Bill Viola's THE RAFT and Sandy Hook
A few days ago I visited the Butler Institute for American Art in Youngstown, Ohio for the first time. While I was there, I saw a remarkable piece of performance art by Bill Viola entitled THE RAFT.
For those of you who haven't seen it, but have the opportunity to do so - I cannot recommend it highly enough. Admission to the Butler is free and it is worth the ten minutes of your time. For those of you unable, I will do my best to describe the piece using words - an altogether different medium than what Bill Viola creates in.
I will use the term "viewer" to describe what in theater we would call an audience member or in art we would call an "observer", because Viola's work blends both the theatrical spectacle with the strong static images of more concrete art; paintings, sculpture, photography. I do want to make it clear that when I am using the term “viewer” I do not mean it in the way that you would view a film even though this particular work of performance art is a projected video.
THE RAFT begins with the audience member approaching the exhibit, in this case, I had no idea what to expect and walked down a small corridor, made another turn into another small corridor and then one last turn into a viewing room. By the time I arrived, the piece had already begun. I stood near the back, resisting the urge to get closer to the screen as there were two other people in the room and I did not wish to disturb them. Little did I know this idea of distance between strangers was one of the focal points of THE RAFT.
Viola’s piece takes place in a stretched out point in time – events happen in slow-motion, done so the viewer can observe every minute detail of the piece.
As I walked in about a quarter of the way into the piece, I found several people onscreen had lined up in no discernible order. Different races, genders, and ages all stood staring out front – and a new person would walk in from one of the edges of the screen and take their place in line. No acknowledgement was given to these new strangers aside from a cursory glance or a look of annoyance if they were bumped in the process of finding their place. There was a palpable sense of distance from each other. Here they were – standing not more than inches from each other – and they refused to acknowledge the closeness between them.
And then there was the beginnings of sound and heads began to turn – this sound marked the first of a deluge of water that rushed in from all angles – buffeting the group. And in that instant, suddenly faced with an external force that attacked them – they came together. Many of the group held on to each other for support. Several shielded others from the water. What was mere seconds to them felt like ages to us – with Viola’s use of slow motion, we could see every expression on their faces, every movement of their hands – every drop of water that assaulted the group. And when it was over, they reached out to each other – some comforting, others crying, and brought together by a sudden purpose. They were shaken by an event and despite their original distance from each other found the walls the created torn down.
This piece has stuck with me for four days now – and I have no doubt it will remain in my memory for much longer.
Yesterday, in Newtown, Connecticut a shooting took place that left 22 dead and many more wounded. A young man, reportedly autistic, took a gun into an elementary school and opened fire on a kindergarten classroom.
As news broke, people split up into three distinct camps creating a tangible distance between each. The first were those shouting for gun control. The second group shouted for gun rights. The third group shouted for a middle ground – “Too soon!”
What was lost in all of this was the fact that 28 bodies weren’t even cold, twenty of them children, and we were already creating insurmountable distances between us. The truth is – no matter how loud you shout your viewpoint, it will not change the other person’s. We’ve become a nation so divided by our own individual ideologies that we refused to see the larger picture.
“The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close up.” – Chuck Palahniuk in Lullaby
As we struggled to make sense of this nearly incomprehensible tragedy, instead of focusing on the children – we focused on the guns, the mental health of the shooter, the disgusting ethics of the media as they rushed to push Sandy Hook as the next big event. Must-See-TV at its finest. Twenty-eight people were dead and no one on any social network stopped to say, “Hey. How can we help? Where can we send supplies and donations?” I’ll freely admit I was one of them. My initial camp was: “TOO SOON!” followed quickly by: “The fucking media vultures!” We didn't want to look at the big picture – twenty-eight dead. Twenty corpses of children covered in blood and piss and shit. A room in an elementary school that stunk of death. And we will never have the opportunity to look Adam Lanza in the eye and ask him why?
