Watching God in the electronic noise: Philip K. Dick, Bill Viola, and the (video) art of speculative fiction

Mattia Petricola

Abstract


This study represents as an attempt to make sense of a rather curious coincidence. In Philip K. Dick's novel A scanner darkly (1973-1977), a character named Tony Amsterdam experiences a mystical vision after an acid trip. God appears to him in the form of «showers of colored sparks, like when something goes wrong with your TV set». In the same year 1973, a young Bill Viola creates Information, a work of video art featuring showers of colored sparks that are eerily similar to the ones seen by Tony Amsterdam.

On the one hand, this article investigates the cultural substratum that the two works have in common vis-à-vis their construction and use of abstract video; it is upon such a substratum that this bizarre coincidence depends. On the other hand, it aims to explore how the speculative use of screens and telecommunication technologies can mediate the religious, the sacred, and, most of all, the mystical.

The first two sections examine Tony Amsterdam’s experience in the context of A scanner darkly, discussing its relation to mysticism, to other episodes in the novel and to Dick’s biography. In section three, I interpret Information as a self-reflexive work of meta-video, proposing to read its aesthetic effect as the result of an electronic ouroboros: a circular video system in which input and output are coincident. Section four bridges the two works by reading them in the light of Jeffrey Sconce’s notion of ‘electronic elsewhere’ (2000) and John Durham Peter’s reflections on the idea of communication (1999). Finally, section five proposes a parallel between the semiotics of visual perception in A scanner darkly and the semiotics of Viola’s abstract video art


Keywords


mysticism; video art; speculative fiction; entheogens; psychedelics

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.13125/2039-6597/3364

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