bill viola

Long Beach, Calif., June 30, 1990

Michael Nash: A while ago, in a discussion that we had, you used the expression "living within the frame" to describe an ambition of your work at a particular point in its development. It's a statement that I feel could also serve as a kind of ethical philosophy of your artistic practice. What led you to this approach rather than some of the alternatives your contemporaries have chosen, like appropriation, semiotic orientation, performative dramatization, or manipulation of visual technology?

Bill Viola: I think primarily it was curiosity about life. Curiosity about what would happen when relatives died. Where did they go? Could they still be reached? Curiosity about seeing a new member of the family born. Where did it come from? What were they before they were here with us? Curiosity about personal experiences that seem to indicate an existence of another order or another domain of experience. I remember falling in a lake when I was ten. I almost died. The thing I remember is the imagery of this incredibly beautiful, serene blue-green world that I had no idea existed below the surface.
When I started making videos I was caught up with the current issues of the day, structuralism being probably the most dominant. This was in the early 1970s. A lot of my work ostensibly started out by trying to prove something, much like a scientist. You start with a premise or hypothesis or an observation and you want to create an arena that acts as a symbolic representation of that aspect of the world in you. The idea of the controlled experiment which I think a lot of early performance and conceptual art was very much taking on that kind of pragmatic positivistic approach of the experiment that exists in a kind of rarified state outside of normal existence. But video would not let me do that because the camera, as it was evolving, became better and more portable, and all of a sudden you could take this thing outdoors instead of working within the confines of the electronic studio. I found that you could just take a camera outside, walk down the street, bring it back, and then integrate it into this electronic domain. You would just take life as it comes, which is what happens when you take the lens cap off.
I'm moving away from that kind of empirical scientific paradigm. "The stuff I did when I was still in art school and right after was literally modeled on that approach, and the influences were obvious. I was interested in the "body artists" — Vito Acconci, Terry Fox, Dennis Oppenheim, and others — who used that device to frame experience. It was one of these rare historical moments that artists find themselves in from time to time, incorporating experience itself directly into what was being called a work of art. It was a major shift, not making something about an experience, but making something of an experience, like when Acconci blindfolded himself in 1969 or 1970 and had someone he didn't know well lead him around the pier on the Hudson River in New York, not knowing if he was going to be led to the edge or not. That's a very real experience.
I found myself being influenced by that. Living within the frame is living within the experience. Art has to be part of one's daily life, or else it's not honest.

Nash: The juxtaposition of some of the concerns in your work with dominant concerns in current critical inquiry draws out this failing.

Viola: I think it's a great failure that critical discourse today in art which exists supposedly on the edge of some of the higher aspirations w have as human beings — does not encompass the very, very human qualities of our emotional lives. You never hear love coming up in critical discourse today. I had my first child two years ago, and the most incredible thing about it is just living with and coming to really understand what love means, and where it comes from. It's been so profound for me to see the joy upon my son's face when we play, when we're together. You have all of the difficulties and the problems associated with bringing up a child, having it infringe on your work, and all these other things we're all so worried about, and you have days where you just want to throw him out the window with the bathwater. But there is this larger thing called love that binds the whole situation, and it's very deeply rooted. It's being created for him right in front of my eyes, as he matures as the human being. I could never make any work of art that would come even close to the immensity of that as an experience. A lot of other things involved with or inner lives are just not being addressed, because they're not the property of any specialized group of people. They exist in each and every one of us. Love and hate and fear, the great themes of birth and death and consciousness, are age-old themes, the fascination of understanding the them in a historical context, to see how different cultures dealt with them, solved their equations. They're unsolvable and mysterious in the positive sense that of the world, and therefore life-giving. Something that is not solvable and doesn't have an answer gives life because it propels one to continue with the quest. I get somewhat frustrated that more people aren't thinking of the great themes in life as being in the domain of art.

Nash: Could you talk about the matrix in which the work operates, its relationship to the context of art, television, and home videos, and how you see the future of the video medium in general in relationship to these venues?

