Bill Viola and the History of Moving Images

This essay was first published in my monthly-ish work recap newsletter, Kyle Chayka Industries.

One founding myth of cinema goes like this: In 1895, the Lumière brothers, French pioneers of early film, showed a 50-second projection of a train speeding toward the camera and rolling to a stop as its calmly milling passengers hopped on. The Lumières’ 19th-century audience, unused to experiencing a moving image and thus inclined to interpret it as reality rather than documentary, leapt out of their chairs in shock and fear that the projected train would hit them.

We don’t run away anymore. 120 years later, we live in a world of moving pictures, where images once expected to be static animate it can seem like more often than not on the glossy high-definition screens that proliferate on our desktops, billboards, and subway station walls, from looping GIFs on Tumblr to six-second Vines and Instagram videos. The Victorians’ reported reaction to the train was likely exaggerated, according to media studies professor Martin Loiperdinger (something more like the slight surprise of seeing a 3D Transformers flick today), but the anecdote points out a fundamental shift: What once may have been terrifying is now just the humdrum stuff of everyday visual culture.

We have video artists to thank for establishing the visual language of the moving image — as a finite object of contemplation rather than a filmic narrative window — and our fluency in it. Bill Viola, the New York-born new media artist whose work is the subject of an ongoing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, has been more formative than most. The exhibition, Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait, displays around a dozen of Viola’s videos, which for decades have used a combination of slow motion and faux-Renaissance stylization of the human body (recording live models and actors) to broach themes of universal humanism and soft spirituality.

Works in the exhibition like “Dolorosa” (2000), a diptych video portrait in which a man and a woman enact facial expressions of tragic grief in slow motion, and “Surrender” (2001), in which the bodies of two monumental figures warp and waver as viewers realize they are watching a reflection in water, continue from Viola’s long-running experimental practice, which has its roots in other artists like the Korean-American conceptual sculptor Nam June Paik (whom Viola assisted) and Richard Serra. Yet in the 2010s, their effects look immediately familiar, even boring.

Now late into his career, the artist’s influence can be found in animated online banner ads for luxury fashion brands, Snapchat selfie filters, and intentionally glitched YouTube videos. It’s also present in the work of young artists bouncing between Web and gallery space who have deconstructed the immaculate videos, like Petra Cortright, Takeshi Murata, and Cory Arcangel. It’s impossible to look at Viola today without thinking about the Internet, and in turn noticing how the revolutionary moving image has lost its power to shock.

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Visual art was preoccupied with implying movement long before it became possible to record it in the 19th century. Whether it’s because motion can communicate added information or just that it’s more stimulating, the human eye and mind seems to find a moving image more compelling than a static one, like a cat lunging at a swinging toy.

One theory of prehistoric cave art, advocated by French archaeologist Marc Azéma, is that a flickering fire behind the painter or viewer would have lent a suggestion of animation to the animal paintings, which often look to be composed of multiple frames at once. (Azéma has turned several examples into uncannily convincing GIFs.) The glinting tiles of Byzantine mosaics in dark cathedrals achieve the same effect, the implied motion occurring in front of the picture in space.

While theater and puppetry have provided the experience of a narrative scene in literal motion since antiquity, other sources more likely informed how we think about moving images today. Tableaux vivant — elaborate compositions of costumed people often arranged to resemble historical scenes or paintings thereof — saw peaks of popularity in the 1830s and 1920s. Their static-but-living quality presents a close analogue to Viola’s elaborately staged, slow-moving video works, in particular the exhibition’s 2004 “The Raft,” picturing a group of figures clutching to each other as they are flooded by water, inspired by a history painting from 1819.

Over the 19th century, early slide projectors, called magic lanterns, projected narrative scenes to audiences in serial. Phenakistoscopes, for one viewer at a time, and then zoetropes, for larger groups, animated printed images as well as three-dimensional sculptures by spinning them at high speed past a cropped viewing window, the same way frames of film unspool past a lens. In all of these pre-Hollywood cases, an encounter with a moving image was an extraordinary occurrence, like hearing a concert before the invention of recording.

