Bill Viola: “If you’re at the edge of the ravine go on ahead”

A long conversation with Bill Viola and Kira Perov: video art has their genes. To know how video art was born, there’s nothing better than asking them

Seeing the lively expression behind the small oval lenses it’s not hard, even forty years later, to see him clean-shaven and tall, pounding through the streets of Florence with a 15 pound Sony Portapak hoisted on his shoulder, in search of some good pictures to transform from light on film to video and, from there, into art. In the shadow of Brunelleschi, the young Bill Viola was seeking a way to satisfy his innate curiosity, a trait that was to make him a pioneer in an art form hitherto unexplored. However, the pictures he collected were, first and foremost, for the uniquely inspired woman who had invited the recent graduate student of Syracuse University to Florence to join Art Tapes 22.
It is the early seventies, and Maria Gloria and her husband Giancarlo Bicocchi live on the first floor of a small building at 22 Via Ricasoli. Below it is a children’s wear shop. The clothes are so unappealing that before long the owner shuts up shop and leaves the space vacant. Maria Gloria jumps at the opportunity and rents it right away. It’s small, but there is a small courtyard at the back with a little room down at the end. She is a curious woman who keeps an ear close to the ground. From Germany comes news of the Gerry Schum Fernsehgalerie, a sort of experimental laboratory using video to produce work that until now has not even been thought of. Maria Gloria is a volcano of creativity. She grabs a couple of young interns at Alberto Moretti’s Galleria Schema, asks them to get to grips with microphones, sound and video recording systems, buys a Portapak and another gigantic studio camera. And from that moment the room at street level on via Ricasoli becomes the first factory of moving images that are not films and are certainly not television. There’s a coming and going of artists and visionaries: Boetti, De Dominicis, Kounellis, Douglas Davis and Takaito Limura bring their ideas and make them the subject of nighttime discussions, projects hatched by morning and, finally, film. The news spreads, and even those who, like Marina Abramovich, Dennis Oppenheim, Antoni Muntadas and Dan Graham, do not make it their production center, still choose Art Tapes for distribution and archives.
It is 1974 and Maria Gloria is in New York having dinner with David Ross, freshly appointed the world’s first curator of video art, at the Everson Museum of Art of Syracuse. Among his students is Bill Viola. He is promising and sending him to gain experience in Italy with her seems like an opportunity to everyone. Bill is director of the center from ’74 to ’76 and Florence and Italy, with all the glory of their Renaissance, will forever be an influence on his work.
“I was really lucky,” he says today, sitting beside his wife Kira on the couch in a hotel in Mantua, a cup of tea in his hands and the quiet voice of one who seems to have found the meaning of it all. “Maria Gloria was such an extraordinary woman, so open. She taught me a lot. She left her print shop and embarked on an adventure that marked history. Video then was fascinating technology, full of potential, but as yet unexplored. I had discovered it at art school. The big guys who made film and TV looked at us students as children that sooner or later would tire of their new toy. We knew well we couldn’t compete with the movies, but we didn’t care because we saw video as something different, something that could go beyond. We saw the magic of the instant, of the time of the moment. This was something cinema could not offer. Its images had to pass through the studio, cutting, post-production … we knew we could just press Rec and have them there already, just like that, like something that comes out of nowhere and you just have to capture it.

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