ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 28, July 1999



Cynthia A. Freeland

Bill Viola and the Video Sublime





Bill Viola

_Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, Writings 1973-1994_

Edited by Robert Violette in collaboration with the author

Introduction by Jean-Christophe Ammann

Thames and Hudson, 1995/reprinted 1998

ISBN: 0-500-27837-7

301 pp.


'Increase your necessity so that you may increase your perception.' --13th century Persian Sufi mystic Rumi, quoted by Bill Viola (71).


This book functions as a record of video artist Bill Viola's work, also offering his reflections on art, video history, perception, consciousness, and even 'life and being itself' (152). There are entries from Viola's notebooks and essays, together with drawings, sketches, and video stills from his works and exhibitions. But despite the numerous illustrations and the artist's comments upon his work, nothing in this book can convey what Bill Viola's video work is actually like: stunning. If I had not seen some of it myself I might be inclined to dismiss Viola as just another artist with delusions of grandeur -- especially so given his penchant for grand pronouncements and his tendency to quote pretentious-sounding mystical authors with their vague, cosmic concepts.


However, this is one of the very few contemporary artists who have done work that I would not hesitate to call sublime. I first saw some of Bill Viola's videos and a video installation at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston in 1988. I was harried, mesmerized, and even stupefied by them. Harried by the horrific sounds of an electronic storm emanating from the 'Room for St John of the Cross', and mesmerized or stupefied by the astonishing visual imagery and effects of some of his video pieces. In 'Chott-el-Djerid' ('A Portrait of Light and Heat', 1979) he filmed what I had previously thought impossible, a mirage. What looked for a long period of time to be empty shimmering desert heat materialized into an actual mirage (if such is the term!) on the screen, of an oasis complete with ocean and palm trees. Then it slowly dematerialized (some images are reproduced in the book on pages 54-5, but they are a poor substitute for the video). From this desert blaze we switched to the Arctic tundra of Saskatchewan, viewing even more astonishing illusions effected by the conjunction of landscape, weather, and light. In 'I Do Not Know What It Is I am Like', Viola spent three weeks in wintry South Dakota, taping extended scenes of a herd of bison. Their ponderous and massive stillness became an odd mirror-image of the slowness and silence of the desert. A distinctive, almost glacial consciousness seemed to emanate from their shaggy heads and dark pupils. The artist represents their grazing on the prairie as a form of meditation. Viola's videos demand energy, attention, and, most of all, *patience* from viewers -- which probably explains why my students, from the MTV instant-stimulus generation, complained that they were 'boring'.


_Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House_ includes an introduction, 'Violence and Beauty', by Jean-Christophe Ammann. That Ammann links violence with beauty in his remarks probably reflects his own recognition of what I have called the sublimity of Viola's work. Ammann too writes of Viola's videotape 'Chott el-Djerid': 'The beauty of landscape, water, light, and color is so unbearable that one wants to scream' (13). I would suggest that what is involved here is precisely not beauty but the sublime: sensory effects that overwhelm the viewer with the stupendous force and nature of life, but in a way that somehow manages to be uplifting. (The historical sublime, you might recall, was something so overwhelming it became terrifying.) Ammann points out that Viola's videos show (as with the haunting image of a disintegrating dead fish) that life itself is entangled with death and with processes that are sometimes violent and destructive, yet lovely. Ammann emphasizes Viola's unique contributions to video as an art form: 'Whatever video may be, Bill Viola has given the medium its dignity, just as painters once promoted perspective or others -- one thinks of Seurat -- conferred autonomy on color' (19). The introduction closes by highlighting three themes in Viola's work: excursus, proportion or balance, and transition.


In contrast to Ammann's selection of key themes that I might perhaps call formal in their conceptualization, I will focus here on other topics from the book. Viola, a reflective and widely read artist, discusses any number of issues here, but I shall group his thoughts around the following themes: mysticism; the nature of perception; how to understand art; and finally, the history and particular nature of video art.




