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Bill Viola

Hunter Braithwaite

Bill Viola, “The Reflecting Pool,” 1977-79.Videotape, color, mono sound; 7:00 minutes.Photo: Kira Perov.

On the occasion of his upcoming exhibition, Bill Viola: Liber Insularum, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, the pioneer of video art spoke to the Miami Rail about the power of the moment, digital humanism, and the catatonia of the image.

HUNTER BRAITHWAITE (RAIL): Your use of extreme slow motion seems to amplify the metamorphic power of the moment. You have cracked open the moment, which reveals itself not to be a stable unit of time, but an incredibly dense and revelatory system. Since much of your work has dealt with the universal issues of humanity, I’d like to ask if you yourself have ever felt one of these moments. Are there any transcendental instants that come to mind in regard to your art making? Perhaps there was one that provided clairvoyance, or obscured an earlier mode of thinking?

BILL VIOLA: I have felt the hidden connections within the life field all around me, and very deeply, since I was a child. Over the years, I have had a number of instances involving premonitions, telepathic communications, and so-called out–of–body experiences. Apparently it runs in my mother’s side of the family. I never paid much attention to it, thinking it was normal, but I am sure that my art making abilities arise from the blank slate that often comes over me when I am deep in thought. Sometimes I don’t even remember the content, but something is transmitted that eventually surfaces. All I know is that my conscious mind is usually not part of the process.

Some of this mystery was clarified for me when my wife Kira and I lived in Japan for 18 months in 1980–81 and came across the Japanese concept of Mushin, or “No-Mind.” (Remember that the Japanese have a word for the space between the trees in the forest.) The Doctrine of No-Mind was especially valued by the Samurai class since, in their practice, one false move could mean sudden death. Basically, it is a method to take the thinking mind out of the equation when one is engaged in conflict, or any essential action for that matter, and to allow the body’s reflexes and intuitive responses to take charge naturally. I am sure that many artists are familiar with this approach and the importance of being intuitive, spontaneous, or even irrational and destructive in the course of making their work.

RAIL: By filming actions at a high frame rate and then slowing them down, your work allows the viewer to see dimensions of human action (and emotional response) that would not otherwise be visible. But since you are also human, this gap between perception and action also occurs during the process of creation. How does this moment of
figurative blindness affect your art?

VIOLA: Contrary to what we presume, the split second that we call “the moment” is in fact a vast and complex world where time and space are not what they seem. The micro and the macro worlds become interchangeable, seeming at times to grow as heavy as a boulder or as light as air. Experience warps and stretches time to reveal that a symphony can last a lifetime, or be as brief as the momentary glance of a stranger—yet both can be life-changing. In the universe, there is no single speed of life. All is in flux.

In human experience, the sexual act is something that defies description. It violates logic, simultaneously gives us the experience of leaving our bodies and of temporarily entering the body of another, of momentarily transcending space and time, of simultaneously confronting birth and death in the same instant, and introduces us to our place in the cosmos, as miniscule as it is.

The French have a wonderful phrase for the orgasm—la petite mort, or tiny death. It is something that is vital and consequential in so many ways, yet in retrospect it never seems to last long enough, or to be a meaningful part of our lives for any serious amount of time. Like a film frame, it flickers by in an instant but creates a lifetime of experiences to be savored and recreated ad infinitum. The digital medium, although technically quite different at its root, is very similar in purpose and delivers to us a familiar, if not identical, experiential presence. The phenomenon at work here is the fascination of witnessing the passage of time as it traverses the life field, with the added bonus of being able to replay its course over and over, with dubious utility, if we so desire.

Therefore, we can describe the moving image in the 21st century as a kind of Infinite Orgasm Machine, ready at any moment to generate time, space, presence, occasionally information, and most certainly companionship, in the form of a torrent of fleeting pixels comprised of millions of tiny births and deaths. That’s enough to overwhelm anyone.

Bill Viola,”The Messenger,” 1996, Video/sound installation, Color video projection on large vertical screen mounted on wall in darkened space; amplified stereo sound. Performer: Chad Walker. Photo: Kira Perov.

RAIL: In a recent interview, you said that, “…We are moving very rapidly… to a point when technology and spirituality will be the same thing.” Can you expand on this? Technology has very quickly integrated itself into our consciousness, in how we perceive the world, but I take spirituality to mean how we perceive that which is beyond this world. How does technology alter this?

VIOLA: A year after leaving art school at Syracuse University, I had the good fortune of moving to Florence to help run one of the first video studios in Italy, if not all of Europe. I didn’t realize how fortuitous that was because not only was I helping some of the great contemporary European artists of the day to create their first works with video, but I also began to explore Florence, which led me to a much deeper and more personal understanding of the Renaissance and its art and culture. The Renaissance was a vital and instrumental moment in the history of art. Artists realized that instead of painting renditions of the physical objects around them, they could paint the intangible nature of light and its effects directly, just as they saw them. This made the subject less about physicality and more about the mental or spiritual dialogue between the soul and its source, divine illumination. Late medieval/early Renaissance artists like Giotto, one of my inspirational heroes, as well as Paolo Uccello, Donatello, Ghiberti, Masaccio, and others looked to the new Humanist philosophy and set the groundwork for the High Renaissance, leading up to the present day.

