Denver-based visual artist David Schunemann, better known to the dubstep world as Actualize Visuals, is at the forefront of the visual artist scene right now. Whether it’s working with some of the brightest up-and-coming talents or curating visual artist lineups for some of the most popular underground bass music festivals, David unleashes a refreshing passion onto the live performance community that is hard to come by these days. He is one of the most forward-thinking, creative minds that exists in this scene today, always aiming to create jaw-dropping experiences for his audiences while naturally syncing up with the flow and style of the artists he pairs with.
The Rise of Visuals Artists
Music has always been in the spotlight, where producers and DJs have constantly pushed the boundaries of what’s possible in sound design, styles, genres and flows. Over the last couple of years, however, the visual artist community has grown to a level of popularity that no one really saw coming at first. The pandemic in 2020 played a huge role in this rise of visual artistry. When there were no live, in-person events, we often found ourselves laying in bed or sitting on our couches in front of our laptops and TVs watching live streams. These live streams are how many of us discovered the extensive, untapped talent pool that exists on the visual side of things.
While it was also amazing to discover plenty of new producers during the pandemic, finding out about these visual artists was something brand new for a lot of us and we wanted to learn more about them. David was a key player in moving the needle forward for visual artists during this time, performing on several live streams while also posting his own separate, unique content that helped him quickly build an engaged and passionate following. When live events started to come back, many festivals reached out to Actualize about running their visuals and stage production. As you will learn in our interview, David made sure to bring all of the visual artist friends that he made during the pandemic up with him.
Ahead of this weekend’s Sonic Bloom festival in Colorado, we were fortunate enough to speak with David about how he has cultivated his own path as a visual artist, what fans can expect at Sonic Bloom, as well as his visually-curated lineup at Sound Haven, and even what the future of live visual art will look like in the next couple of years.
HIHF: Where did the idea for starting this project come from? Was there an “Aha!” moment where you decided, “You know what? I really want to pursue this” ?
David: I had just started getting into music festivals in 2016, and by the end of 2017, I really wanted to be a part of the artistic side of the community. I was looking for any way I could contribute to this artistic movement. These festivals I had gone to were such positive and transformative experiences for me that I just really wanted to give back somehow. Once I discovered live visuals, it immediately interested me and felt like something I was well-equipped for. The visuals were consistently one of my favorite parts of the festivals and events I was going to, and because I originally went to school for computer programming and had worked in the field for a few years at that time, I felt comfortable with navigating and figuring out complex software. That combined with my background in music made this whole visual side of things very new and cool and interesting to me.
Once I realized that you could essentially play visuals like an instrument, I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. It was just so exciting to me that there was this new artform I had never heard of that integrated music and art where the goal was to visualize the energy of the music on these massive screens, all controlled and manipulated live as a reaction to the music. What’s even cooler is that the software is just this sandbox where you can manipulate any piece of video content you can find or make, however you want, live. My mind was just completely blown by the concept and once I dug in, I found myself spending hours getting sucked into this program building out cool effect stacks and playing along to music at home.
HIHF: Where did the name “Actualize” come from? Was there a particular moment where the name came to you?
David: I was at the G Jones “Visions” tour in 2017 and this was when I was still tip-toeing around the idea of really pursuing visual art. Somebody told me halfway through the set that G Jones made his own music and his own visuals and I was like, “Man, if this guy can make all of this music and all of these visuals, I can at least make these visuals,” ya know? The nice thing about G Jones visuals is that, with the black and white, you can really focus on what you are looking at and you’re very aware of all the changes that are happening. The ability to use the basics so tastefully, while changing the visuals on beat – it just really blew my mind. I had this thought that all he had to do this was… to just do it, and that’s really how the name “Actualize” came to me. Not really thinking about what I’m doing or how I’m going to do it, but just actually doing it. Actualize it. I knew what I wanted to do at this point, I just needed to get out and do it.
HIHF: That’s awesome and honestly pretty inspirational. When you were just getting started on this journey, were there any visual artists that you looked up to or were particularly inspired by?
David: Yes, absolutely. I was super inspired by Android Jones in the beginning. All of the Jones’ – G Jones and Android Jones, that’s pretty funny. While we had a completely different approach to visuals, it was just so cool to see someone doing something that hard in a world that no one really knew much about at the time. He was the first VJ I had really ever heard of and he was one of the first VJs that I heard people start talking about wanting to see the same way they would talk about wanting to see people like Tipper. His art blew my mind and his Microdose VR stuff that he was doing was one of the most wild things I had ever seen. I would just binge his YouTube channel regularly, I couldn’t get enough. And this weekend at Sonic Bloom I’ll get to do visuals with him, which is just an unbelievable full circle moment for me.
