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Bill Viola: Video, Holism and the Exploration of Immediacy

by on October 30, 2011

Bill Viola

I just finished this week’s reading – Bill Viola’s Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?  I’m embarrassed to admit that, previous to this reading, I’d never heard of Bill Viola. Viola is a contemporary video artist, still living, who is apparently responsible for bringing video into the mainstream of contemporary art. His work has been exhibited all over the world and deals with the central themes of human consciousness – birth, death, relationships, emotions.

The reading sent me to Google so that I could see some of Viola’s work (worth a wander – lots of fascinating stuff). Here’s one of my favorites:  Ocean without a Shore. It’s a video detailing an installation that Viola created in a chapel in Venice with video screens mounted on alters, depicting human forms emerging from water.  Lovely, lovely.

Screen shot from Bill Viola's Ocean Without a Shore

yantra diagram

Viola’s essay did a wonderful job of putting film and video into the context of memory and the way our brains work. He must also be a student of history as his work and his writing are so richly informed by studies of ancient texts and art forms. I loved his reflections on video as an idea space and a memory system. He refers to the Greeks walk-through memory temples (interesting aside to Joshua Foer’s NT Times magazine essay on Memory Palaces).  I particularly appreciated his explorations of the connections between ancient and modern technologies… the Indian tantric doctrine of three traditional expressions of the deity – the visual depiction, the yantra (energy diagram), and the mantra (chanting).  He uses these as a basis to explore the different ways we could travel through data structures and data spaces – for instance, branching video (very cool pedagogical idea).

Much of his work seems to revolve around water.  Oceans, sprinklers, reflecting pools, water droplets. Interesting. Our most fundamental molecule. Water….drinking, sustenance, cleansing, dissolving, solvent, rinsing, baptism, drowning, equilibrium, surface tension.

But what of the title of his essay?  Condominiums in Data Space.  My take on it is that Viola is saying that there might be greater exploration, more opportunity in data space that is not broken up into condominiums.  That there is more room for unusual approaches, non-traditional perspectives, and unexpected conclusions with flexible data spaces. What do you think?

He ends the essay with a most un-McLuhan-esque thought:

Applications of tools are only reflections of the users – chopsticks may be a simple eating utensil or a weapon, depending on who uses them.

That one caught me short.  But then, at the very end of the essay, he tells this funny story, The Porcupine and the Car. A little fable, a cautionary tale, that I’m not sure how to interpret.  The foolish, puffed up attitude of the porcupine?  The overpowering hubris of technology (the car)?  The Rashomon nature of our existence?  A very strange coda.

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One Comment
  1. Great post.

    I don’t think that Viola and McLuhan’s takes on tools are incommensurate.

    The Medium is the Message, but you can also Massage the Medium. Like I always say–it’s all in how you use the tool. Many roads lead to Rome. Is that one right? I seem to be channeling a multitude of aphorisms today. 😉

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