Now, fast-forward to today’s digital revolution and we find the same processes at work in a new kind of humanism. What we are experiencing in the 21st century is the dematerialization of the rigid object in favor of an intangible, multi-purpose, code-driven, transient object that can be configured in multiple ways—a “transformer” if you will. When Kira (my partner and collaborator for over 30 years) and I, along with our two boys, had an audience with Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India in 2005, he told us that the technology itself is not the problem. “It is the intention of the person using the technology that will determine whether the outcome will be positive or negative for all involved,” he said. In other words, it was the heart not the head that matters.

RAIL: As a boy you witnessed the first live television broadcast between New York and Paris. I am sure that it was an extraordinary experience, but I wonder if a child today would remember something similar after the fact. This brings to mind the apocryphal screening of the Lumière film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotot Station (I895), which had the panicked audience rushing to the back of the theater. Since we have been inundated with images (moving and still) over the past century, I feel that they must have a diminishing affect on the viewer. Have you noticed anything like this over the span of your career? If so, have you come up with any strategies to slow or reverse the leakage of wonder?

VIOLA: Yes, its called familiarity, and it does have as a major characteristic the ability to gradually diminish novelty over time. Another word for this is process is habituation, the act of getting used to something. The end result of habituation is of course, catatonia—the cessation of most bodily functions, including that of the brain. Much has been written about childhood’s end, and the loss of innocence that accompanies it, which in extreme cases can actually result in death. However, I don’t believe that this is the root cause of what we are discussing. I think it is a linguistic issue.

Language is a kind of virus that spreads from host to host. At the onset—the so-called patient zero—the population is quite small, so the linguistic immune system treats the invader like a foreign intruder and tries to contain and isolate it. This would be any kind of specialized language such as quantum physics or media art. However, since language spreads quite rapidly in a porous population, and new words and monikers are constantly needed in our fast-moving world of digital communication and social media, it is only a matter of time until the new words become entrenched in the culture, and in some cases, replace the old.

Your concern that we will become fatigued or blasé about the inundation of media is certainly justified, but if we look at the situation from a time-based perspective, quite often the system is self-correcting as the players continually go too far, and then correct back, and sometimes go to far in the other direction. Wonder and mystery will always be there, and it will be up to each generation to define what that means.

RAIL: A piece that you exhibited in a show in 2000 at the James Cohan Gallery, “Dolorosa,” is a color video diptych made from LCD panels that are hinged together. Although it updates the Christian icon for the new millennium, the piece also cannily captures the later rise of the tablet and smart phone as predominant digital devices. Your work is very successful in harnessing digital technology and mythology (both very ethereal systems) to a place. What do you think about the increasing portability of technology—the move from desktop to the laptop to the pad—and how that relates to spirituality or less-defined belief systems?

VIOLA: I am not too interested these days in talking about technology. There is something far more important looming over all of us, and that is to find a place for the soul and our inner life in this crazy, non-stop, steroid-addicted world. All cultures have always had a place, or a time, to go inward, to reflect, and gather strength and energy for what lies ahead. Without the ability to reflect, we have no sense of ourselves independent of the man-made world or the natural world, and remain blind to the sublime depth and magnitude of the inner life our spirit craves and requires for a healthy productive life.

I am not speaking mumbo-jumbo here from the 1960s. This is something that has been known to every culture that has walked on this earth. I am extremely concerned in particular for the current generation of young people who have everything at the touch of their fingertips, but less and less in the deepest parts of their beings. Why? because it is being crowded out by the very medium that I helped pioneer, which has become a cacophony of controlling voices—economic, political, commercial, and banal. However, I remain confident that the current and coming generations will break though the mask and show us that the visual image, along with its brothers and sisters, music and dance, is the true language of mankind.

But first, we must relearn how to read an image, not in the commercial way, but in the human way, and only then we can put it to good use. Much of the task for the practicing artist today in the creation of his or her work has far less to do with theory or technology, than it does with simply keeping the rational, deductive, self-conscious, reasoning processes at bay in the mind. The mind is the chatterbox that won’t be quiet. It should stay out of the room. This is a personal journey that must first be taken alone in the form of an inspiration, and then shared with others. The great 20th century psychologist R.D. Lang said, “The way out is not up, it is down and out and through.”

Furthermore, other than rare instances of white heat/burning inspiration, without the presence of stray thoughts, serendipitous coincidences, mistakes, random interruptions, bathroom breaks, annoying memories, or futile searches, the work would become rigid and calcified. Finally, it is the recognition that there is something greater than just myself that made all this happen, and that brings humility, awe and thankfulness into the equation—the true gift of the work.