“… many post-structuralists would reject any kind of notion of the essence, or would say that the perception of something like the soul is just the engine of language throwing off heat, a simultaneous by-product that’s not active or operational in any way.”
This is from ‘Interview with Michael Nash’ (1990) in the collection of writings, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 by Bill Viola (1995):
… When I started making videos I was caught up with the current issues of the day, structuralism being probably the most dominant. This was in the early 1970s. A lot of my work ostensibly started out by trying to prove something, much like a scientist does. You start with a premise or hypothesis or an observation and you want to create an arena that acts as a symbolic representation of that aspect of the world in you. The idea of the controlled experiment is what I think a lot of early performance and conceptual art was very much taking on — that kind of pragmatic positivistic approach of the experiment that exists in a kind of rarefied state outside normal existence. But video would not let me do that because the camera, as it was evolving, became better and more portable, and all of a sudden you could take this thing outdoors instead of working within the confines of the electronic studio. I found that you could just take a camera outside, walk down the street, bring it back, and then integrate it into this electronic domain. You would just take life as it comes, which is what happens when you take the lens cap off.
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I would say that more than any other artist working in video, perhaps as much as any contemporary artist I can think of, your work asserts and elaborates upon the life of the soul. The idea of soul-life is not very much in theoretical vogue these days — many post-structuralists would reject any kind of notion of the essence, or would say that the perception of something like the soul is just the engine of language throwing off heat, a simultaneous by-product that’s not active or operational in any way. What is your theory of the soul, and how is it reflected in your work? Or is it possible to assign to your thinking about the soul a notion like a theory?
No, I don’t think you can assign a notion like a theory to it, because the reason that I make my work is to understand. I don’t make my work to explain, to describe, or to state a position. I think this is a very big difference from science, because when scientists go out to prove something they’re functioning exactly like lawyers who have a premise, and they’re going to prove that premise, using the rules of the legal system. For the scientist, a set of relationships and interactions we call the laws of nature exist to be manipulated in one’s favor in order to prove whatever is one’s point. So it’s sort of dead thought in which we’ve come to exist, and it’s one of the detriments of the evolution of logical empiricism. The Cartesian method was a major revolution in consciousness, no question about it, but as we’re coming to its back-water period, you find that this way of thought has taken over to such an extent that people tend to approach life in those terms.
Then you have another type of scientist, who isn’t going out to prove anything, but is just going out to learn something. All great scientific discoveries are accompanied by this kind of humility that is experienced when whatever thoughts, ideas, and preconceptions one has had in one’s mind are completely blown away by seemingly incongruous and inexplicable behaviors of the natural world. That’s the magic. I have questions and I’m interested in why things are certain ways.
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… The notion of the boundary is a fundamental part of the structure of human consciousness. Finitude is really the essence of what being alive is all about. A baby is born, and immediately mortality has been created before your eyes. … Often I’ve used water as a metaphor, the surface both reflecting the outer world and acting as a barrier to the other world. Without limits there is no energy created; physicists have taught us that limits create energy. If you have someone who believes in everything, then he doesn’t believe in anything at all.