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Bill Viola, The Sleepers, 1992

Video installation


7 metal barrels, 7 videos, 7 black and white surveillance monitors, 7 video players and 385 gallons of water, 524 x 584 cm (dimensions may vary according to presentation space)


Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal Collection A 92 1333 I 21

Bill Viola, The Sleepers, 1992, Video installation, Collection Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Photo: Louis Lussier, © Bill Viola


Part of the permanent collection of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MACM), The Sleepers is a work by American artist Bill Viola, born in New York (New York, United States) in 1951. Produced in Long Beach in 1992, the video installation consists of the following equipment: seven metal barrels, seven DVD, seven black and white surveillance monitors, seven DVD players and 385 gallons of water.


This video installation consists of seven barrels filled with water. At the bottom of each barrel is a monitor set in a waterproof metal casing sealed with a plate of tempered glass. Each monitor plays a looped video of approximately 30 minutes portraying the face of a person sleeping in real time. A different sleeper appears in each barrel, beneath the water. The room is illuminated only by the light emanating from the black and white monitors. The cables, concealed under a raised floor in the exhibition space, link each of the monitors to the video players in the technical booth.

The Sleepers has undergone a series of changes since it was acquired in 1992. The monitors used in the installation are modified by the artist’s studio and are difficult to replace. The use of water in an installation that requires electrical power demands certain precautions. For this reason, the artist had an engineer modify the monitors set inside the barrels, reducing the voltage in the power cables from 120 volts to 17 volts; these cables, running under the raised floor to the control room, are connected to a transformer which converts the voltage back to its initial 120 volts before connecting to the video players. An extended use of the monitors caused grey areas to appear on the monitor screens (screen burn-ins) rendering the images of the sleepers less sharp. In refurbishing this equipment, the MACM soon realized that the original models were no longer manufactured and comparable surveillance monitors are practically obsolete. As a short term conservation solution, the MACM purchased several last stock replacement monitors approved by the artist’s studio. While additional monitors are being stored for future use, quantities will eventually run out. Though not a permanent solution, this conservation approach nonetheless ensures that the work will properly function for the next several years.


Since its acquisition in 1992, The Sleepers has participated in several exhibitions in North America and Europe and has been regularly exhibited at the MACM. Due to an extended operation of the installation, the MACM required supplementary copies of the videos and needed to replace some of the video players. After consulting with the Bill Viola Studio, a migration of the original video support format was necessary. The Studio agreed to modify the video support from laserdisc to DVD and made recommendations for the purchase of eight new DVD players to replace the laserdisc players; seven are required for the installation of the work and one is kept in storage and serves as a spare. The DVD players are set up in a single-plug storage unit in the control room and take up less space than the previous laserdisc players. Before the migration, the artist remastered the work’s original videos to produce seven new submaster videotapes (digital Betacam format) as well as four DVD exhibition copies of each.


Descriptive table of Bill Viola, The Sleepers