Viola: After I went through an early infatuation period with the technology, I obliterated it — literally and metaphorically — in 1973 in a piece I called Information. I've chosen to work with images of the real world, camera images, recorded outside on the streets or in the mountains, images that obviously are representations, and those issues now are very current. I think we were aware of them back in the early 1970s. They've now been articulated quite eloquently by people like Baudrillard. They are representations, and that leads to a whole other set of issues. Nonetheless, they have been taken for the truth, as Baudrillard mentions, they've become what they represent. One becomes what they behold. For that reason there is a kind of cultural currency with these images, as they are part and parcel of the mass media. There was always the physical possibility for people to understand my work outside the confines of the specialized issues of the art world. That for me solved a lot of problems I was having at the time with Clement Greenburg's theories, and a lot of those approaches that seemed to be about narrowing down and limiting discourse and dialogue to a group of the initiated that finally turned me around, from the time I was in art school and detested anything I made that my mother would praise, to coming completely full circle and understanding that I had to make work that my mother could get something out of—not understand, because that is a very tricky word, but get something out of. The context changes the work, obviously, we know that not only from contemporary art theorists, but from people like Heisenberg, that the observer and the observed are this interactive system. I feel fortunate that a lot of different people from very different backgrounds have been able to, on their own terms, appreciate what I do, that's very important for me.

Nash: But it's not a situation where the fact of the context effects the work.

Viola: It's a given. It's something that's there. It's not something that I deny or want to ignore, but something that is absolutely, fundamental, in the work. I mean, what is a birth? A birth of of a human baby can mean so many different things to so many people, because of the power of the mind to speculate, to fantasize, to project onto another, and therefore to create metaphors. That's a very fundamental pattern in the human mind it's been there for millennia. You can see it in operation in the Paleolithic age on the walls of Lascaux. It's something that we just do as human beings, and it's a beautiful, beautiful thing. When we say everything is alive, we don't mean a stone is going to jump up and run away — biologists and scientists worry about using those all-expansive, so-called mystical terminologies. What that means is that everything has some kind of essence that can be reached through human thought. Thought is the animator. That's a principle of nature, that's not the property of the art world.

Nash: Recently you brought up an interesting relationship between the current political situation with the National Endowment for the Arts and how television's disempowerment of individual action works to negate individual political response and allows a hysterical minority to be reached and politicized. In some way television's perceptual imperialism has produced this art crisis. Is this also a reflection on how artists are failing to challenge this imperialism, or do you think it's unfair to criticize artists for the dilemma that we find ourselves in?

Viola: That's a very complicated question. There are many issues and elements I that. I think artists have to bear some of the blame for the current situation. I don't mean that literally in the sense of not mobilizing fast enough politically in the U.S. Congress with the NEA. But I mean in general that artists are basically out of touch with what people are feeling and thinking as participants in a specialized dialogue. There are a lot of different aspects to art, and I think it's arrogant of the art world to believe, or unconsciously promote the assumption, that that it has some kind of monopoly on creativity. I consider Sunday painters in the park to be just as valid artists as people showing in galleries in SoHo. The common human trait of creativity is something that's going to link people from all different walks of life to art. I think it's important for people who are involved as professional artists to begin to come out of their little cubbyholes and begin to acknowledge the rest of the society.
At the same time we need in art an area of specialization in the same way scientists need to have conferences of physicists where they talk in equations that you and I could not possibly comprehend. That's absolutely necessary. I tend to look at this not so much as avant-garde, because that term carries a lot of political and sociological connotations to it, but as the research arm of the field of art where people are going to be at the edge pushing things, doing something that no on else is doing, putting two ideas together that haven't been put together before.

Nash: I would say that more than any other artist working in video, perhaps a much as any contemporary artists I can think of, your work asserts and elaborates upon the life of the soul. The idea of soul-life is not very much in theoretical vogue these days — many post-structuralists would reject any kind of notion of the essence or would say that the perception of something like the soul is just the engine of language throwing off heat, a simultaneous by-product that's not active or operational in any way. What is your theory of the soul, and how is it reflected in your work? Or is it possible to assign your thinking about the soul a notion like a theory?

