They say, the electronic music DJ is for the 2010s what the rock star used to be in the 1980s. And serious rock stars always come with their entourage. Serious big-ass DJs even come with their own visual artists (also known as ‘VJs’). In the case of master Seth Troxler we are talking about a humble human being by the name of Aaron Kulik a.k.a. Koolik Visuals.
I’ve first come in touch with Aaron’s live performances on an underground party in Berlin, and it inspired me to shed some light on the life of ‘the artist behind the artist’. Having a true admiration for Aaron’s style—his visuals are usually a medley of movie scenes, trippy geometries, distorting FX, and surrealism—and the fact that US citizen Aaron is currently based in Berlin, Germany, made it easy for us to meet up for a lunch and talk about his work.
Read on below what he had to tell WITNESS THIS about his life, and what it’s like supporting Seth Troxler. And make sure to click play on the video embeds along the way to witness Aaron’s impressive graphic skills.
Introducing Aaron Kulik aka Koolik Visuals!
“Gimme a rectangle, gimme a giant-ass rectangle, and I’ll blow your mind…”
WITNESS THIS: Aaron, please let us in about your creative process—where do you source imagery from? How do you come up with ideas? What are your inspirations visually? And who do you admire from the fields of visual arts?
Aaron Kulik: My creative process usually begins with a ritual of lighting candles, applying a thin layer of butter across my entire body, and soaking in a bathtub while listening to the sweet sounds of Yani.
In all seriousness though, my creative process is mainly built upon a general fascination with life and the various emotions I experience when listening to music. I’ve also drawn lots of inspiration from various psychedelic experiences over the years. I’m fascinated with how these hidden worlds reveal themselves, and how they confirm that all life on this planet is interconnected. Often times I am attempting to bring back a part of that world into my work.
Inspiration is a funny thing. I find that it can often change depending upon what you may be experiencing in your day to day. In general, I’m more into organic and colorful imagery instead of the more stark graphic based visuals often seen within electronic music. Currently, I’ve been spending more time with my camera and less time in front of my computer. I’ve been getting back into my original passion of filmmaking. I’ve had lots of support from various friends of mine, especially a very talented photographer named Giovanni Dominice. It’s been great to get out of my studio and work with others collectively.
As far as other artists, I find the work of the late Pery Burge unbelievably inspiring. She was known for making these stunning ink explosion videos that one could describe as a psychedelic version of the big bang. Artists like her, that use “practical effects” shot with a camera have inspired me to experiment with organic techniques that you cant really re-create digitally.
What about your technical process. How are the visuals mixed? What are the ingredients you use to create a unique piece? From my understanding your work mostly happens live, i.e. your work is improvised and created in the moment, like a musician who is playing his instrument freestyle, that right?
My sets are mainly built from content I’ve created with computer software like After Effects or from various video shoots I’ve done. Often times I also sample various weird and old films. I’ve been compiling a video library for over 10 years. So kind of like how a DJ digs for records, Im often seeking out forgotten little gems.
Because Seth often plays vinyl, its not really possible for me to know which tracks he is going to play during a set. So when I hear him play something, I am triggered by various emotions. I then choose material from my library, which is often organized by these different emotions or moods, into a cohesive presentation that I present to the audience – with the aim of taking their experience to the next level.
In my studio, I can often be quite the perfectionist—sometimes obsessing over the right colors or transitions. But when I perform live – it’s immediate, in the present moment. Which is really great for my inner artist. Things aren’t always “perfect”, but often times I come up with new ideas right on the spot by being in that present state.
A majority of the work is done ahead of time by making the actual visuals. So while I am able to modify aspects of the videos—the main substance of the visual already exists, just like a DJ and his record bag. This “digital video record bag” is actually a spectacular piece of software called VDMX. It allows me to take all the different video content I’ve created or compiled over the years and manipulate, i.e. mix it live during a show. It’s one of those programs where, even after 9 years of using it, I’m still learning new things.
“I’m a merciless perfectionist, and having an art form where so much is out of your control is… very challenging for me.”
What does working with a big DJ like Seth Troxler mean for you? How does it affect your work and life? And foremost: How does it feel to be the artist behind the artist?
Working with Seth these past 4 years has been a truly exciting and unique experience. He was one of the first people I met over 10 years ago when I was first going to underground parties in Detroit. Right off the bat we had a deep connection. We used to spend hours discussing the universe and other far out concepts at his house, also known as Tesh Club.
It’s quite interesting to be the “artist behind the artist”. Seth gives me quite a lot of creative freedom to explore ideas and styles. We are both quite eccentric, and we definitely share a similar and very bizarre sense of humor. I think its very likely that the Detroit water supply was tainted with something around the time that we met (laughs).
Its quite surreal that all these years later that I now tour the world with him. Being on the road can sometimes be a challenge, but having that basis of friendship is really great. I definitely wouldn’t have a career in this industry if it wasn’t for Seth having my back and believing in me and my work.
How did you end up doing what you do? What brought you to the point in your life you’re at right now?
Working in this world of electronic music happened very organically. I was introduced to it at Movement—Detroit’s annual electronic music festival—in 2006, one week after I graduated college. At the time, I had no idea what good electronic music was—only knowing about poppy euro-trance type genres. I can not overstate how dramatically my world changed after discovering this music. At the time, I had no idea this now integral part of my life was missing—but when I did find it… it was this beautiful aha moment.
In the beginning, it was all about soaking up the culture and building relationships. I was surrounded by a tight knit community of people in Detroit who really encouraged me to experiment as an artist—I owe lots of my success to people like Matt Abbott and Maggie Derthick who provided me with my first opportunities to showcase my work live back in 2008.
The idea that I’d one day make a living off of doing this was completely foreign to me. So from the beginning, my foundation was rooted in passion and love of the music and the culture surrounding it.
After years of this being a side thing, I finally came to a major crossroads in my life in 2013. At that point, I was trying to find my purpose and had almost given up. But I knew that despite my doubts, I was really good at making visuals and I decided to focus 100% on that. That shifting of focus lead to Seth hiring me and my eventual relocation to Berlin.
What are your future goals?
As for the future—I am very excited. I think it’s really important to push oneself as an artist. But honestly, its quite easy to rest on ones laurels and keep doing the same thing. I’m always really inspired by someone like David Bowie who constantly strived to reinvent himself as an artist. Seth is really great about pushing me to explore new techniques and styles. I’ve watched my approach to video mixing change over the past few years because of that.
After working primarily in a very focused niche; electronic dance music—I am now seeking out new artistic experiences. I definitely continue seeing myself working in music. I’m super passionate right now about good hip hop music. I’d love to bring my particular style to that arena.
I’m also really interested in getting into the world of video installations, mapping and gallery shows. I’m currently formulating an installation concept alongside a very talented musician friend of mine. Having an opportunity to showcase my work outside of a club or music festival is extremely exciting to me.
Let us know when that one takes off, please! And thank you Aaron, for your time.
To hear more from Aaron’s interview, check the recording from the session we did live in Berlin together with our collabo partner & art lover Susie Kahlich who scouts the world for the most interesting artistic encounters.
This podcast is brought to you with friendly support of our friends at artipoeus podcasts — art you can hear.
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