This article originally appeared in The Eagle's special edition on Oct. 21.
Darth Vader has never been the most welcoming entity. A single step into professor Kyle “Kylos” Brannon’s office on the third floor of McKinley however, and visitors are greeted by a 3-foot version of one of cinema’s most notorious villains. Maybe it’s his size or the fact that he’s holding a clapperboard, but this little Vader establishes a friendly tone by the time the door closes behind you.
Beyond the Dark Lord of the Sith, and on top of a repurposed milk crate, sits a Nintendo Entertainment System circa 1985. Gollum glares at visitors from the cover of a textbook. Captain Kirk à la Shatner, and comic book Batman and Joker peek out from the cabinets and shelves. Less mainstream, more contemporary film and media posters surround Brannon at his desk.
Nostalgia emanates from the walls, the desk, the bookshelf. It’s all the product of pop culture.
“I love pop culture,” Brannon said. “I love comic books, and movies, and art and bands. And I don’t think I really separate any of these things.”
Now in his ninth year as a full time professor at AU, Brannon has established himself as one of the University’s go-to filmmakers, the faculty adviser of AU’s cinematic fraternity, Delta Kappa Alpha, a non-profit documentarian and on any given weekend, a video jockey (VJ) at any one of D.C.’s nightlife venues.
For those unfamiliar with what a VJ is, think of it as the same thing as a DJ, except with visuals instead of audio.
“I do with video clips, effects and graphics, live, what a DJ does with bits of music and audio live,” Brannon said.
Pop culture also serves as the thread that weaves together all of Brannon’s pursuits, both academic and extracurricular. As if on cue, Brannon closes Final Cut Pro on his desktop Mac (he was in the middle of a music video mashup) to reveal a presentation he’s giving for his European cinema class. This week’s topic: German expressionism.
“I teach about how German expressionism has influenced The Joker, C-3PO, Harry Potter and Edward Scissorhands,” he said. “And these are things I would mix into my live video art.”
From old content—the content that made you happy as a kid, still secretly happy as a teen and maybe happiest of all as an adult—comes some blend of those old emotions and memories with modern technology and creativity. But isn’t that what generates all art?
“Sometimes I feel like what I’m making is real art, and sometimes I’m not sure if it’s actually quote-unquote, art,” Brannon said, “but I do feel compelled to be working in this field and creating media.”
What started as DVD copies of video mixes that would simply play on a loop on a club wall all night has evolved into a live, improvised performance using robust software and an extensive library of music videos and other clips. Brannon consistently VJ’s at some of the District’s hottest clubs and has become a core part of the 9:30 Club’s 90’s night.
“Standing on stage in front of a sold out crowd at the 9:30 Club is awesome; the energy is fantastic,” Brannon said. “It’s an experience I was never going to have as a member of a band, and I found a way to have that experience.”
Sure this might sound fun, and well, as Brannon said, it certainly is fun, but it takes hard work too. Party-goers can simply shake their heads and keep dancing when the DJ throws down Nirvana and Boyz II Men back-to-back; but VJs need to stay on their toes and keep the visuals going.
“More often than not, when a song comes on, I need to import a video, do something cool to it and then replace it for what was on [screen],” he said. “What I can do is say, let me just grab an old Gap commercial, a clip of the Powerpuff Girls and the dance sequence from ‘House Party,’ and edit them together in time with the music.”
Now repeat that every three to five minutes for five hours and you can begin to imagine the life of a VJ.
Just as Brannon’s past experiences with pop culture seep into his live video productions, his experience as a full-time graphics artist also defines his VJing style. Color theory, among other technical aspects of the craft, plays an important role in VJing. Even if live video art often takes a back seat to the accompanying music, a VJ must have enough technical know-how to maintain a constant, visible stream, often working with outdated projectors among other equipment.
Despite the stack of comic books shelved in Brannon’s office, he downplays the alter-ego aspect of his teaching and VJing dichotomy. Brannon says that he doesn’t necessarily compartmentalize anything and that he tries to allow all aspects of his professional life to flow together. His VJing influences his teaching and vice versa. He says keeping the two separate would be counterproductive.
“All of this content, to me, works together in a big cultural stew…there’s differences between any job you do and as far as my personality is concerned, well, I’m not holding a beer in the classroom while I might have one onstage,” he said.
Brannon says he has ambitions of branching out into different realms of live video art. Socially active and performance-art spaces are at the top of his list, which also includes anything that allows for more artistic freedom.
One specific project Brannon mentioned he is working on with some of his fellow creative academics is a “crowd sourced spoken word piece with accompanying improvised video.”
VJing certainly stands out amongst the rest of Brannon’s extracurriculars. Maybe that’s because he’s likely the first VJ his students have ever met, or possibly because seeing someone onstage at the 9:30 Club tends to leave an impression.
Keep an eye out for Brannon’s smartphone filmmaking seminars, his future work in new art spaces and of course, as a VJ at a club near you.
As Brannon puts it, “[VJing]’s not the only thing I’m doing outside of the classroom, but it’s probably the most unique thing.”