Viola expresses not just trendy engagement with writers like the Persian Sufi mystic Rumi (Madonna's reported recent enthusiasm), but a serious intellectual and spiritual engagement spanning a number of years. The chronology at the back of the book reports that Viola has travelled extensively in the East and has spent time in Java, Bali, Japan, the Himalayas, and the Fiji Islands. He has studied both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism and has filmed ceremonies of Hindu firewalkers. Viola was busy acquiring global consciousness before it was fashionable to speak of multiculturalism and the new global community. Though he emphasizes the role played in this century by scholars like D. T. Suzuki and A. K. Coomaraswamy, who made Eastern ideas available to the West, Viola also stresses that East-West contact has always been a part of the tradition, even of what is now known as classical Europe.


Viola returned home to the West from his sojourns East with a new sense of the continuing interactions among cultures and with a greater interest in the mystical traditions of the West, primarily within Christianity. He offers interesting observations about differences between the Christian conception of the 'via negativa' and the methods or approaches of other mystical traditions, and even writes knowledgeably about comparisons between European and American mystics. He is conversant with not only Rumi, Suzuki, and Coomaraswamy, but also cites Blake, Rilke, Julian Jaynes, Eliade, Cambell, Jung, _The Cloud of Unknowing_, and, of course, 'St John of the Cross' -- a poem which Viola quotes in full (117).


What does Viola take from this mystical engagement to use in his art? He cites Rumi's advice from back in 1273: 'New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity -- therefore, increase your necessity so that you may increase your perception' (71). From this Viola infers that a technology like video is not an end in itself because: 'The level of use of the tools is a direct reflection of the level of the user' (71). The real goal is enhanced perception, something that will convey a sense of 'the sacred as an element in the structure of consciousness' (here he quotes Mircea Eliade, 174). He faults most of his fellow video artists for putting the means before the end: 'Attending the countless conferences, demonstrations, and video expos can only convince one that the technology is far ahead of the people using it' (70).




Viola's emphasis on video as a 'new organ of perception' leads directly into my second topic. Perception itself, within the kind of mystical outlook adopted by this artist, is not simply an awareness or recording of the external world. But neither does Viola use the camera as just one more alternative to traditional artistic media, which in the West have mainly served ends of realistic representation or self-expression. Instead, when Viola describes video as a means of perceiving the world, he aims at achieving an unusually active and transformative sort of vision, one that places consciousness 'out there', or melds it into the world seamlessly (it's no surprise that he was anticipating virtual reality technologies back in 1981). Viola assimilates the camera's viewpoint to that of the conscious perceiver: 'I have been interested in how we can move this point of consciousness over and through our bodies and out over the things of the world . . . I want to make my camera become the air itself. To become the substance of time and the mind.' (148)


This use of video technology as a means to expand consciousness also leads Viola to emphasize the role of sound in both video and in our mental life in general. He examines spatial conceptions and metaphors for consciousness and the mind. He is also very intrigued by the phenomenon of synaesthesia and discusses the Russian psychologist Luria's famous case of patient known as 'S' (168). Our own consciousness includes an interweaving of many forms of sensory experience with 'neural processing, memory, imagination, and all the mental events of the moment' (151). In recognition of the role played by acoustic properties in conveying the elevated nature of sacred spaces, Viola has studied sound and reverberations in Renaissance religious edifices, medieval cathedrals, and classical Greek theatres. He made acoustic records (rather than visual sketches) of the Duomo and most other significant religious buildings in Florence (241).


The role of sound is so crucial to video that Viola emphasizes video's origins from sound recording technology rather than, as was the case for film, from photography. (We shall hear more on the aesthetic consequences of this differential derivation a bit further below.) Because he thinks of the senses as unified, Viola rejects the label 'video artist' (151). Sound plays a major role in most of his video installations, for example the raging storm of 'Room for St John of the Cross', the relentless voiceovers of 'Slowly Turning Narrative' (1992), the whispers of 'The Stopping Mind' (1991), or the scream of the girl in 'Anthem' (1983).