The next evolutionary step came in the 1960s, when affordable, portable video cameras allowed artists to rethink the format. In 1964, Andy Warhol, a fierce fan of cinema, along with the filmmaker Jonas Mekas, created “Empire,” eight hours and five minutes of slow-motion footage of the Empire State Building showing not much changing besides the light of the sunset. Warhol called the relatively static moving images of “Empire” and “Sleep,” 5’20” of John Giorno sleeping, “anti-films,” breaking the moving image’s established relationship with narrative and frustrating more than a few viewers in the process. Movement implied story, and these pieces didn’t have it.

Other artists adapted the moving image as a form of bodily expression, incorporating the camera less as a disembodied eye than a physical sparring partner in a manner more than recognizable to Snapchat users. Nam June Paik altered the images of television screens using electromagnets and Yoko Ono used video to documented her intimate performances. Bruce Nauman, deciding that anything he did in his studio counted as art, recorded himself stamping rhythms and striking contrapposto poses in 1968. The same year, Richard Serra created “Hand Catching Lead,” in which the artist repeatedly attempts to grab falling chunks of metal. Today the video resembles a particularly absurd GIF.

Born in 1951, Bill Viola cites as a major artistic inspiration a near-drowning incident in a mountainside lake as a child, which he describes as “peaceful, otherworldly, mystical,” curator Asma Naeem writes in the NPG pamphlet. After leading the video club at his high school in Flushing, Queens, Viola studied fine art at Syracuse University from 1969 to 1973, where an experimental new media program evolved into the student-run television studio CitrusTV. After graduating he dove into the increasingly professionalized new media art scene, working first with a group of technology-fluent musicians that became Composers Inside Electronics in 1974 and then Art/tapes/22, an influential video art studio in Florence where he worked with Paik, Nauman, and other artists like Vito Acconci.

Viola’s work also riffed on bodily performance. The earliest piece in the exhibition, 1977–1979’s “The Reflecting Pool,” shows a man posed before a pool. He jumps, and then freezes mid-air while the water continues to ripple beneath him. The man fades out, appears back standing before the pool, and retreats into the surrounding forest. The piece suggests the moving image’s aesthetic return to a non-narrative tableau as well as Viola’s incipient interest in Zen spirituality, inspired by research in Southeast Asia and Japan. “Incrementation” (1996) counts the breaths of Viola’s head on a video screen up to the 900,000,000 inhalations that make up a human life (in the pamphlet, the artist quotes Rumi).

With the help of his partner and studio manager Kira Perov, Viola’s work settled into its mature form, the high-production-value, slow-motion, Renaissance-style moving portraits that have defined his career and provide the theme of the NPG exhibition. These open “our eyes to the way in which emerging technologies draw out our perpetual impulses toward self-representation and collective contemplation,” Naeem writes. Yet we desensitized contemporary viewers might find that the motion doesn’t add so much after all.

“Catherine’s Room” (2001) is a riff on a depiction of St. Catherine by the late-medieval Italian painter Andrea di Bartolo. Each of the video’s five channels displays different times of day in a single room seen straight on, as in the shallow interior spaces of a Botticelli. Together they sketch the symbolic arc of a life. The woman variously washes, sews, paces by her writing desk, lights candles at an altar, and sleeps. It speaks to the redundancy of the motion that the videos are read no differently than still images of the same subject would be; they are just more entertaining, more explicit in their storytelling.

“Three Women” (2008) and “The Dreamers” (2013) accomplish more than technical feats. In the former, a trio of figures shift from black and white into color as they pass through a stream of water meant to represent a journey to or from another world. The latter shows clothed individuals submerged in what looks like a shallow river running over a bed of stones. The animated ripples warp the subjects’ faces and bodies, placid rest in contrast with movement. Water (recall Viola’s near-death experience) and motion become visual metaphors beyond the pieces’ careful preciousness and easy art-historical reference points.

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The animated GIF (Graphic Interchange Format, the acronym pronounced with a soft J or a hard G, pick your poison), probably the most widely dispersed form of moving image ever, was first released in 1987. While the GIF remained relatively obscure for decades, it exploded in the 2010s as mainstream social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr embraced multimedia and larger file sizes, leveling the playing field for moving images once again.

Hito Steyerl, a German video artist, has defined the corrupted, hazy, and pixelated pictures that circulate on the open Internet as “poor images”: “The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and reedited. It transforms quality into accessibility,” Steyerl wrote in her 2009 essay for e-flux journal, “In Defense of the Poor Image.” Video art dispersed as well: “Rare prints of militant, experimental, and classical works of cinema as well as video art reappear as poor images,” Steyerl wrote, resulting in a “flattening-out of visual content” that we are still experiencing. The aesthetics pioneered by video artists spread beyond the gallery, circulating in browser windows in less than high resolution.

