Purple Magazine
— S/S 2010 issue 13

Doug Aitken

Portrait by Alayna Vandervort

interview by ALEX ISRAEL
portrait by ALAYNA VANDERVORT

DOUG AITKEN is one of the rare multimedia artists able to incorporate commercial style and cinematographic technique into visual art. His art encompasses photography, installation, multi-screen video, and architecture. Using conventions of the big screen — wide angles and grand vistas — to explore American ideology, Aitken reinterprets THE AMERICAN DREAM AS A FORM OF PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY, often being both the author of an event and the photo­grapher who documents it.

ALEX ISRAEL— I know that you were born in Redondo Beach in the late ’60s, but did you grow up there as well?
DOUG AITKEN — Yeah, on the coast around Los Angeles.

ALEX ISRAEL — What do you remember most vividly about your childhood in Southern California?
DOUG AITKEN — Empty parking lots and bleak flat cloudless skies. Santa Ana winds pushing wildfires over the canyons. Being young and lost and wandering alone along Hollywood Boulevard. Actually, that’s a hard question — I don’t believe these kinds of memories are that real; they’re more like ideas.

Unlimited, c-print, 48 x 60 inches, 2008. Courtesy of artist and 303 gallery, New York

ALEX ISRAEL — But it’s interesting — where people come from, what sticks to them during the evolution of their working process and ends up in the work itself. Biographies, real or imagined, and ideas are not unrelated.
DOUG AITKEN — I made an artwork ages ago that references where I came from in a very direct way, a work I made right after I moved to New York. It’s based on the second I was born. I spent about a month researching the exact minute of the day and year I was born. I collected as much information as I could about that moment. I found satellite photographs, aerial surveillance images of different parts of the world, news reports, pop culture events, and views of the sun’s movement over the hospital I was born in. I zoomed in on the hospital itself. I think there was even an Evil Knievel jump that day.

ALEX ISRAEL — A kind of technological-survey slash self-portrait.
DOUG AITKEN — Yeah, very New York Times database.

ALEX ISRAEL — Were you sensitive to popular culture as you were growing up?
DOUG AITKEN — Yes, I soaked up images of all kinds. I had my museum of record covers, book jackets, and magazines. I was attracted to the immediacy of popular images mixed with raw experience. My parents were pretty nomadic. We spent time in the Amazon, Latin America, Africa, and Russia, among other places.

ALEX ISRAEL — Did you already think of yourself as an artist when you were a teenager?
DOUG AITKEN — Yeah, but when you’re 16, you think it’d be impossible to survive making art, that it’d be more realistic to draw record covers or work on magazines to pay the rent.

Migration, 55th Carnegie International: Life on Mars, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA, 2008.Courtesy of artist and 303 gallery, New York

ALEX ISRAEL — After studying illustration at The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, you moved to New York City.
DOUG AITKEN — Yes, at one of those landmark times when everything collapsed in the art world. For me it was the day-after effect: the bomb had dropped and the city was covered in ashes. But there was a lot of raw energy in New York at that moment. We put on shows in squats. To see the installations in one show we did you had to climb up a fire escape and then up two more floors before swinging on a rope into an abandoned section of a building.

ALEX ISRAEL — In addition to making art you were doing commercial illustration and working as a music-video director. Andy Warhol was a graphic artist and James Rosenquist painted billboards. Are you actually just furthering a Pop Art tradition?
DOUG AITKEN — I don’t think my work relates to any tradition. I don’t look to art for reference points or models. If anything, I’m more interested in the structures of sound and music, the patterns and repetition of music, how music can seduce one moment and attack the next.

ALEX ISRAEL — Do you think you’re blurring the lines between art and popular culture?
DOUG AITKEN — I don’t force the art-crossover issue. Making work comes out of necessity, and the necessity comes from ideas that are burning to be explored. I like it when there’s a flow in the work, a feeling of speed and acceleration — ideas running free, feeding off of each other, moving in new unforced directions, things synthesizing. When I moved to New York in the mid ’90s I worked in different media, but I wasn’t really working with moving images. I was doing installations, casting objects, making scatter art, and taking photographs. I wanted to make a finished piece every five days. I had a studio by the seaport that had no windows, heat, or air-conditioning. It was a rough place. I didn’t know that many people when I first arrived in the city so I went right into lock-in mode, Kaspar Hauser style. The isolation was liberating. I set criteria for myself: to conceptualize, build, and finish things in very short time periods — and then move on. After a while these artworks lost any degree of preciousness and became more experimental and liberated.

