October 2007, BILL VIOLA: Pixels, Technology and What We Leave Behind

October 2007, BILL VIOLA: Pixels, Technology and What We Leave Behind
Benjamin Pezzillo, Bill Viola in his studio, color photograph 2007

Getting an opportunity to see Bill Viola at work, priceless.

White Hot’s Benjamin Pezzillo caught up with the pioneer digital artist in a Hollywood editing suite where he was at work on a piece for his collector and gallery circuits.

• Benjamin Pezzillo: The first question is about the piece I have been watching you work on for the last few minutes, why does the figure go back through the threshold?

Bill Viola: Because that’s the human condition -- we all go back. We only have a short time on this earth.

• You have said, "Moving images live in a domain somewhere between the temporal urgency of music and the material certainty of painting." What does that make the individual pixel? Notes, paint or both?

Both of those things. A dab of paint, a moment in time. Perhaps the better music analogy is not a note but the frequency of a sound. The basic unit of all music is a vibrating energy field and that’s what pixels are.

• Another quote to haunt you with, “When individuals die, they die with the knowledge of the group, so the fundamental problem that human beings have to solve is how to get across the River of Forgetfulness and keep the knowledge? The only way we can do that is through stories, teaching, and through physical things, leaving marks. If we didn’t have those things, there would be no progress. So this media I use is actually part of that system, it’s part of a way to get across the river.” Is this what separates human from other species? How long before computers have the ability to 'learn' their next generation -- or do they already?

Not exactly, there are plenty of other examples in the animal kingdom. Birds, sparrows actually, in England for one. Ornithologists found they were pecking through the tinfoil caps in milk bottles and were able to track the learning and teaching behavior from bird to bird across an area over the span of several years.

What’s unique about us [humans] is our ability to displace learning and communication. Animals are limited to present time -- we are creatures of memory. Memories are often conveyed by the mark makers.

As for computers, electronic media, the most important thing to remember is that it is not always instantaneous communication at the speed of light. But once the subject is coded it is no longer bound to material surfaces or forms for the information. We have reached a point in our intellectual evolution that the ability for a single individual to know everything is gone. We need each other and these machines (pointing to his Apple laptop) have become prosthetic devices for our minds. It’s an unique point in our history because you no longer need to travel to explore the world’s learning resources, the Internet and the digital content populating it through libraries and such is an amazing achievement in the history of education.

• One last one question about words you’ve said before, “The danger of technology, as described by the 20th century American psychologist Abraham Maslow, is that ‘if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail’. When you pick up cameras and recorders, you have to be very careful to realize that someone else’s intention and assumption of how this instrument will be used is built into that instrument." “For example, cameras are being used as weapons. 9/11 was not about flying a plane into the World Trade Center, 9/11 was about putting on a display in front of one of the most media-concentrated places on earth — Manhattan — where every camera in the world would be turned on that event. The weapon used in 9/11 was the image and not the plane. So that way of thinking is something really important that artists need to be aware of: what the impact and effect of their images is going to be”.  Isn't this symbolic too of Maslow's hierarchy of needs -- the self-realization and full actualization of an individual through imagery advancing an agenda but necessarily dependent upon an infrastructure created by others?

There is a hierarchy. Politics being at the top through the control of resources, economics, etc. But empowerment is ultimately based upon the individual.  

What Maslow was saying is that you have to look at the negative space, what is absent, the missing piece not on the table. In today’s world that means turning those tools of technology to deconstruct the images we are bombarded with by using the web. The blog about the anti-opinion is usually just an Internet search away.  

Technology enhances democracy this way but democracy is an action. not just knowledge. With advances in access to information the basis for that action is being enhanced. It’s ironic that all forms of communication have always presented themselves as windows on the world. Yet over time, economics meets dispersed information and in order to get an audience to listen, to like it, you have to reach this goal of a narrowed-down message, what politicians call staying on message. The Internet just turns that upside down.

So then, what do you do to narrow your message to reach an audience?

I’m not interested in an audience. I don’t make work for a venue in the mass market sense. The kind of work I do, I don’t address demographics. If I think of an audience it is an audience of one, a virtual audience.  

What making art is about is going deeply as one can into a certain subject, perhaps without ever knowing why. It’s the process, not the goal in sight. It’s when you don’t know where you are going but will get there anyway. That way includes nature, the people and the world around you as part of the process. Imagine being in a powerless boat heading towards an island you can see but never being able to predict exactly when and upon where you will get there because of the wind and waves in between.

The obstacles, the decisions, are great blessings -- they refute the notion the whole world is known or planned out. The trick is to let go and fall forward but not kill yourself. You reach the limit but you continue to take the extra step.

whitehot gallery images, click a thumbnail.

Benjamin Pezzillo

Benjamin Pezzillo is a photographer and occasional magazine writer living in Los Angeles.

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