If you’ve been wowed by the projections at a Sufjan Stevens or St. Vincent show in the past few years, then you’ve witnessed the work of visual-performance designer Deborah Johnson, the founder of multidisciplinary New York studio CandyStations. Johnson, who toured exclusively with Wilco from 2003–2005, creates thrilling live sets by wedding live music performance with traditional animation, three- and four-dimensional design, video projection, and digital art.
Working with a team of production designers, artists, and programmers, her approach is collaborative by nature, but never overly polished or “art by committee.” Instead, Johnson approaches her visual style as “the highest of the lo-fi, using these really sophisticated programming languages and tools — but it doesn’t look like Pixar; it looks like a child did it.”
What made collaborating with musicians appealing to you as a visual artist?
I knew coming out of art school (Maryland Institute College of Art) that I was disillusioned with the idea of working in galleries. I felt really annoyed with the idea of the autonomous artist; I didn’t believe that lack of collaboration was true or relevant anymore. I started going to a lot of live scratch DJ shows—DJ Shadow, Kid Koala—that had these visual projections as they were playing. I loved the interactions between the visuals and music, and how much of a compelling and fun experience it was. I was just struck by it.
I really loved the scale and experience of going to a show and seeing all these evolving backgrounds along with the music. I also knew I was a little bit of a performer, so I got really into “playing” along with musicians live, even though I’m not a musician myself.
You’re a drummer. Do you connect with drumming and percussion more on a visual level?
Yes. The more I was performing live with visuals, the more I felt that visuals were very percussive and I had to pay attention to tempo downbeats, accents that are really pulling from the drummer’s cue more than anything else. And I felt like, for a long time, I just took it for granted that these responses are instinctual. I had the opportunity to take drumming lessons, and my editing skills and visual-performance skill has been increased ten-fold. It felt so much more natural, and I made smarter choices in my live performance, in terms of hitting my marks and making a more dramatic impact.