ALEX ISRAEL — Did living in New York change the way you felt about Los Angeles?
DOUG AITKEN — Yes, it gave my sense of living in LA more of a filmic-memory or hallucinatory quality. I had a violent breakthrough at one point in my fucked-up freezing studio. In the middle of winter I got the idea to make 300 bird feeders out of solid birdseed, cast in the form of my erect cock. I wanted to install these in beautiful trees on a hunting trail in a forest in Montauk, Long Island. I thought it would be great for alpha-male hunters in camouflage gear, panning and tilting their hunting rifles, looking for migratory birds, only to discover trees inhabited with phalluses.

Blow Debris, 2000. Courtesy of artist and 303 gallery, New York

ALEX ISRAEL — Birds pecking at your pecker!
DOUG AITKEN — Tell that to John Waters. There were other studios in the building and we shared a common phone. You had to go through another studio to get to mine. One studio belonged to this jackass named Mark who had been married to Liza Minelli. He was trying to make marble sculptures, but he was never around. Late one night I was trying to cast a certain sexual part of my body, which was difficult, to say the least, and the phone rang. It was a sensitive moment, and I wasn’t sure if I should pick it up. But I did. There I was, half-naked, my cock covered in silicone. I answered the phone and this very sensual female voice said, “Hello, is Mark there?” I said “No,” and she asked me to take a message. I said, “Actually, I’m incredibly busy and it’s midnight and I’m right in the middle of working on something.” She said, “Please, please, please! I’m at the airport and I must get this message to him!” So I started to write it down. She said, “My name is Farrah.” I was writing this all down, surveying the situation. There was plaster everywhere. She said, “My last name is Saucett.” I said, “Saucett?” and she said, “Actually, it’s Fawcett.” There I was, naked, talking to an actress we’d all grown up seeing images and films of everywhere… LA had penetrated my private moment.

ALEX ISRAEL — Now you live mostly in Venice Beach. Your videos and films often reference cinema. How would you define your relationship with Hollywood and its conventions?
DOUG AITKEN — I don’t think I have a relationship with Hollywood — I don’t want my films to do what Hollywood directors want theirs to do. In some of my early films, like Diamond Sea, Monsoon, and Eraser, I wasn’t interested in using film as a device to create heightened perspective. I wanted to use film as a psychological tool and employ the moving image to open up space, to blur the boundary between fictional and non-fictional spaces. What interests me most now is the movement of the image itself, the sense of change that film can create. I don’t care about the capitalism, the craft guilds, or the star structures of cinema. I like movement on a screen, but I’d rather not use a screen if it’s not needed. I’d like to see the screen disappear, explode, or open up in new ways. I’d like to secede from cinema, to be autonomous, to exist at the opposite end of the spectrum — to be lighter, more agile. I’d like to make works that are at once visible and invisible.

ALEX ISRAEL — Speaking of fictional and non-fictional space, and of fiction versus reality, how can one even begin to define reality? Isn’t any artwork or popular-culture work going to be fictional to some degree? How do you locate your work between these poles?
DOUG AITKEN — I don’t think I can. I can only pose questions.

ALEX ISRAEL — People say your work is seductive.
DOUG AITKEN — What does seduction mean? Mostly, I propose, rather than seduce. To propose an idea is to suggest a situation. Seduction is one of the ways by which the viewer is taken there. For example, I find Smithson’s Spiral Jetty a seductive piece, although it’s not made of traditionally enticing material, nor is there anything particularly sensuous about it. But every project develops its own language. The ideas that seed a work dictate what its esthetics will be and the degree to which seduction or abrasiveness might be in the mix. In a way, seduction is a kind of texture or characteristic of an idea.

Sonic Pavilion, Inhotim, Brazil, 2009.Courtesy of artist and 303 gallery, New York

ALEX ISRAEL — A sense of texture is something that comes through in a lot of your time-based work. When you edit a film or video you use a lot of short, textural clips and inserts in a fast-paced sequence, which reminds me of channel surfing.
DOUG AITKEN — Do you watch a lot of TV?

ALEX ISRAEL — Yeah, I do. Do you?
DOUG AITKEN — Just DVDs of films. When I’m in a hotel room I channel surf. I like to see how fast I can go. I leave my finger on the button until the images move so fast the screen flashes rapidly, like it’s about to catch fire.

