Aimee, Jemini, and Kaia had never heard of Bill Viola. So the Bay Area
teenagers, members of the "underground party scene," had no idea what to
expect at SFMOMA. Decked-out in colorful make-up, facial pierces and
flamboyant raver clothing, the glamorous threesome might have a hard
time getting through security during normal museum hours. Yet now,
nearing midnight at Saturday's "RGB" event, they fit right in.
"We came for the music," they insisted, standing near the exit to the
Bill Viola retrospective–the official excuse for the party. Deep bass
and driving percussion thundered below, mixing with the cryptic sounds
of a near-by video installation. "But we're stoked about the art."
A youthful swarm passed in and out of the dark exhibition galleries.
Among them was Jen Joy, owner of arguably the hippest gallery in San
Francisco, on her way back down to the dance floor. It seemed that
nearly every art or electronic music lover in town was out in force,
filling the stunning Mario Botta-designed building with unusual flair.
The late night party was organized by Blasthaus, a local multimedia
group which threw a similar party last year for SFMOMA's Keith Herring
retrospective. All 2,400 tickets for RGB sold out in advance.
Chris, a clean-cut New Yorker in his thirties, was already familiar with
Viola's work. He came to see how the art and party would work together.
For him the night was a success, the fusion of art and subculture
melting into a "pleasant gray zone."
In a nearby video installation, "The Crossing" (where a man is slowly
consumed by fire and water), young people filled the room to capacity,
sitting on the floor and leaning against walls. Angela, an Oakland
woman sporting a metal collar, glowing crucifix, and knee-high boots,
had just seen Viola's work for the first time. She wants to return to
the show another day, when things are less hectic. As she spoke, a
young black man started breakdancing in the hallway, but was soon
stopped by security guards.
Downstairs from the exhibition, the cavernous stone lobby served as a
dance floor. Speaker towers pumped clean, loud house and techno to a
thick crowd of dancers. Projections of 16mm film loops and slides
adorned the white walls and a green laser drew dancing geometric
Several bars adorned the edge of the main dance floor, leading to a
smaller room with more experimental electronica and an elaborate
computer installation. CTRL, a San Francisco installation and
web-design group, assembled 42 Mac SE's on an array of benches. The
Mac's were loaded with Tetris, Super Breakout, and other classic games
culled from the Internet–chosen for their "simplicity and function,"
according to one CTRL staffer.
Ashley, a young woman deeply absorbed in a grayscale shoot-em-up, said
it was fun to "walk down memory lane." "I'm also trying to rest – this
is the only seat in the house."
Nearby, the second dance area pulsated with breakbeats. Viola-style
scrims enclosed the space, onto which were projected inspirational
phrases such as, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."
Video filled the rear wall: what appeared to be sped-up walking footage
of East Berlin, an edgy contrast to the sunny, sleek SOMA modernism
Completing the room was a table of imacs, for web-casting and Internet
access. Scanning the party, there was nary a PC to be found. This
fact, mixed with the inspirational words on screen, read as a
grass-roots "Think Different" campaign. Typically San Franciscan, one
might say, where technology is greeted with idealistic passion (and
The retrospective upstairs was nearly as jammed as the dance floor.
Serving as both gallery and chill-out area, each of the few dozen
installations was filled with people sitting, standing, crouching. A
few were even spotted making out behind the wall-size video screens.
And they watched *everything*, often with surprising intensity and
patience–even crouching in rows to watch a small monitor of Viola
sitting in bed, thinking to himself.
"This group of people was raised watching television and looking at
computer monitors," commented Jim, a San Francisco artist in his
twenties. "So it's a natural experience to just sit there." In
contrast, day time visitors often breeze through some of the rooms.
Most of the night's visitors seemed highly engaged and in a good mood.
And in a significant revision of museum etiquette, many of the galleries
were filled with loud chatter–not just small talk, but loud praise and
criticism of the art work.
In "Passage," a blond surfer-type stormed out of the room in
frustration. "It's like somebody's birthday party slowed down to like
one frame per second," he declared on exit with a terse laugh. "I think
I'll need some hard drugs to stay in there." In contrast, the
middle-aged theater director Peter Sellars once lasted through all seven
hours of the footage and, in a recent SFMOMA panel, praised Viola's
brilliant grasp of an alternate sense of time, termed the "now moment,"
in which slowed emotions carry "infinite resolution." Appreciation for
Viola's work is clearly not just a factor of age.
David Ross, the SFMOMA's director and one of the exhibition's
organizers, was thrilled at the event's reception, saying, "It's exactly
what we want." He was pleased that the young viewers, even in such a
ribald atmosphere, were highly respectful of Viola's work. "They take
their time," he said as he eyed a group huddled around "Heaven and
Earth"–two television tubes with a composite image of Viola's child and
dying mother. "And they take ownership of the work," investing the
objects with personal interpretations. Ross then scampered off to join
the pack, emerging from the shadows to throw in a few bits of history
Back at the recent <a href="/cgi/to.cgi?t=1484">panel discussion</a>, Ross
likened museums to amusement parks, saying that every art work is, in a
sense, a ride. This philosophy was certainly tested on Saturday, and
the experiment served to both engage new audiences and titillate
existing ones. Whereas European museums and festivals more readily
explore the boundary between contemporary art and digital culture,
SFMOMA seems to be one of the only American institutions up to the task.
This risk-taking is even more exciting because SFMOMA is California's
largest contemporary art museum.
One of the only shortcomings of the event may have been the lack of
networking, such as remote feeds expressing Viola's excitement for an
"open eye" onto the world. Little of the world which so excites Viola,
that world of natural forces and compressed spaces, seemed to make it
onto the first floor. Furthermore, while each element of the party was
current, even memorable, little could be called entirely "new."
Blasthaus added a younger, arguably fresh spin to the genre of video
projections and "designing states of being," yet couldn't–or
wouldn't–compete with Viola on an artistic level.
On September 11, the exhibition's final day, doors will stay open all
night, giving both new and seasoned audiences a last chance to "own" a
Bill Viola, taste the now moment for seven hours, or–if you
prefer–steal a kiss.