But that’s not the question we should be asking ourselves. The question isn't why? – the question is why not? Why not. We’ll mourn and grieve and gnash our teeth over the dead children for a while, but we’ll forget them eventually. When’s the last time you thought about Virginia Tech? About Columbine? About September 11th?
I am ashamed to say I haven’t in a good long while.
The internet, social media, and cell phones have brought us all closer together – we can communicate and reach out and touch people’s thoughts in mere seconds -- and never have we ever stood so far apart.
The distance between people, that widening gyre, has become so deep and insurmountable that instead of using the events of Sandy Hook to come together as those people did in THE RAFT, we only took the opportunity to stand further apart.
Your side or mine. No middle ground. No compromise. And it’s not about those bodies. It’s about the guns. It’s about the lack of mental health care. It’s about violence on television and games and music and film.
The truth is this. And this might be hard to hear – but the quicker you realize it, the better off you’ll be.
No matter how much the issues are debated, no matter how loud you shout and prostrate and spit out your propaganda, no matter how hard you try – the other side will NOT back down.
In THE RAFT there was a moment that profoundly affected me. When the deluge of water first began to hit the group, the old woman in yellow was the first to go down – there was a moment of panic and confusion – an idea of: what do we do splayed clearly on the faces and in the body language of several of the group nearest to her. As the water continued to rush – the woman remained still and worry kicked in. This is a performance piece, I knew, but is she okay? Is she really hurt?
The water was relentless and seemed like it would go on forever. But slowly, in that painfully stretched out time that Viola created, a person knelt down in the torrent to check on her. Then another. And as the water died away, we saw the group had found a way to come together in this event – some had arms around each other, a red haired woman was crying in a stranger’s arms. A man leant on another for support. The old woman in yellow laid there unmoving in the center of the screen. Only those closest to her reached out to help – the others were so concerned with themselves and the people closest to them, that it didn't even seem like they saw her. And as the lights faded and THE RAFT came to an end – this did not change.
I believe -- and I hate to admit it because it is such a terrible way of looking at the world – I believe that unless it happens to us – nothing will change. I don’t mean us as in “We Americans!” I mean us as in you and me.
Unless someone we know is directly gunned down in front of us, or someone we love is stabbed to death like those children in China, or destroyed utterly like the victims of the drone strikes in the Middle East – I don’t think we’ll care enough to make a difference.
I know in two months I’ll have forgotten about Sandy Hook. That’s the truth and I’ll admit it, even if it makes me seem callous and a terrible person. It didn’t happen to me. It happened to those families in Newtown and they are the ones who are going to have to deal with the ramifications for the rest of their lives. But me and you? We’re going to move on to the next big media circus. If Sandy Hook is the woman in yellow, those helping her are those that lived in Newtown. And the rest of us – even if, for a moment, we lifted our arms to shield her from the storm – when it was finally over we turned back to caring about ourselves.
I’m not sure that was Viola’s intent. But art, or rather good art, is up for interpretation and means something different to someone else. Maybe if the events of Sandy Hook hadn't happened and I wasn’t glued to my screen like a viewer – my take on THE RAFT would have been wholly different. But the observance of art depends a great deal on one’s own experiences and this is mine.
Life is short and quick and ugly. You’re born and you die. But if you’re lucky you get to live a good long while. Those twenty children won’t have that opportunity thanks to one young man. I could step outside tomorrow and be hit by a truck. Or shot with a gun. Or stabbed. Or any hundreds of millions of ways to die. I’ll forget about Sandy Hook eventually, and I have no doubt THE RAFT will fade away into my subconscious, replaced by a new piece that speaks to me in the moment.
It’s pessimistic and cynical and cyclical. It’s the same old story told a thousand different ways.
And every time the same thing will happen – we’ll leap up and offer solutions that won’t ever happen and treat the victims like posters for our stances. And the gap, the distance between us, no matter how close we seem to get, the gap will widen.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
-“The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats