Jonathan Bernbaum was a visual wizard who wanted to blow minds. Creating complex video projections with remarkable technical prowess, he pulled from a vast library of materials he obsessively sourced and created over the years.
“I would give him a line out and he would build these complex ecosystems of light, animation, and image, and all in real time,” says Jay Fields, member of Katabatik, one of several local experimental music and sound collectives Bernbaum collaborated with. “No one will ever be able to fill his shoes.”
An internationally-recognized VJ, Bernbaum, 34, toured the globe with big-name electronic music acts such as Australian duo Knife Party and German-American DJ Markus Schulz, sometimes designing and running video projections at mega-festivals with hundreds of thousands of attendees and millions around the world watching via live stream.
But Bernbaum, who grew up in Berkeley, felt most at home in the tight-knit Bay Area underground electronic music scene. “We are a family,” says friend, DJ and sound artist Remy Beatty, of the S.P.A.Z. collective. “It was the community first, the acceptance there, and then the music that drew Jonathan in.”
It wasn’t uncommon for Bernbaum -- who was possessed of a “freakishly sharp brain,” according to family and friends -- to lure those close to him into long, in-depth conversations. “Like, four-hour debates on the nature of God,” says friend Tony Lund, who was a classmate of Bernbaum’s at the University of Southern California’s (USC) prestigious School of Cinema Arts. “He loved to wrestle with big ideas, and he wanted us to join in that great wrestling.”
After receiving his MFA, Bernbaum stayed in Los Angeles, picking up editing jobs on indie films, music videos, and commercials. When he wasn’t navigating his way through the film industry, he began to experiment with video-projected art, sometimes using a wall behind his Silverlake home or a bed sheet he’d hang at friends’ parties to project new ideas. Bernbaum used the stage name Circuit 5.
“He was a passionate person, always committed to learning new things, to self-expression, freedom of thought and personal growth,” says best friend Nabila Lester, who attended both Berkeley High School and USC with Bernbaum.
Bernbaum gradually became disillusioned with Hollywood, deciding in 2012 to return to the Bay Area, where he struggled with what to do next. Eventually he poured all of his creative passions into VJ-ing. “He would sometimes cocoon himself for days, sourcing new materials, creating sequences and combinations of clips that had thematic cohesion and a unique cinematic quality,” says older brother David Bernbaum, who shared many common friends in the underground scene.
In recent years, friends and family recognized how Bernbaum had undergone a profound transformation. “I saw him change from a man on a serious journey to figure out who he was, to a man who knew who he was,” Lester says.
Bernbaum’s newfound clarity was a source of inspiration to friends in his life, which continues in his death. “I literally can hear him saying to me, ‘I appreciate the tears, but stop crying. You got shit to do,'” Lester says. “‘And do it a hundred times more than you have been doing it. Do it for me.’”
Friends have created a Jonathan Bernbaum Memorial Scholarship Fund at the School of Cinematic Arts. To contribute, see here.
For more of our tributes to the victims of the Oakland warehouse fire, please visit our remembrances page here.
For a printable poster of the illustration above, see here.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED