In Search for Affect and Haptics in Bill Viola’s The Messenger (1996)


The study of affect has gained momentum since the 1990s, especially since scholars within cultural studies and film studies have indicated their interest in addressing affect in relation to the examination of the body and materiality. Since then, affect has been discussed in terms of physiological processes, energetic intensities, corporeality and form.[1] However, the lack of consensus over the term’s definition in academia makes it challenging, but also liberating to analyze a cultural object from an affective perspective. Within the academic sphere, a video artist that has utilized affect is Bill Viola, whose presence on the art scene became increasingly felt from the 1970s onwards.

This realization is particularly relevant for the analyses of his work as together with the development of new technologies and subsequently, Viola’s new modes of presentation, the academic debates were operating in alignment with such advancements. A trend that can be observed regarding the different analyses of his art is that his early works were often discussed in relation to haptics while his more recent works have been primarily studied in connection to symbolism, theology and affect; either with the focus on formal analysis or spectatorship. Consequently, this essay concentrates on one of Viola’s more recent and barely-ever analyzed works[1]The Messenger (1996) – where both affect and haptics can be discussed simultaneously in relation to form and the spectator. Therefore, the paper aims to answer the question: In what ways do the affective and haptic aspects of Bill Viola’s The Messenger (1996) contribute to an embodied spectatorship?

The essay begins with academic discussions regarding affect in relation to Viola’s use of slow motion. Afterwards, Viola’s installation of The Messenger in the Durham Cathedral and the presence of water in the video is analyzed in connection to its stimulation of haptic perception. Together, their synergy is addressed within the context of embodied spectatorship and ethics. In this way, I intend to re-conceptualize theorizations of Viola’s work by focusing on both affect and haptics in the era of digital technology. By analyzing this combination, I hope to establish a dialogue between the cultural object and the theory where affective and haptic potentiality can be realized.

[1] See Altieri (2003) and Hansen (2004) for physiological processes; see van Alphen (2008) and Thrift (2004) for energetic intensities; see Rossaak (2009) for corporeality and Brinkema for form (2014). In some cases, they are less strictly divided than others as there is much overlap between the theories.

[2] It can be argued that The Messenger is barely ever analyzed as it is not sensational as his other works like The Passions (2000-2002) series and particularly the work The Quintet of the Astonished (2000). In those works, high quality and sharpness of the image is often appreciated and hence, can be considered as a reason why The Messenger was often left out from academic discussions since most of the time it presents a blurred imagery.


According to the cultural studies professor Ernst van Alphen, affect can be understood as a “shock to thought,” having the power to stimulate critical inquiry in the viewer.[1] In van Alphen’s terms, affects are intensities that are strongly social as they “extend beyond individuals.”[2] Furthermore, he explains affects as judgments and argues that they can lead to physiological change in human bodies as well as cognitive change. He links these reactions by stating that a physiological shift occurs due to a person’s negative or positive evaluation of an object or another person.[3] Correspondingly, van Alphen states that there is an essential distinction between affect and feeling, as the former connotes energetic intensities rather than meaning.[4]

In contrast, the literary scholar Charles Altieri uses affect as an umbrella term for psychological states that can only be experienced by living beings, especially humans.[5] Hence, van Alphen situates himself in the discourse of affect differently than theorists like Altieri, who does not acknowledge the transmission of affect through inanimate objects. Van Alphen elaborates on this trend as a consequence of humanism, which renders objects as “passive, unconscious, and material.”[6] Similarly, the anthropogeographer Nigel Thrift defines affect as a “form of thinking” and “an encounter between manifold beings.”[7] He also detaches himself from a traditional humanist perspective by stating that “affects are nonhuman becomings of man” which contributes to a post-humanist[8] point of view in relation to the theorization of affect.[9] In this way, van Alphen and Thrift point out the transmission of affects through and between both animate and inanimate objects, which is particularly relevant for the analysis of cultural objects.