HIHF: That’s incredible! Switching it up a little bit, I’ll never forget when my buddy FaceTime’d me from one of your live setups at whatever house you were at in the New England area where you were doing live projection mapping on a house. This was one of the most insane things I had ever seen. When did you first figure out that it was possible to do projection mapping like this on an actual house? How did those small gatherings come together?
David: So basically, I bought a giant projector and then COVID happened. My plan was initially to do projection mapping at festivals with it for stages and installations. So the first thing I did when I got it was pull it out and point it right at my house because I wanted something big enough where I could really see what it could do. And then it hit me: “Wait, I can totally do projection mapping on this house.” And what’s cool about some of those Victorian style houses in the New England area is all the small, intricate details like the columns and the window sills. And this is really what makes projection mapping pop – those small, moving details. We were able to map visuals out while music was playing and then I eventually figured out how to run the streams through the projection mapping, so you could have the video from the stream and the content broken up so that it’s all like a crazy moving art installation. The first time I posted pictures and videos of the setup to my Instagram it blew up and I realized this was a fun thing I could do to gain experience and grow my brand during that downtime. So, there was a period there where I tried to do this as much as possible – mapping a different house out almost every weekend, sometimes on a stream where I would have artists submit sets and I would mix visuals on the house all night long.
HIHF: Can you talk a little more about how the pandemic changed the trajectory for not only you, but all visual artists?
David: It changed my life dramatically. When it started, I was working as a software engineer, but I got laid off, which left me with all of the time in the world for the next year. This allowed me to go all in and focus on visuals, VJing, doing live streams, and more. The streams especially were such a unique opportunity for people like me. This was the first time that visual artists were able to share their work with people all over the country. It really opened my eyes to how many people genuinely appreciate this kind of stuff. I also had no idea that this many VJs even existed prior to the pandemic, and now all of these VJs that I first met through streams are some of my best friends. Overall, the visual artist community is so much stronger now because of the pandemic.
HIHF: How do you prepare for your sets? Does it depend on the artist/DJ that you’re paired up with? Or do you prepare for these sets the same regardless of who it is?
David: I will typically start by spending a lot of time listening to the artist’s music, especially if it’s a big headlining set. I’ll spend a whole week listening to nothing but the artist I’m paired up with, thinking about all of the content I have, and thinking about which pieces of content would match certain songs and/or vibes. Additionally, I think about content that I could develop and potentially fit into the set. I’ll then pull all of this content together into a new deck. I try to get the artist to send me their set in advance so I can figure out which content goes where, what effects will work in certain spots, and overall so I can get a feel for the flow of the artist’s mixing style. Honestly though, when I’m actually there during the live performance, I usually end up mostly freestyling with all of the content and effects that I have loaded into the deck. Like you had mentioned earlier, what the crowd is seeing is how I’m reacting to the music.
HIHF: I’ve noticed in some of your posts that you will use visuals from other artists, kind of like how producers/DJs rinse each other’s songs in their sets. Is this becoming a more common thing to do? Do visual artists send each other visuals to play out?
David: I think a lot more people are doing it nowadays. Like I mentioned, the pandemic made our community a lot stronger, and now we all try to support each other as much as possible, however we can. We all shared a lot of clips and tips with each other during the streaming days and now sharing has become the new standard. For me personally, I’m not too concerned about always playing my own visuals. I care more about playing content that just looks good, works well with the music, and affects people in a meaningful way – creating a journey and an experience. And when I get to play the amazing content that my friends have made, I can put my own live twist on it and remix what they made to the music – Actualize it. I’m also all about bringing up visual artists and supporting visual artists who are doing things that I really like. It’s a really fulfilling feeling when you can play out your friend’s visuals or art at a place like Red Rocks, send them a video of your live remixing of their stuff on stage and tag them, and then have that friend freaking out and being so excited. That’s really what I love most about playing other artists’ visuals.
HIHF: You have Sonic Bloom coming up this weekend with one of the most stacked visual lineups I’ve ever seen. What are you most excited about?
David: It’s definitely [doing visuals with] Android Jones. I still can’t believe that it’s happening. It’s the coolest thing that’s happened to me so far. I’ve done visuals at Red Rocks, but this is cooler to me. He’s my hero, I wouldn’t be here doing what I’m doing if it wasn’t for him. He really paved the way for a lot of us visual artists and was one of the first ones to have people talking about this side of live performance on an unprecedented scale.
But yeah, he and I are paired up for DesertDwellers on Sunday night. I have really been busting my ass for this one, I’ve never been so motivated to throw down so hard for a set. I also have a couple more sets this weekend – I’m paired up with Glass Crane for kLLsMTH’s set and then I’ll be doing a solo performance for Ravenscoon’s downtempo set. I’m just super, super stoked.
HIHF: I can’t wait to check out some clips from all of these sets. So, this will also be the second year in a row that you have curated the visual artist lineup for Sound Haven. How do you make your selections for a visually-curated lineup? What can attendees expect for this year’s festival?
David: So when I first go in to start making selections to visually curate an event, I will take the music lineup and start by doing potential pairings to make sure that we have visual artists who can fit the vibe for all of the different music being played. Each visual artist has a different style, some are better suited for darker, heavier stuff while others will do better with slower, lighter stuff. It all depends on their content and mixing style. There are many other things that come into account too, like the experience level and booking rate of the artist, and nowadays even the following of the visual artist plays a role because some of us now have the ability to help sell tickets with our brands.
It’s so hard though, it really gives me so much anxiety. I wish I could bring everyone out and pay them the max amount, but there are only so many sets and so much money available, so making these selections is always extremely difficult for me. I still love doing it though, I love giving these artists opportunities to shine, I love being able to advocate for proper rates and treatment while also making sure that my friends are taken care of.
What I love about Sound Haven is that they put so much into the stage production. Last year, they brought out Antic Studios for the LED and lighting stage design and had me design and operate the projection mapped portion of the stage. This year I’m designing a brand new projection mapped main stage and I’m really excited because we have a lot more time to plan and get everything right. Last year, coming off the pandemic was a bit of a scramble and, while we pulled it off, we had more ideas that we wanted to incorporate but weren’t able to get to. This year we’ve got plenty of time and we’re working with a great team that’s super on top of everything. They are all professionals who have been doing this stuff for ages. We’re hoping to do some projection mapping this year beyond the main stage as well, like potentially projection mapping some of last year’s inflatables as well as some projection mapping at the secondary stage. It’s really going to be insane this year with the all-star team we have in place.
HIHF: That’s amazing. I feel like project mapping is still a relatively new concept for a lot of people. I remember seeing Datagrama do the projection mapping for Tipper at Camp Bisco in 2019 using the pavilion ceiling and I thought about how monumental of a moment that was for me having never seen anything like that before. With that in mind, where do you see the visual side of things going in the near future as well as maybe within the next five years?
David: Man, that’s a great question. I think that the visual scene is going to continue growing stronger, especially now that there’s more awareness. The visuals are going to continue to get better. COVID played a big part here – visual artists had a lot of time and they could really focus on their craft. Now, everyone is collaborating with each other and getting inspired from one another, so the content and the VJing is getting a lot better. I’m hoping we see more and more festivals do these visually-curated lineups.
Festivals like Sound Haven, Sonic Bloom, Infrasound, and Tipper and Friends are really paving the way in terms of VJ lineups and projection mapping. I’m really interested in seeing more 3D stage design, kind of like what we were able to do at The Portal stage at Infrasound. I was really inspired by this stage actually. I really want this kind of stage to become the new standard. The only challenge is that these projectors are so expensive and it’s tough to get them in the hands of visual artists. In the next five years, I’m hoping we’re going to see some of these projector prices come down as new technology is developed, and might even see some really cool stuff going on with augmented reality visuals. Like if people have these Google or Apple glasses, there could be a way to get visuals integrated into your “smart” glasses.
We are also talking about doing a 3D projection design contest at Sound Haven this year, similar to how DJs submit a mix for an opening slot at a festival. We want to give everyone a 3D model of the new stage and say “okay, have at it!” which will be an awesome way to discover new visual talent and give some of these lesser known artists the opportunity to get their content up on a big stage.
HIHF: Love that idea. Last question for you – what is the best part of doing what you do?
David: The best part for me is probably when I can take a talented, lesser-known artist’s work and play it out for a large crowd, take a video of the artist’s content getting played out, and then see their reaction. It’s very fulfilling to be able to help these artists and bring them up into the spotlight. I also love working with artists like my good friends A Hundred Drums and Ravenscoon and helping them build out immersive, encompassing A/V experiences to grow their projects. So that’s the fulfilling side, but honestly the most fun part is VJing. It is so satisfying to be hooked up to a giant stage and know what you’re doing with it. It’s so cool because, as opposed to being a musician onstage, we get to look right at it, create a perfect moment, and enjoy it with the crowd from the same exact perspective. It’s those moments when you know you’re doing good and making the stage look sick and everything just seems to fall into place perfectly. Like you touched on earlier, it’s just really cool when the audience gets to see my thought process in real time, how I’m reacting to the music, and respond well to it. I also just really love the artform and seeing how everyone else approaches it, with all of the tools and content that’s out there, the possibilities of what you can do with live visuals are truly endless.
HIHF: Thank you so much again for the time today – this was a really fun and informative conversation and I’m looking forward to seeing you at Sound Haven.
We can’t thank David enough for spending some time with us before a busy weekend at Sonic Bloom! To stay up to date on the latest from David and his team, please visit the official Actualize website here. We’re also including links to his socials below!