A Conversation with Bill Viola?

(The following is a transcript of a fictional conversation between myself, and an aging video artist by the name of Bill Viola. Any similarity between this character and the actual living artist Bill Viola is purely coincidental, and you should have your imagination examined by professionals if you even think you’ve found one.)

Me: Hi, Bill. Thanks for joining us today at the Kugelmass Episodes.

Bill: Sure thing, Kugelmass. It’s a pleasure not being here. Heck, you probably don’t know if I’m even alive. Which isn’t funny — death, I mean. I had a cousin and that’s what killed him.

Me: Well said, Bill. We do need to start re-considering American val–

Bill: Did you even look me up on Wikipedia?

Me: Bill, would you say that your art is sort of hippie-ish?

Bill: Yes, I would. I’m constantly making four hundred minute movies that show a person, and then show molten steel being smashed into a shape, and then back to the person, except now they’re having open heart surgery. I also have one where the camera zooms in on a woman until we’re inside of her near her heart, looking at some sort of moving light, and that light turns out to be loud rushing water moving down a white-mist cataract — waterfall, I mean. Also I have a movie where naked people suddenly appear in a very green, mossy pool that appears to be where elves swim. Trees surrounding, neutral lighting. Focus in on THE POOL. We see an elf in the corner — or do we? But back to the first movie, the woman is drinking a glass of water. So obviously we are working with something both inner and outer, here — the life-force, if that doesn’t sound too corny.

Me: Bill, that sounds awfully similar to what I saw this weekend in Oakland. I also remember seeing a huge still image of a redwood tree in one of your movies.

Bill: Yes, I think a lot of the pleasure comes from seeing places that you’d like to be, such as deep in the forest, or perched over a beautiful waterfall. But really, what you are desiring there is a re-connection with a primal self.

Me: Do you think children understand your work?

Bill: Not really, because children have trouble seeing something as part of a series. For example, an eight-year old was seeing my movies next to you, in the company of her grandmother. Every time I’d show an oil refinery, she’d burst out with: “What’s that?!” It was new and exciting to her, which was exactly what I didn’t want. I wanted soul-killing repetition.

Me: Is it true that you made a twenty minute film about the numbering, freezing, sawing, and processing of tuna?

Bill: That’s right. I also tried to create a very annoying sound for the film, as though a hundred metal saws were crying for freedom. But mostly you’re looking at these tuna getting sawed in slow motion. As my friend Steven Soderbergh said–

Me: Would you say this exhibit made me want to hit you very slowly, perhaps in slow motion?

Bill: Yes, because I have essentially taken the ideas of a stoner, which is that we are one with nature and thus should spend more time camping, and turned them into something highly symbolic and practically motionless.

Me: What is it about the avant-garde that makes the idea of “nothing happening” appear so attractive?

Bill: The absence of a controlling narrative. What we see in Hollywood flattens every movie experience into the tedious expectation of a resolved plot. When plot dominates, we start waiting for the end and wishing the movie could advance even faster, even though that also means it will be all “used up.” Some of my friends don’t watch anything at regular speed anymore; they’ll watch two movies in the time it takes me to watch half an hour of one film, including breaks to write notes and poems.

Me (voice-over): I walked home that evening. People were rushing by me, bumping me with their holiday shopping bags. For six hours, I stood watching the Empire State Building. I felt incredibly depressed by its silence. I thought about all the times I’d gone rushing up to the top of that building without really seeing it, just in order to throw something from the observation deck. Then I left to go see an Andy Warhol movie, and I thought all about my conversation with Bill Viola.