the comprehensibility of dying squid

Earlier this evening I saw Bill Viola’s “Hatsu-Yume (First Dream)” in an intimate screening. The artist was present, along with faculty members and an audience of thirty to forty people. We sat in a small auditorium in a small, excellent liberal arts school.

“Hatsu-Yume (First Dream)” is about eighty-five minutes long. On the surface, it scanned like Chris Marker’s film, Sans Soleil. I say ‘on the surface’ because it was just a moment that inspired that connection – the moment ‘pachinko’ is on screen, and then, later, a man lighting a cigarette, one of the only completed human gestures in the piece. If Sans Soleil had been made on video and without the narrative, then they could be twins. Instead they are distant relatives, only connected by the fact that the audience is considering moving images that, scene by scene, unfold like a photo-roman . . . if each of the photos is a technically-perfect, gorgeous long moving-image shot. Oh, and both works were shot in Japan – Viola’s in its entirety, while Marker’s Sans Soleil was mostly filmed there.

What’s the distinction between video and film? As Christopher Zimmerman put it in the liner notes for the evening’s get together, “”Where film is a succession of individual still images … video consists of constantly vibrating signals.” That’s key. In each work’s case, the maker’s use of the form is perfectly mirrored in the expression of content presented by that form. Marker’s film is a series of shots, of images expanded. Marker uses mostly jump cuts as he provides a long sequence of images which become narrative, when paired with the voiceover.

Video, particularly analog video on tape, is about signal. Talking about his work this evening Viola repeatedly referred to signal. The technical metaphors for him, of signal being a way of accessing an inner world or imagined world, of signal’s liquidity, its nature as carrier of light ~ that’s the core of the medium for Bill Viola. The series of scenes transitioned by fade-to-black are usually slow-mo. Visual information shifts in a series of liminal perceptual spaces; the viewer can lose themselves in sensory input or decide to recognize the information displayed on the screen.

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During Q&A I admitted to the artist that I was so tired I was closing my eyes in the middle of the opus. Viola interrupted me to reply, “That’s OK, I slept through parts myself.” About two-thirds of the way through the film there are shots of dying squid, on a Japanese fishing boat. They’re beautiful. Captured in the highest fidelity Sony cameras available at the time, glossy, a particular coral peach, they are just dying. We watched them die, in slow motion.

Squid death was discussed by the academics with some horror. Kira Perov, Viola’s creative partner, spoke to the difficulty she had when they were originally shooting the work on the fishing boat. She struggled with the question of putting the equipment down to rescue the animals. It horrified her to watch them die.

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Today, I took a long trip to a small town in Wisconsin to meet the artist, to see the work. Bill Viola’s work has sustained me for a long time. I am a multiple near death experience survivor; Viola’s own NDE experience deeply informs his work. His work is oxygen for me.

On a Greyhound bus I split my time between Twitter and Facebook attempting to find out if my Boston friends were OK. What in Gods name happened there. I somehow kept my stomach firmly in my belly, not becoming nauseous even though the fragments of information did not piece together. Made me disoriented. The speed of (dis)information, insistant squabbles about authenticity, tweets that stated “quit just retweeting things”. The utter lack of clarity as major news outlets chose the wrong information to publish to those who still use TV, and then retracted, then asserted something else.

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The long slow shots of dying squid made sense. Watching the beautiful, projected analog video – no, I couldn’t look away. It was slow. In its slowness my mind and heart were allowed to come into a shared rhythm of comprehension that respected my whole being. Horrifying, yes, but in a comprehensible way, an acceptable way.

Now I pick out the shrapnel from the fragmented “communication” about the bombings at the Boston Marathon out of me. I have a bit of skill witnessing difficulty like this, I’ve practiced with the ‘poetics of annihilation’ attention/artwork over the years. Yes, I say, once again, media’s doing it wrong. I think we already know that.

quote : bill viola

The digital era will overwhelm us, as it happened with the industrial revolution. And I am not talking about technological changes, such as the internet, Twitter or in art. The changes will hit all of life: from politics to science, from medicine to culture. Will change our way of life. The role of artists will be even more relevant. Our vision will communicate knowledge and compassion.