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Seduction by Any Means Necessary (?)

- Arthur Aghajanian (bio)


In the following essay, I will examine the category of contemporary art known as "new media". My purpose will be to compare this art to forms of spectacle in contemporary culture that present images in similar ways. While I will refer to the work of several artists, I will focus on Bill Viola. His art will serve as a prime example of how the medium of video installation depends upon seduction to hold the interest of audiences. The relationship between new media art and technologically sophisticated commercial productions will be explored. This comparison will reveal how both forms of image-making rely on seduction to impart their message. I will examine the reasons why so much new media art uses technology for impact rather than as a critical tool. The essay will conclude with some ideas on how the critical role of art can be brought to bear on the spectacle of daily life. Rather than using current technologies to create new illusions, art can adapt new media to provide insight into how reality is constructed.

More and more often these days electronic media is standing in for the way human beings perceive the world. The difference between how our senses work and how our media-saturated environment acts upon them seems to have collapsed. Art too, is captivating its audiences through simulation and high-tech gadgetry. The new media or "new genres" (in the jargon of academia) have been enjoying much popularity lately. Yet I find myself wondering about the implications of artworks that share characteristics with so many contemporary forms of spectacle. For me, the current situation has invited two important and related questions. How does the seduction of the viewer through technology effect how we understand the role of art, and what is the significance of the fact that so much recent art fetishizes the new technologies of spectacle? The work of Bill Viola is a good starting point to examine these questions.

Stations (1995) is an installation for five channels of video projection and sound focusing on images of the human body submerged underwater. Five cloth screens are suspended from the ceiling of a large, dark, open space. A large slab of polished black granite lies flat on the floor under each screen. Five different images of the human figure underwater can be seen projected on the cloth screens. The figures are lit with a strong cross light and stand out against the dark void of the background. The submerged bodies hang limp, drifting, suspended in space in the subjective tense of slow motion. They are projected upside down; their righted reflections can simultaneously be seen on the polished stone surface below. Underwater sounds can be heard locally near each screen.

The images play continuously, and at varying intervals the bodies are seen to slowly drift out of the frame, eventually leaving the room dark and silent. Suddenly, the figures plunge into the water in an explosion of light and turbulence. Gradually the disturbance subsides as they are again slowly at drift until the cycle repeats itself. There is no single viewing angle to the piece, and viewers are free to enter and move about the space at will. An initial surface appearance of eerie, serene beauty resides over a deeper disturbing aspect of muted violence and disorder, with the disrooted, isolated, free-floating bodies evoking an eternal state between dream and death.

The work described above is typical of Viola's art in both its subject matter and its technical virtuosity, and like most of his installations it is highly seductive. Thinking about this piece, I am reminded of the feelings experienced in virtual reality rides and Hollywood blockbusters that immerse their audiences in effects we have come to call "hyper-real". Perhaps this is a clue as to why Viola's work, despite the strong sensations it often creates, seems like a familiar experience. According to Carl Haenlein of Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hannover, "…the center of Bill Viola's art is that sphere of human existence inhabited by the marginal experiences of dream, hallucination and repressed memory-the trauma is essence" (1995). But if Viola's art claims to wrestle with such profound issues, his installations nevertheless have a lot in common with many forms of modern day advertising and entertainment.

Understanding why this similarity is important requires us to shake off the spell Viola's sophisticated sound and video installations put us under. Then we can look more closely at how his art depends on illusion to restate familiar ideas about what subjective experience is. Viola's work attempts to describe a primal state of humanity where hidden forces of nature lurk beneath the surface of the everyday. To this end, his videos contain motifs infused with mythic connotations. Images of natural elements like fire and water, call forth the processes of growth and decay, the passing of time, birth, death and regeneration, to describe various stages of the human condition. In this way, Viola suggests that mysterious forces of nature define who we are apart from the contingencies of cultural factors. In addition, Viola frequently serves as the actor within these elemental dramas, positioning himself as an artist-mystic outside the limits of time and history.