It might seem paradoxical, in light of Viola's conception of video as another mode of sensory experience, that he rejects the realism of most traditional Western imagery; and he certainly does not believe there is any inherent realism in video. Rather, he is interested in linking his work to sacred symbolic images, especially ones from other cultures, that embody or realize the states of the inner mind, e.g. mandalas or Zen perfect circles (85). 'I am interested not so much in the image whose source lies in the phenomenal world, but rather the image as artifact, or result, or imprint, or even wholly determined by some inner realization' (85). His videos are images that are neither self-expressions nor images of the world. They somehow convey conscious and perceptual states that are in but not of the world.


The Nature of Art


In keeping with his interest in mysticism and in artistic consciousness as a means of projecting mind out into the world, Viola sees the role of art differently from that of traditional (at least since the Renaissance) Western painting. He contrasts the Albertian notion of a painting -- as a window through which the viewer looks at the image of a world -- to the religious icon, which calls the viewer straight into the divine image. He also contrasts the nature and values of Asian vs Western art on these same topics (103, 105, 198-202), quoting from Coomaraswamy again: 'Modern European art endeavors to represent things as they are in themselves, Asiatic and Christian art to represent things more nearly as they are in God, or nearer their source' (199). Ironically perhaps, getting nearer to 'God' or 'the source' means eliminating the God-like role of the artist as creator/originator. Because of his interest in the physical processes of perception, Viola also insists on the value of Structuralism -- though he recognizes it is out of fashion in the art world and thinks that it must be altogether reconceived (103). New structures or codes for organizing perceptual experiences might, for example, be computer-generated by random selection of patterns from information on a video disc (105-6). This, he says, would enable the realization of multiple possibilities rather than forcing the artist's vision onto the material from a selective 'edit'.


Viola thinks that the demands made by much contemporary art, including video art, are both too low and too high. Too low because, as he puts it, 'so much video art underestimates the level of visual literacy of the audience' (69). Too high because the art world has not done a good job at presenting itself to the general public.


On the first point, Viola argues that artist should confront people with low or ambiguous information because people learn from what they don't understand. Hence he thinks it is fine if people, when confronted with video art, are utterly confused. Viewers nowadays (like my MTV-students) often see all forms of culture as entertainment and seek immediate surface thrills (170). To look for the meaning takes time and attention, and at the same time, can lead one astray; Viola quotes Magritte who said that if you look for meanings, you can lose the poetry and mystery of the image (171).


But on the second point, about art asking too much of viewers, Viola argues that artists do have a responsibility for making their work less inaccessible and framing it in ways that the public can appreciate. He often puts this in terms of explaining to his mother what he was doing (her death was extremely significant to him and was something that he filmed, in juxtaposition to the birth of his son; see 169, 182). He even endorses the potentially Philistine route of interpreting and explaining art by the first step of explaining it's costs; he thinks this might help explain what all the fuss is about (169). In more recent essays he discusses the art world and the vagaries of critical study and reception, mentioning diverse writers from Clement Greenberg to Jean Baudrillard, and he also gives his take on the notorious NEA controversies (177-8). On this last point, writing in 1990, he said (unpopularly no doubt to his colleagues), that artists bear some responsibility for the problems because they are out of touch with what people are thinking. He even accuses artists of being arrogant if they assume that the artworld has some kind of monopoly on creativity.


This may seem not to mesh so well with his somewhat esoteric and demanding work. Viola wants to be both a uniquely attentive perceiver and a populist who sees himself as having much in common with 'Sunday painters in the park'. To dispel the air of paradox here, he claims that artists are not more creative than other people, but they represent an area of specialization, like certain categories of physicists. Artists are certain sorts of knowledge seekers: 'I consider art to be a branch of knowledge, not a function of pleasure', he writes (182); or again, 'the twentieth century artist is not necessarily someone who draws well, but someone who thinks well' (64). At any rate, it is hard not to applaud him when he speaks (in 1988) of the need to reestablish 'the broken link between art and the public, the restoration of art to a functional place in people's lives' (169).