In addition, it is important to acknowledge Eugenie Brinkema’s (2014) contribution to the academic discussions regarding affect in her book The Forms of the Affects. She laments the direction taken in affect studies recently by arguing that affect-related debates in humanities have become detached from detailed discussions of form and aesthetics. This has led to a  generalized and non-theoretical understanding of affect.[10] As Brinkema argues, “affect is not where reading is no longer needed.”[11] Instead, she urges for the return to a sign-based close reading[12] that invites the analysis of affect based on its formal specificities and enables the exploration of its potentiality.[13] According to Brinkema, her approach avoids sensation or experience and hence, theorizations of affect as something pre-determined, allowing for the term’s treatment in a specific, formal and theoretical way.

At the same time, Brinkema completely leaves out the spectator from her affective theory. This goes against my intentions in this essay as my work alternatively focuses on the relationship between formal elements and their ability to lead to affective reactions in potential viewers. Therefore, the aim is to establish a dialogue between van Alphen’s, Thrift’s and Brinkema’s insights by analyzing Viola’s The Messenger in relation to its formal aspects and impact on the spectator.

The Messenger is a single-channel video and a sound installation which is played in a continuous loop in a specific (usually not a white cube) space. The video depicts a naked man fully submerged in water while he is slowly ascending to its surface in order to catch his breath. Afterwards, he descends back and becomes fully submerged in the water once more. This process is repeated four times and then the video starts to loop. In the video, there is an apparent difference in visuals when the body is in the water in contrast to when it breaks through the surface. The former depicts the body in a blurred, malformed and blue-white hue, making it appear almost inhuman. In contrast, when the body is emerging from the water, the viewer is presented with a sharp close-up of the subject’s face and torso in a normal skin-like hue.

One of the most noticeable formal aspect of this video is slow motion. At first sight, Viola’s use of slow motion makes the work resemble a painting and it is only by examining the body up close that one can notice the minor changes in the subject’s movement. According to the media studies scholar Eivind Røssaak, the confusion between the medium of painting and video immobilizes the spectator, providing for an opportunity to observe the object more closely and in greater detail.[14] The use of the slow motion in The Messenger appears to stretch time in a manner that allows the observer to notice the particularities of the subject’s body and movement in the water, in addition to his facial expressions which would normally be invisible to the human eye.[15] Consequently, this experience and the subsequent physical immobilization can be said to produce an embodied spectatorship whereby the viewers are given the opportunity to realize their own bodies, physical movements and materiality.

According to Viola, slow-motion imagery can be regarded as “a form of consciousness-shifting that allows you to study and contemplate an experience, an action that is normally happening too fast for you to do so.”[16] This encounter can, therefore, be connected back to van Alphen’s “shock to thought” where The Messenger contributes to an “embodying process of mind that runs parallel to the eye,” stimulating a strong affective response from the viewer.[17] As van Alphen argues, “the mode and temporality of narration produce the intensity that constitute affect.”[18] In Viola’s case, the extreme slow motion creates affective intensity by providing the viewer with an alternative mode of temporality. In van Alphen’s opinion, images are not only bearers of meaning but also active agents that allow the impact of affect to be transferred to the viewer.[19] Similarly, Viola paves the way for the viewer to experience affect from the cultural object through the use of slow motion. Accordingly, The Messenger serves as an agent that actively transmits affect, thus supporting Thrift’s and van Alphen’s argument that human beings are not the only ones capable of conveying affect.

In an interview with the film curator John Harnhardt, Viola stated that digital technology enables control over physical time by slowing it down using the medium of video. This allows time to become transported from the physical world to that of the metaphysical. This is a unique phenomenon because aside from technology, the human mind is the only other mechanism through which time can be slowed down.[20] The Messenger demonstrates this perception of time in the present by “revealing the role of affect in the flux of consciousness.”[21] Additionally, through the transmission of affect (stimulated by slow motion) and its impact on our consciousness, the work contributes to the process of becoming.[22] According to philosopher Felix Guattari, affects are modes of becoming, triggering a form of embodiment by “becoming-other, becoming machine even, becoming particles or liquid crystals as they float across the screen.”[23] By literally surpassing the time during which human beings are capable of staying under water while still alive, The Messenger confuses spectators by making them question whether what they are witnessing is someone’s death or birth. This intense encounter, where the human body is portrayed in its most vulnerable position, highlights our close bodily entanglement with other human beings, nature and technology. Thus, slow motion is key for exposing the in-between zone where the human and inhuman can coexist. As van Alphen argues, the functioning of affect and the way it is presented as a “shock to thought” is “what opens the space for the not yet known.”[24] Therefore, the adoption of slow motion and its effect on the spectator’s consciousness makes the image not a mere representation but rather an invitation for the viewer to imagine and experience the self in a continuous process of becoming. In this way, The Messenger is not only present in the designated space of its display, but rather its main operation is located in the mind and body of the viewer where a sense of embodiment can emerge.