While the roots of Romanticism are easily recognizable in these ideas, what gives Viola's work it's special import for my concerns is in the way its mode of presentation depends upon the latest technological apparatus to spellbind audiences while allowing them to recognize his visual codes (i.e. fire and water used to represent purification and re-birth). Since Viola's elemental symbols are presented through new media, they become stunning, rather than seeming hackneyed. His installations create an environment where reality is abrogated for the spectacle. This spectacle restores belief through the awe it inspires in the viewer, and consequently seems suited to presenting big ideas while disguising the simplicity of the artist's take on them. Special effects are substituted for the grandeur of nature. Computer-enhanced videos create mystical events that stand in for lived experience. The way that Viola's images function within the medium of video installation is meant to embody the essence of the various states of mind they describe. Ideas about the unseen forces of nature are brought into visual form in a convincing manner to reify culturally inscribed symbols.

In this way, the work functions similarly to commercial media, which also varies its presentational modes for maximum impact regardless of what kinds of products or ideas it is geared to sell. Viola is able to revive conventional metaphors to discuss his themes by using advanced digital technology to create magical environments of sight and sound. In the process, his work seems to assume that there is no difference between standing in front of the shore and watching the waves break, or seeing this same event on a giant screen surrounded with a dozen speakers. In the end his pairing of traditional symbols and spectacular sensory environments is what makes his work so popular with audiences.

A lot of recent art that shares traits with Viola's also wants to dazzle and seduce the spectator like the commodity spectacle so that viewers can fetishize it. Much of this work relies upon intricately and expensively designed production techniques such as multiple cameras, high-definition screens, digital special effects, surround sound, and complex time device mechanisms. Obviously, the point is not that these artworks use technology per se, but the effects these artists want to create in viewers. The way that this art relies on theatrical and illusionistic approaches often amounts to a type of new media formalism. The use of technology to generate spectacle allows artists to construct a new layer of illusion as opposed to revealing the illusions of everyday life. This new illusion is what often fascinates viewers and can also be conveniently theorized as sharing a discursive (as opposed to parasitic) relationship to other forms of contemporary visual culture. A critical function is claimed for this type of work where often it is merely a celebration of the medium. The result can easily become seduction for its own sake, with the image being fetishized, rather than leading viewers to deeper thought.

Bill Viola is arguably the most prominent practitioner of new media who explores subjective states through his work. However, there are others who work in similar ways. Diana Thater is a younger artist who, like Viola, makes video installations. Thater's work shares with Viola's a similar fascination with the mysterious qualities of the natural world. In a related vein to Viola's videos and installations, Thater presents the traditional myths we associate with animals by mystifying the viewer through the elaborate technical apparatus she adopts in presenting her video installations. Her videotapes of animal behavior are manipulated and projected within the gallery in a variety of novel ways. The effect of seeing the natural world through the distorted filter of her production techniques and presentations makes the subject presented more mysterious. As in the case of Bill Viola's work, Thater relies on the spell of sophisticated video presentations to immerse us more deeply in myths surrounding the natural world, rather than provoking thought on how we negotiate our relationship with nature.

The use of new media is not just relegated to artists who take nature and its processes as their subject, but covers a range of subject matter. In contrast to artists like Viola and Thater, many artists use the new forms of electronic media in the production and display of their work to purportedly discuss how representational codes are constructed through the mass-cultural mediums of film, television, and advertising. A common strategy seen in the work of the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon is to use bits of appropriated film from Hollywood features or other commercial or historical sources. Gordon alters his source material in an attempt to comment on the mediated nature of perception. Gordon's 1993 piece 24 Hour Psycho at his recent Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art retrospective, is not only about the altering of Hitchcock's classic (digitally slowed down frame by frame to last for an entire day), but also about it's presentation in the spaces of the museum designed for the occasion like a multi-media funhouse.

Gordon's work falls back on multiple art-historical precedents, but it's newness can be traced to the way he has incorporated earlier artist's practices into a body of work that continually shifts perceptual registers through new technological modalities. Recognizing the ways in which spectacle works to construct its own sense of reality, lending a special kind of impact to their work, artists can indulge simplistic notions or derivative concepts as long as they can mesmerize with technical expertise. The promotion of critical engagement becomes a secondary concern.

One might argue that I am casting the net too wide in the examples I am using to illustrate my point. However, the obvious differences between artists working in new media and the vast array of approaches taken within these forms (from cd-roms to light projections to large-scale sculptural tableaux) should not blind us to the fact that the presentation of these works rely for their intended effects on the perceptual experiences of spectators accustomed to living in a society of spectacle and simulation. In both their theatrical nature, and in the techniques that they employ to construct a specific type of perceptual space, these works share important qualities with forms of consumerist spectacle ranging from the new interactive Science Centers for kids to themed restaurants like the Rainforest Café.