Video Art


For many readers Viola's specific comments on the history of video art and his reflections on the nature of the medium will be the most interesting part of this book. Viola draws strong contrasts between video and film. He treats the fact that film came out of photography, while video came out of audio recording, as very significant, as mentioned above. Also relevant is that video is somehow more 'live' than film. Viola puts this by saying that video is 'videoing' all the time; film isn't filming unless it's recording (62); he thinks this means that video has more roots in the live, and that its relation to time is more important (even though time is a basic material of both film and video, 230). Not only does he discuss the material nature of each sort of imaging technology, but he remarks in detail on the evolution of video technology, discussing the role of editing technologies and the distinctive video realizations of such features as montage, cuts, zooms, the frame, etc.


Viola sees the task of video artist as deciding primarily what not to record -- as carving away vs building up. (Anyone with a video camera-crazy relative knows there is a big problem in sorting out, or as he he puts it, distinguishing information vs garbage.) Viola once tried to record non-stop for days and then realized no one would ever want to watch or edit what he had gotten onto tape. Here he alludes to another strange mishmash of influences: Henri Bergson's ideas of filtering out meaning from the infinity of experience, as well as to Eastern vs Western forms of music, and the work of William Blake, Sufi mystics, and particle physicists (61).


There is also a valuable recounting of the history of video art here, written at a significant ten-year marker of the medium's use as art, in 1984. Viola describes the origins of early video art, identifying two key strands, a group approach stemming mainly from communications technology types, and an individualistic approach reflecting more established art-world types. This history is informed by awareness of theorists whose work was also important (he mentions Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, Hollis Frampton, Marshall McLuhan, and more) as well as by a variety of key artists and exhibitions.




_Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House_ is an interesting book for all the reasons mentioned above, but it is not without its flaws. For someone like myself with a low 'mysticism quotient', the persistent evocations of grandiose notions of Being will be hard to take. Similarly, some of the excerpts from Viola's journals seem sketchy and sophomoric; it is almost embarrassing that they appear to be reaching so hard for the profound -- e.g. 'Vision as reception/Vision as reflection/Vision as projection' (146); or 'No beginning/No end/No direction/No duration/Video as mind' (78). The book could have used some editing to cull it and avert unfortunate repetitions (the somewhat amusing story of Viola's late-night encounter with a dancing porcupine on a mountain road appears no fewer than three times in almost the same wording).


Similarly, many of the drawings do not seem to add much. Not only is Viola not Michelangelo, but some of the sketches are almost unintelligible and don't do that much as a record of his artistic process. It is difficult to reconstruct the video installations in particular from any of the drawings here. The sketches, however, can be rather amusing. Some of them recalled to me the often primitive efforts of philosophy professors (including myself) to draw such things as ancient Greek theories of vision -- like Empedocles's view of 'visual rays' (see 147) -- or even to chart the unchartable -- like Kant's transcendental unity of apperception (see 83).


Perhaps what is most disappointing about the artist's reflections are that his ruminations on perception, consciousness, and technology do not really seem up-to-date. The book is not quite recent enough for Viola to take us up into the digital age. Viola has long used computers to organize video displays but he does not seem to have become interested in the new digital media as such, or in the new fusions between video, film, animation, and digitized imagery. His comments on the implications of technology at one or two points seem to have anticipated both the World Wide Web and virtual reality, but he does not meditate on either phenomenon at any length. Even the few years since the book's original publication date (1995) have seen such rapid progress in both arenas that the artist's thoughts on these newly evolving organs of perception would surely be interesting to hear.


University of Houston, Texas, USA



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999


Cynthia A. Freeland, 'Bill Viola and the Video Sublime',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 28, July 1999 <>.




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