ALEX ISRAEL — Channel surfing encourages us to think that there are unlimited options, which is actually true, because we live in a developed capitalist society. Does the visual impact of channel surfing influence your editing style?
DOUG AITKEN — Editing a movie is like writing music. It actually has very little to do with a picture or an image. The most interesting kind of editing would be to eliminate the picture and simply see tones of flashing light. That’s what editing creates: transitions and movement of light. It’s like wallpaper — the narrative is rolled across moving light.

ALEX ISRAEL — Kind of like abstract film.
DOUG AITKEN — Yes. If you lose all representational imagery in a film, you have a moving light-show, with a tempo that speeds up and slows down. You can have an intro, an opening scene, a story arc, and so on, just like in a song. When I was working on my silent film, Sleepwalkers, for MOMA, I was very aware I wasn’t working with sound. My audio track was the city itself. I took time at night to walk around the neighborhood MOMA is in, just listening — closing my eyes and listening.

Frontier, installation on Tiberina Island, Rome, filmstill, 2009. Courtesy of artist and 303 gallery, New York

ALEX ISRAEL — Trying to imagine what the soundtrack would be like?
DOUG AITKEN — Yes, what ingredients it might be made up from — a taxi horn from the next avenue, the rumble of a subway underfoot, a car door slamming from afar. I would squint my eyes to lose imagery, to hear tempos, tones, and repeating patterns. I realized that there are no true silent movies. We edited Sleepwalkers so that it followed a musical structure in a very subtle way, so that the moving images of the installation synchronized with the city.

ALEX ISRAEL — There’s a film Jack Goldstein completed in 2003, right before he died, called Underwater Sea Fantasy. Maybe you’ve seen it. It’s silent, but edited in such a way that you can practically hear a beautiful, sprawling, orchestral score, as whales breach, a volcano erupts, and schools of fish swim by. What you actually hear is the sound of the film projector, other viewers, and yourself. This seems to relate to your ideas about soundtracks.
DOUG AITKEN — Every project is so different. Personally, I never use sound as a following track or an afterthought.

ALEX ISRAEL — Tell me about The Sonic Pavilion, the structure in the Brazilian rainforest which was recently opened to the public.
DOUG AITKEN — The Sonic Pavilion is situated on a hillside in the Brazilian rainforest. It’s made of curved translucent glass. It creates a communal space that enables people to listen to the sounds made by the earth as it rotates, as its plates move beneath its surface. At the center of the pavilion is a small hole that reaches into the earth, a little less than one mile deep. Very sensitive microphones at the bottom of the hole feed sound to a number of speakers in the pavilion. People hear the moving interior of the earth. The sound is always changing. At times it’s hypnotic. At other times it’s violent and aggressive. The translucent, cylinder-shaped interior of the pavilion gives it an atmosphere of calm. The glass functions like a filter, allowing sunlight and air in, while the focus is on the unique sounds emitted from the interior of the earth. People have distant views of the rainforest. Much of the sound underneath the earth’s surface is in a frequency range that’s inaudible to human ears. With The Sonic Pavilion we’ve attempted to make an audible soundscape with sounds from deep beneath the earth’s surface. It’s like a journey to the center of the earth.

Migration, 55th Carnegie International: Life on Mars, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA, 2008. Courtesy of artist and 303 gallery, New York

ALEX ISRAEL — Let’s talk about your film, Frontier. I was lucky enough to be on location during the filming and one night I caught a glimpse of a sketchbook that looked like a kind of storyboard of the piece. I’m curious about your work process. Does imagery or plot act as a driving force?
DOUG AITKEN — I think they both do. A work like Frontier has more of a linear structure than some of my other pieces because the protagonist, played by Ed Ruscha, functions as a thread through the film, allowing the viewer to enter different realities within the film. I think the piece functions on multiple levels. On the surface, I don’t see the character as being just Ed Ruscha, The Artist; I see him as a passenger in a landscape where reality is blurred. I didn’t want to tailor-fit his persona to a role. I wanted him to be a vehicle in a changing landscape. I wanted his presence to be more detached and voyeuristic.