Viola: No, I don't think you can assign a notion like a theory to it because the reason that I make my work is to understand. I don't make my work to explain, to describe, or to state a position. I think this is a very big difference from science, because when scientists go out to prove something they're functioning exactly like lawyers who have a premise, and they're going to prove that premise, and the rules of the legal system. For scientists, it proves that a set of relationships and interactions we call the laws of nature exist to be manipulated in one's favor in order to prove whatever is one's point. So it's sort of dead thought in which we've come to exist, and it's one of the detriments of the evolution of logical empiricism. The Cartesian method was a major revolution in consciousness, no question about it, but as we're coming to it's backwater period, you find that this way of thought has taken over to the extent that people tend to approach life in those terms.
Then you have another type of scientist who isn't going out to prove anything, but is just going out to learn something. All great scientific discoveries are accompanied by this kind of humility that is experienced when whatever thoughts, ideas and preconceptions one has had in one's mind are completely blown away by seemingly incongruous and inexplicable behaviors of the natural world. That's the magic. I have questions and I'm interested in why things are certain ways.

Nash: Your work often exposes the edges of perception. I think of specific works like Chott el-Djerid where you pursue an absolute limit of visual perception until that perception becomes something else. There's a horizon line in that piece, and a life line in others, where finitude begets existence. Your recent works seem to particularly emphasize threshold moments of life, focusing on the coming into being, perhaps a bit more than on mortality, as a sort of instigating factor in perception of experience.

Viola: You refer to Angels Gate. The notion of the boundary is a fundamental part of the structure of human consciousness. Finitude is really the essence of what being alive is all about. A baby is born, and immediately mortality has been created before your eyes. The desires of two individuals become less coalesced into this physical being who's created as a kind of condensation of possibilities into a singularity, into a thing. Often I've used water as a metaphor, the surface both reflecting the outer world and acting as a barrier to the other world. Without limits there is no energy created; physicists have taught us that limits create energy. If you have someone who believes in everything then he doesn't believe in anything at all.

Nash: Could you talk about what you're reading right now that in some way is being drawn into the work or is just part of a larger intellectual inquiry that becomes manifested in the work you're doing now?

Viola: The area of intellectual inquiry, which for the most part had been coming from personal study of various books and texts, is currently coming directly out of my own personal experience In one word, I would sum it up as "responsibility." Responsibility to myself, my family, and the community, friends and strangers. We all need each other in one way or another. Even though artists, like shamans, require time away form everyone else, "out of the great loneliness," as the Inuit say. Ultimately this time in solitude yields results tat benefit the group. It must, or else you have a disconnected, ineffectual art practice, impotent in terms of inner power or solely economic, in other words, the definition of decadence — and to a large part a description of our current situation regarding the commercial art world. So this responsibility I have been sensing lately, triggered by bringing up our two-and-a-half-year old son, has to do with the recognition of art and artistic ability as a gift, rather than a possession or asset, that fits into the larger whole of self-family-community, with self-knowledge being the key thread that ties all of these things, our lives as solitary individuals and our lives as a group, together.
In the past few years I have learned that what I previously considered to be an all-consuming physical practice, doing all-nighters, neglecting sleep. food, socializing, has been gradually modulated into a deeper inner practice that is just as total and ongoing, but shares time and space with my wife Kira and my little boy Blake, with my parents, and with friends and people in my neighborhood here in Long Beach. I work in my studio on a schedule now, pretty much Monday through Friday, and spend the weekends doing things like going to the park with my family, with other time squeezed in doing political work in the community with the Coalition for Freedom of Expression that we've formed here in Long Beach. It's been very satisfying to see that the same creative energy which was driving my personal artwork for all these years can have such a commonly shared basis in practice.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.