The range of effects created by new media in today's world engages viewers in a unique manner, taking advantage of our fascination with novel forms of virtual experience. One result of the development of the new forms of presentation (in consumer culture as well as in art) is that beliefs that may otherwise fall under scrutiny can be re-affirmed through spectacle. As with the commodity, when art generates new perceptual experiences, new ground appears to have been broken. It becomes difficult to determine whether something new is actually being said.

Our commodity culture works to create consensus around certain beliefs and values. Regardless of how the individual subject makes meaning of the stimuli generated by various media, the spectacle is concerned with seduction. Art functions to stimulate thought and to offer new ways of understanding an image-saturated society. Art that relies on the effects of new media to hold audiences captive can easily be mistaken for art that has something valuable to contribute to the viewer's experience. As the nature of our attention changes with the development of technologies of perception, art can provide insight into how we adjust. Art maintains its critical role when its approach to new media provokes thought about what it means to live in a society fascinated by the effects of virtual reality.

Looking around, there seems to be a lack of critical interest in examining the nature of the perceptual paradigms that art shares with other forms of contemporary visual experience. Fewer artists working in the new media are engaged in a representational critique of its seductive power than who simply adapt spectacular forms to support visual impact. Viola's 1992 installation The Sleepers for instance, features large drums of water containing submerged television monitors that show individual people sleeping. Here the scrutiny of the camera has shifted from Andy Warhol's use of it as a tool to explore our desire in looking, to a means of representing the mysterious workings of cosmic forces. Viola's approach is one in which the camera is a tool of mystification, functioning to create a dream-like environment. We become lost in another world, similar to the escapism provided by Hollywood. The unconventional ways in which Warhol put his camera to use, cause us to become aware of how we look at things. Warhol's films explore perception within a specific historical moment. This opens the doors to thinking about how new approaches to "manufacturing consent" come into being and how they have changed as new visual forms and techniques have been developed for selling ideas as well as lifestyles.

When the spectacle begins to generate its own meaning through its effects on viewers, representational constructs like those that Viola uses are re-invigorated and see new life. This type of art relies upon the audience's conditioned psychological and physiological responses to give it value. In turn, the audience mistakenly attributes their seduction to the ideas expressed in the work. This is similar to the way in which advertising wishes us to believe that a particular brand of tennis shoe possesses the ability to enhance its wearer's social prestige. In fact, very little that is new needs to appear within these forms of display because we are so spellbound with the illusions they create. However, it is important to bear in mind that as technology develops and the new media of today becomes the old media of tomorrow, viewers will be less captivated by the effects of today's high-tech installations. The status of such works will inevitably change, as they are re-evaluated based upon the originality, importance or influence of the artist's vision and the results achieved through their use of the medium.

Typically, new technologies have the effect of appearing to revive art. In actuality, something quite different is going on. Perhaps this is what we are feeling when we perceive art as being absorbed by popular culture. Sometimes the gallery experience, like popular forms of entertainment, succeeds in moving us. But how often is our intellect stirred along with our senses, and how are we to know the difference without pointing a critical eye into the methods of seduction? If art is to be more than another diversion within a culture of consumer imagery, understanding how it participates within this culture is crucial. When the seduction of new media exists for its own sake, art loses its ability to provoke thought, as art and spectacle collapse into one another. Many artists today are taking advantage of the opportunity to employ new media in their work. Museums and galleries are ever more willing and enthusiastic to present work of this sort. The rush to embrace new ways of producing art that promise greater impact in the viewing experience, leads many artists to depend on special effects to prop up thin ideas. The result is a fetishizing of the new technologies and a dependence on perceptual effects to lend value to the work.

The way that audiences interact with new media needs to be explored further than it has so that this knowledge can be integrated into the making of art and the development of ideas. Without this awareness, art trades in its ability to offer an alternative way of understanding contemporary experience. In return it runs the risk of becoming merely another stimulant in the ever-expanding matrix of diversions that make up modern society.


Viola, Bill (1995). Stations. In Buried Secrets (p. 80). Arizona State University Art Museum.

Haenlein, Carl (1995). The lucid image-the transparency of the imagination. In Buried Secrets (p.11). Arizona State University Art Museum.


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