ALEX ISRAEL — Ruscha is known for the landscape pictures he shot along Route 66. In the scene I saw being shot, he’s drinking coffee in a diner late at night. He’s seen through the windows of the diner — alone, bathed in neon light. How did you conceive the film?
DOUG AITKEN — When I began thinking about Frontier I had two interests. I made a long list of sounds I felt would have some kind of visual equivalent. As I narrowed the list down a visual landscape began to form, one that related to an idea I had about questioning reality. For example, imagine you’re driving. You’re stuck in traffic and you’re late. You look at your hands on the steering wheel — but you don’t actually feel yourself inside your body. It’s as if you’re watching a film of your body and the world around you. Or imagine that you wake up in the morning and you have the sensation that your life is like a hologram. Or maybe that it’s actually someone else’s life you’re watching.

ALEX ISRAEL — Do you think out-of- body experiences like these have been portrayed in  film before?
DOUG AITKEN — Probably, but now they’re seen differently, given our culture of streaming information, in which the senses are enhanced and exploited in non-organic, synthetic ways. Out-of-body relationships and sensations subconsciously question the stability of the world around us — and our own internal instability. With Frontier, I wanted to explore this idea, using the language of film as a metaphor for it, and to create a series of trapdoors and quicksand experiences in the reality presented in the film. At the end of Frontier, the protagonist finds himself watching a scene from the very film he’s in, a scene the viewer has just seen. It’s an experiment to see if it’s possible to make a film that disappears, rather than one that moves forward.

ALEX ISRAEL — But doesn’t film always move forward? It’s always moving through the projector.
DOUG AITKEN — Yeah, but in this case the projector is actually in the film.

ALEX ISRAEL — The idea of a landscape emerging from sound relates very much to everyday life here in Los Angeles. When you’re listening to the radio while driving, the landscape has a built-in soundtrack. What do you listen to when you’re driving?
DOUG AITKEN — Music, almost always. But sometimes I listen to audio books, which can be unnerving at first — hearing a voice telling a story. But then you have that breakthrough moment and you don’t want to get out of the car. I once drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles while listening to an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. I ended up parking in an alley next to trash bins to listen to the end.

ALEX ISRAEL — The reflecting back you do in Frontier — isn’t this something one can only do after reaching a certain age, after having developed a different perspective?
DOUG AITKEN — What was important for me in making Frontier was articulating an ideology. I felt it was important to cast someone who had a kind of iconic impact on a past generation. I looked for someone who had done something in the ’60s, who had been an agent of change in the modern landscape. Someone with a history, someone in their 70s, perhaps. I found that very interesting. I didn’t want someone young and beautiful. For the final sequences of Frontier — a nighttime demonstration, rioting and anarchy unfolding in the street, tear gas canisters exploding — I wanted someone who could act in such a scene aware that they’d been witness to, and perhaps even participated in, something similar in real life. There are questions about Ruscha’s character. Is he more voyeur or participant? What’s in his past? What would he have done as a young man in this situation? I thought about how ideologies change over time, how we change over time. It’s funny — we’re talking about all this in Purple Magazine, a framework of youth, beauty, and sensual melancholy. But these are very real questions. Creating change now, do we still fight for the same principles? No one can see the future as it speeds toward us, no matter what age they are.

ALEX ISRAEL — What inspires you? What gets you excited to make things?
DOUG AITKEN — Here’s something. A pretty rough outdoorsman I know came to a picnic we had at our house one afternoon. He’s an antisocial misfit, sort of like the boat captain in Jaws. We made fresh tortillas for tacos — everything from scratch. When we finished eating them he said that they were the best tortillas he’d ever had, that he’d never eaten such great tacos. Then he looked at my girlfriend, Gemma, and said, “I’m going to bring you a gift tomorrow. Will you be here at one?” The next day at one there was a knock on our wooden gate. The door opened and he walked in carrying a massive ice cooler. We were puzzled. He opened it and there were 12 of the largest lobsters I’d ever seen, alive and scrambling around. I live pretty close to the ocean and I walk out to it every morning as the sun rises, to remind myself that I’m living on the edge of the West. When I look at the horizon’s infinite nothingness it reminds me that the future is expansive and open. But looking at these lobsters, it occurred to me that it’s not nothingness out there, and that the ocean is an upside-down world, one without gravity. After our picnic this guy put on a scuba tank and dove deep down into the ocean to hunt these huge mysterious creatures — all right in front of Los Angeles, this metropolis we live in, this concrete jungle of gang wars and film sets. What a great thing. You can find inspiration out there, every day.

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[Table of contents]

S/S 2010 issue 13

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