Bill Viola: Time-Grabber

An interview conducted by Jeremy Strick (Director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles)

This takes place in Herbert Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School of Performing Arts downtown, a phonybaloney building full of bad art next door to the Museum of Contemporary Art and across the street from the pathetically incompetent Grand Promenade, which in turn is next to Walt Disney Concert Hall (still in its girders, which look comically over-applied). Zipper Concert Hall is under-ventilated and over-resonant, and looks like something you could buy in a shop at Beverly Center, with a half-hearted rhomb motif. It has acoustical buffers suspended over the footlights in a variation of the Olympic rings.

After a delay caused by some "technical difficulties," and the obligatory reading of résumés, the evening begins with a viewing of Bill Viola's new work, Silent Mountain. For eight minutes, two silent actors side-by-side in slow motion enact anguished gesticulations which briefly pass through Rodin's Eve and the Laocoön. "The loudest scream I've ever filmed," says Bill Viola. Asked about his new classicism, Viola replies, "As with anything, you could probably answer that from multiple directions." The genesis of this new work took place at a Getty seminar on "The Passions," or "Representing Passions." Art historians are, in the videographer's view, "outside the pool looking in, not under the water." And then, "I don't think I would have understood the historical works in the Getty or the National Gallery if I had not had that experience of losing my parents." He also has suffered from stress-induced anxiety attacks.

At the time of his retrospective, he "began to see the whole room as a work of art. The container was art. This meta-piece emerged, like Japanese garden-work." Arranging twenty-year-old works was "at first instructive, then it became oppressive."

"Art is not a hobby," says Viola, "or a livelihood." On commission in the desert from German television, he "shot tons of stuff, and then had this massive closing-down writer's block" caused by the recognition that he was "living in this environment and looking through this tube," the viewfinder.

"How do you adapt ancient traditions to new media?", asks Jeremy Strick. In 1989 he was contemplating Bosch's Hay Wain and filming "horrific suburbs full of houses all in a row with green lawns and a freeway running alongside like a river." He discovered that "Heaven, Middle Earth and Hell are not archetypes, they exist in us," and here he points directly at the center of his forehead for a time.

"The burden of consciousness for us now is very real," he says, in connection with the preservation of the Serengeti.

"When I hold my camcorder, when anyone does, you're holding Brunelleschi and Alberti in your hand." Images filmed "cross the threshold"; to deal with them has brought him to "the spiritual tradition." One could film a coffee cup for hours or years, "grabbing the time" it endures.

His work with David Tudor taught him that "composers shape or sculpt the passage of time in a palpable way."

He speaks of a child's way of experiencing the world, with appropriate gestures (Viola is a practitioner of the Spielberg-Tarantino school of gesticulation). He speaks of "time forms. What's so beautiful about picking up a camera is the peak moment, like in old painters, The Visitation: the moment before a good idea is realized, the peak moment, and the moment that follows."

Strick reveals that he thinks of Bill Viola as "a pioneer, as in the early days of oil painting." Viola speaks of the early days of video, when you would "shoot all of us in this room or whatever," and have immediate playback. "The narrow slit of now" is his goal. "Photographers don't capture time."

He has an interest in Eastern art, but on the other hand "You don't want a Zen plumber coming to your house, because you will have empty pipes, with no water in them!"

At the time of the Renaissance East or West, "artists were elevated to the status of VIP's, with the equivalent of access to the White House. Power structures change, and Zen guys are basically out of the loop, producing for fellow monks. A direct way of painting! Where the act of painting is the subject itself! Things that are broken are revered! All the trappings of culture are reduced, only the point of experience remains!"

In our time, "The emotion moved off of the picture into the maker" (Pollock, Kline). "The footprints themselves made by someone stamping them right there!"

Tudor and John Cage produced "wild sounds different in every performance. 'They were not scoring sounds, they were scoring actions.' You spend centuries micro-managing scores, and someone comes along with a paintbrush and phffffft!"

Bill Viola is a creation of the NEA, the New York State Council on the Arts, etc. "Without them, I wouldn't be here now."

He describes a LACE opening with a marching band. In the course of the evening, everyone started wondering where the marching band went. "They were inside watching Bruce Nauman's video, Good Boy Bad Boy."

Jeremy Strick has noticed "a generational difference between people looking at video or at paintings." Bill Viola's métier "bypassed the whole museum structure. Add the Internet, and we're just out there!" A work can be seen, on television for example, "without the frame of art around it." For the Internet, he has in mind "a 3-D multi-level world structure book."

Video is "infinitely scalable," by which he means it can be shown on screens of various sizes, from five inches to wall-size. There is "the container" and "what's in it." Artists can now "liberate the image from its material base. What's in can come out! All of a sudden these images are circulating freely."

But "everything has two sides." The Greek word techne also means a trick, and Prometheus stole fire from the gods to light our way, "but we can also burn the house down with it," says Bill Viola.

Nowadays, things are as they were when "these young guys in Italy," during the cinquecento, "these twentysomethings and dot-com'ers" were creating new art. "Then along comes Gutenberg and pchhhhh! Now there's a vast network just going out into the world like a flood. Columbus discovered a new world! The Van Dyck brothers made high-res high-definition images!"