Besides slow motion, there is an important and all-encompassing element of water in The Messenger. When the subject is submerged in the depths of the water (Figure 1), the viewer can slowly observe the dissolution and liquification of the body. The image suddenly becomes unclear and ambiguous as the silhouette of the body can still be recognized, but the slow movement of the water makes the body appear strange and even inhuman. Hence, as the body is distorted, it can be argued that so is the surface of the image and with it our optical perception. Subsequently, the visuals of the submerged body invite spectators to experience a haptic perception instead. According to film philosopher Laura Marks, haptic perception can be defined as “the way we experience touch both on the surface of and inside our bodies.”[25] She argues that haptic images are not necessarily about identification with the subject as they rather invite the commencement of “a bodily relationship between the viewer and the image.”[26] By dissolving our vision into the video, the viewer is allowed to occupy the image without adopting a position of mastery. Instead, through haptic perception the spectator is encouraged to “embody the experience of the people viewed” and hence, to physically experience the video without appropriating the image, making haptics stimulate an ethics of shared embodiment.[27] This process comes in contrast to optic visuality which aims to obtain knowledge and thus, control over the subjects and objects depicted.

Figure 1 – A still from The Messenger (1996) by Bill Viola (left); Figure 2 – The Messenger (1996), Bill Viola’s video installation in Durham Cathedral, England (right)

I argue that haptic visuality in the case of The Messenger was further enhanced by its large-scale presentation, where its intensity depended on the viewer’s positioning in relation to the screen. For example, in 1996, The Messenger was presented in Durham Cathedral in England (Figure 2) and had enormous dimensions,[28] providing visitors with the freedom to admire the spectacle in different forms. The positioning of the screen allowed two modes of inspection: if the viewer stood too close, he or she could only see a segment of the morphing body and the fluid surface of the water, causing an optical distortion. Conversely, if the viewer observed it from a distance, the outline of the body became evident and more identifiable. Therefore, the close proximity strengthened the viewer’s vulnerability in relation to the image’s surface, suddenly turning the screen to another skin and the video to another body.[29] According to Marks, this relationship between the viewer’s body and the image with regards to farness or closeness from the screen can be considered erotic. This is because the viewer is led to dissolve his or her own subjectivity when in a close contact with the image, hence, alluding to eroticism through a renouncement of visual control and the intimacy of such encounter.[30]

Hence, haptic visuality was stimulated through “over-closeness to the image” while optic visuality predominated when viewers kept their distance from the image.[31] Therefore, the freedom to physically move around The Messenger as a spectacle allowed the work to be viewed in a diverse number of ways. The fact that this encounter was based on the identification of certain elements that were masked or unmasked is important as it provided viewers with the opportunity to experience the work from both a haptic and optic perspective. Consequently, it can be stated that The Messenger oscillates between haptic and optic visuality, allowing spectators to have multisensory experiences.

Figure 3 – A still from The Messenger (1996) by Bill Viola

Apart from the viewer’s physical proximity to the surface of the image, The Messenger in itself shifts between haptic and optic images in the video. In contrast to the submergence of the subject in the water, the scene where the person is emerging to gasp for breath presents the viewer with a sharp and detailed image of the subject’s face and body (Figure 3). Hence, the image shifts from haptics back to optics. According to Marks, the motion between haptic and optic perception illustrates “different ways of knowing and interacting with an other.”[32] Therefore, the change in focus and distance in The Messenger blurs the line between haptic and optic visuality, thus showcasing their close and interchangeable relationship. In this way, the work creates a situation where the spectator is switching between order and confusion, which is a process that cannot be interpreted or controlled merely through eye movements.[33] Instead, the multisensory experience forces the spectator’s whole body to respond, causing a loss of self in an intensified relationship with an other in which the unknown can emerge.



