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
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, "
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
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.