Today, looping animations and video clips are exchanged like currency through social networks and chat windows to communicate emotions in shorthand. The static meme .JPEG begat the reaction GIF. Not only did the moving image become familiar, it is now an accessible tool to create as well as consume. We are all video artists, chopping up clips of our favorite television shows the way Christian Marclay’s instantly canonized 24-hour video piece “The Clock” (2010) did movies. Every Snapchat selfie is a Bill Viola portrait in miniature.

Artists who matured along with the rise of the Internet work with the moving image as narrative, sculpture, found object, and social relationship. In the 2000s, the Russian Internet artist and archivist Olia Lialina created GIFs of herself and inserted them into the image economy of the Internet, where she loops infinitely dancing or playing the accordion. Petra Cortright recorded webcam videos of performances augmented by digital animations and uploaded them to YouTube, where she priced them according to how many views they received. Artist collectives like Spirit Surfers and Dump.fm organized to aggregate strange GIFs found in obscure corners of the Internet.

Video art itself has changed to discomfit us in new ways. The semi-narrative films of Ryan Trecartin and Wu Tsang mingle queer identity politics with Internet jargon and ’90s style in a combination now popularly associated with the Tumblr community. Cory Arcangel updated the absurdism of Warhol’s “Empire” with “Super Mario Clouds” (2002), a video and GIF of the eponymous video game hacked to remove everything but the slowly scrolling sky. The CGI videos of Ed Atkins warp the familiar animated portrait format with abstract poetic voiceovers and smash cuts to surreal imagery.

These artists overturn Viola’s feel-good emphasis on spiritual togetherness in favor of a more radical form of self-expression, as individual actors within a post-IRL space. Yet the Internet-era artists found themselves quickly caught by that omnipresent scourge of the 2010s Web: brands.

By 2013, marketers had already appropriated the vocabulary of Internet art, commissioning custom GIFs and animations as advertising for luxury fashion brands like Chanel. The results featured a single looping motion on a static image: a model’s hair swaying endlessly in an invisible breeze or one high-heeled foot forever tapping. Commercial studios grew to serve the demand for the diluted aesthetic, and tech companies like Giphy and Imgur monetized the hosting of user-generated files.

Artists Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck coined the nostalgic neologism “cinemagraph” in 2011 to describe their animated Edward Hopper-lite tableaus of whiskey swirling in a glass, leaves blowing down a quiet street, or a man tapping at his phone above an escalator. The pair has gone on to work for clients like Armani, Google, and Volvo. Another studio, Reed + Rader, makes flashier animations for MTV and Vice. These are moving images with no deeper meaning than the novelty of movement itself, rehashing the earliest days of film, the Lumières’ train.

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Such is the moving image in the 21st century: a ceaselessly churning, ever-shortening loop of animation in which a single commodified idea is communicated as fast as possible. They are not so much narratives as words and phrases, the building blocks of a new all-visual vernacular. “Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 1977 book On Photography. Sontag could not have known just how drastic the addiction would become, that static images would never be quite as satisfying once we produced an alternative.

It’s as if we live in the world of Harry Potter and all the newspaper photos suddenly started smiling back at us, yet we don’t find it strange in the slightest. The Internet ensured that moving images will never be scary or scarce again. While videos proliferate, video art, in the Bill Viola mold, is embattled, both because it must compete with the overwhelming flood of animated kitsch online and it doesn’t appear scarce or valuable enough to be prized by collectors in the art market. (Poor image, indeed.) Viola stays above the fray not by shifting his aesthetics but framing his work ever more as physical sculpture; one recent major piece is a digital effigy of the Virgin Mary installed like an altarpiece in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

On certain high-value websites there has been a recent rash of banner ads for IBM that put one in mind of nothing more so than a Viola video. They feature hyper-detailed floating heads gazing beatifically in front of abstract animated backdrops (symbolizing the cyber-ether, or whatever) accompanied by buzzwords like “innovation,” “disruption,” and “the cloud.” In the ads, Viola’s high-definition techno-hippiedom is fully transformed into digital branding. The artist’s videos may not count among history’s most radical, but hasn’t any art that has so fully become kitsch achieved a kind of success?

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