy. In 2001 I went on my first concert tour as the official VJ for Sasha & John Digweed (Delta Heavy) spinning content made by Imaginary Forces

Around this time, I put out a call for interns at RPI, because things were getting busy at my small studio. I was joined first by Jack Turner, and soon after his mathematician friend David Lublin. At first, I worked on VDMX and did my best to get Jack and David obsessed with Max/MSP. I was also spending a lot more time traveling to media festivals, especially in Europe, some of it was related to collaborating with Netochka. Some of it was representing VIDVOX, and some was performing my own work. I started working with other composers such as Jasch and Peter Votava (PURE), using the tools and software experiments coming out of our Troy, NY VIDVOX studio.

First piece of triology release in 2003 by Johnny DeKam (visuals) and Pure aka Peter Votava (music).

As Jack and David quickly gained skill programming, they built a new app called GRID which for all intensive purposes was they dream version of Prophet -- a ultra intuitive, cuts only video app design for rapid sequencing / playback of clips. We soon released GRID with huge success, and began work on the most ambitious version of VDMX to date, VDMX 4, which was now running on a new video extension called SoftVNS (by David Rokeby in Toronto) SoftVNS had an interesting history itself, starting as a SCSI based machine vision system allowing for gestural performance. What made SoftVNS great was that everything was processed in YUV colorspace, and PowerPC optimized, giving as about 4x gain in processing power. That meant better resolution and more effects capabilities.

il-lab-vfff.jpg

VDMX4 is where we went 'MODULAR'. The idea being that to give everyone the most flexibility, and power we had to create a system where people could design their own instrument. We also introduced the idea of video oscillators, coining the term 'VFO', This concept remains at the core of VDMX today, and the thing that really makes it as utterly flexible.

VDMX v1

VDMX v2

We released VDMX4 and by now VIDVOX had gained a much larger following. We started to see growing pains. This version of VDMX was powerful, but also exposed the limitations of the platform we were using... we had truly pushed Max/MSP/SoftVNS to its limits, but our users wanted more... and so did Jack and David.

VDMX v3

VDMX v4

2004

Change was in the air. VIDVOX needed to grow up. Being truly artist-centric, VIDVOX never had any desire to seek venture capital or follow the path of a 'normal' startup company. Steady growth was our mantra. We always kept focused on what our users needed, rather than making the most possible money. (I'm very proud this legacy still exists today!) However, under this model, I wasn't able to pay Jack and David what they truly deserved for their excellent work. We went through a bit of soul searching as well as counseling by Josh Harris of We Live In Public fame.

I came to realize that I really did my best as a creative, not as a CEO and decided to hand control of VIDVOX to Jack and David. They had already began thinking about VDMX being rewritten natively in Objective C, rather than rely on Max. Contracts were signed and the transition officially took place. One of the first things the boys did was bring on the talented Ray Cutler, who had the comp-sci chops that VIDVOX needed to bring things to the next level. I moved down to New York City with my (now) wife and soulmate and the rest (as they say) is history. 

Next – Stay Tuned for Part 2... Where Johnny writes about what happened after departing VIDVOX and what he is up to now.