Generally speaking, theories of embodied spectatorship recognize the importance of the human body in the act of perception in relation to materiality of both the body of the viewer and film while focusing on the visceral, haptic, and kinesthetic engagement of the spectator.[34] Marks’ insights in relation to The Messenger’s haptics and its interchangeability with optics demonstrates the importance of paying attention to the viewer’s physical response to the image, instead of exclusively noticing the form. In contrast to Brinkema’s theorization of affect which primarily focuses on form but barely considers the viewer, Marks’ haptic and van Alphen’s affective theory discuss what effects form can have on the viewer’s body and mind. This phenomenon is particularly relevant when analyzing Viola’s video. Without the viewer’s bodily response or reaction, it is questionable whether the work would be able to exist on its own. In the case of The Messenger, the viewer has an essential role in the continuation of the spectacle as it is in his or her mind that the transformative power occurs. Furthermore, through haptics The Messenger invites a look that recognizes “both the physicality and the unknowability of the other,” making it an immensely ethical look.[35] As such, through its manipulation of our consciousness and distortion of optic visuality, The Messenger challenges our notion of mastery and introduces the ethics of shared embodiment.

The process of becoming in The Messenger is especially important when discussing the concept of embodied spectatorship. When the spectator’s body is stimulated so as to experience an intimate bodily relationship with the medium, the subject and the element of water, he or she can be encouraged to re-evaluate his or her own understanding of what it means to be human. According to van Alphen, thinking and feeling on its own is not enough to produce new knowledge. Rather, it is the combination of both body and mind that can have such potential.[36] As The Messenger contains affective, haptic and optical aspects, it is through their consolidation that the process of becoming an embodied spectator can begin. The interchangeability of the three elements points to a close connection not only between optics and haptics but also between affect and haptics, as by intermingling, the cultural object becomes a profound agent of intensity transmitted on the spectator’s body. Through these elements, the spectator contemplates the possibility of becoming like the other temporarily. This could involve both excitement and risk taking, which makes the process affectively powerful.[37] Therefore, the viewer’s body is necessary for the production of the video experience leading to the possibility of feeling empathy and “respect for otherness” and hence, renunciation of mastery.[38]

However, the relationship between the cultural object and the viewer’s body also suggests the complexity of attempting to interpret an image in a generalized way. This is because the process will be shaped by one’s cultural background and will most probably differ from one person to another. Accordingly, van Alphen’s approach towards affect indicates that an embodied reaction is the beginning rather than the end of exploring the unknown. By positioning the human body in relation to other living and non-living beings, The Messenger exposes the infinite possibilities involved with adopting a fluid post-humanist identity. Thereby, Brinkema’s affective potentiality can be precisely found in the interactions between form and spectator, where the de-stabilization of humanism can materialize itself. By allowing to imagine oneself in a non-hierarchical relationship with others, embodied spectatorship espouses ethics that defy mastery of the image and a human’s privileged position, making affect and haptics greatly social and political.



This essay has attempted to deconstruct the process of embodied spectatorship through analysis of haptic and affective elements in Bill Viola’s The Messenger. The analysis has revealed that the use of slow-motion imagery exposes the viewer to body movements and facial expressions that are barely noticeable in daily life, showcasing the power of the image to affectively stimulate the viewer’s consciousness and body. Furthermore, haptic perception in the video was said to be triggered by the immersive presence of water together with the viewer’s close positioning to the screen, where only a distorted bodily shape could be observed. It is particularly important to analyze Viola’s recent video work in relation to haptic viewing in the digital era, where technology is often obsessed with optics and complete visuality. The Messenger proposes that it is not only through the eye that one can access the mind. Instead, triggering other senses and their synchronization can begin the process of one’s transformation. Therefore, in The Messenger, it is the sense of becoming water, an other and the technology itself that makes it so immensely powerful. By de-privileging the optical, the ethics of shared post-humanist embodiment can arrive and displace mastery. Besides haptics, optic images were also identified through the presentation of sharp and clear images of the subject’s face and body and the viewer’s positioning from a distance to the surface of the work.

As a result, the combination of affect, haptics and optics demonstrate that The Messenger operates on a multisensory basis where the synergy of these elements encourages embodied spectatorship. The medium through which this embodied spectatorship can be experienced is the viewer’s body, which makes it indispensable to deciphering The Messenger. Therefore, interpreting Viola’s work from different perspectives has showcased the importance of acknowledging the viewer’s centrality in affect theory. This is because relying on the form itself would render The Messenger obsolete. In terms of the future of affect theory, it is necessary to account for the uniqueness of each spectator and artwork instead of hastily utilizing general formulas and methods that may distort the intention of the artist. As The Messenger suggests, the beauty of affect theory lies in embracing its tensions and ambiguities.


[1] Van Alphen, 2008, 22.

[2] Van Alphen, 2008, 23.

[3] Van Alphen, 2008, 23.

[4] Van Alphen, 2008, 24.

[5] He specifically refers to physiological states such as feeling, mood, emotion and passion (Altieri, 2003, 2).

[6] Van Alphen, 2008, 25.

[7] Thrift, 2004, 60-62.

[8] In the book Posthuman Glossary (2018) edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, Cary Wolfe discusses critical posthumanism as a branch of thought which functions in contrast to humanist theories and Enlightenment thought. Instead, posthumanism invites to explore human’s close relations with nature, animals and technology, having the aim to displace the human from a central position (Wolfe, 2018, 356-359).

[9] Thrift, 2004, 63.

[10] Brinkema, 2014, xiv.

[11] Brinkema, 2014, xiv.

[12] By sign-based close reading she means a return to semiosis, meaning, structure and apparatus rather than focusing on the “visceral, immediate, sensed, embodied, excessive” and hence, she averts the study of affect from the body of the viewer (Brinkema, 2014, xii-xiii).

[13] Brinkema, 2014, xv.

[14] Røssaak, 2009, 340.

[15] Thrift, 2004, 73.

[16] Tim Sassoon’s and Bill Viola’s online interview called “Bill Viola’s Passions” (2003), transcribed and quoted in Kim, 2013, 149.

[17] Kim, 2013, 149.

[18] Van Alphen, 2008, 27.

[19] Van Alphen, 2008, 27.

[20] Hanhardt and Viola, 2002, 100.

[21] Lenoir, 2004, xxv.

[22] In her book, Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming (2002), Rosi Braidotti explains the process of becoming as a philosophical thought of perceiving the human as “a complex, heterogenous, non-unitary entity” thereby, conceptualizing the human not in terms of essences but rather in a constant flux (72).

[23] Guattari, 1995, 92.

[24] Van Alphen, 2008, 30.

[25] Marks, 2002, 2.

[26] Marks, 2002, 3.

[27] Marks, 2002, 7-8.

[28] According to Guggenheim’s online inventory, The Messenger presented in Durham Cathedral had dimensions of 762 x 914.4 x 975.4 cm (Guggenheim, 2019).

[29] Marks, 2002, 4.

[30] Marks, 2002, 13.

31] Mary Ann Doane’s The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (1987) quoted in Marks, 2002, 18.

[32] Marks, 2002, 18.

[33] Røssaak, 2009, 342-344.

[34] Marks, 2002, xi.

[35] Marks, 2002, xvii.

[36] Van Alphen, 2008, 30.

[37] Van Alphen, 2008, 28.

[38] Marks, 2002, 20.




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Alphen, Ernst Van. 2008. “Affective Operations of Art and Literature.” Anthropology and Aesthetics 53-54: 20-30.

Brinkema, Eugenie. 2014. The Forms of the Affects. Duke University Press.

Guattari, Félix. 1995. Chaosmosis. An Ethico-aesthetic Paradigm. Trans. P. Bains and J. Pefanis. Indiana University Press.

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Lenoir, Tim. 2004. “Foreword.” In New Philosophy for New Media, by Marc Boris Nicola Hansen. MIT press. xii-xxv.

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