Purple Magazine
— Purple 76 Index issue #29 S/S 2018

Aitken doug

new media and undefined experiences
immersive concepts
los angeles

portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM
interview by JÉRÔME SANS

JÉRÔME SANS — Are you fascinated by the power of words?

DOUG AITKEN — Yes, I’m fascinated by how words look, and how one word or phrase can have multiple meanings. Some of the sculptures  I work with use language. I’ve often been interested in reducing and distilling language to a phrase or even a single word. I was driving across America when I became aware of billboards and signs. I realized they were absolutely everywhere in my sight line. There’s something violent about commercial signage that moves in and out of view while on the highway, the way it reaches out at you — calling in desperation, trying to sell you something, and trying to convince you to stop and buy it. I thought I would try and make existential signs for modern people, phrases made to stop, pause, and reflect. These artworks initially came out of an attempt to reverse and reclaim the visual landscape from being visually bombarded. The more I worked with these word sculptures, the more abstract they became until the word itself vanished, and they disintegrated into nothing more than shapes and forms.
I would stop seeing the word and only see the shapes and forms, and I realized how languages and words can be like ever-changing holograms.


JÉRÔME SANS — Notions of time and space are omnipresent in your work. Is it related to the fact that you live in Los Angeles?

DOUG AITKEN — Time is the structure underneath everything we experience and every decision we make. The time code runs forward, and there is nothing we can do to alter this. When you mention Los Angeles, Los Angeles is not a city but a series of fragments — all separate pieces of experience, places, encounters, and information. In this sprawling city, you can author your own story any way you decide to. Simply by turning left, right, or driving straight, you change the narrative.

JÉRÔME SANS — You work  often with immersive installations. What kind of experience are you searching for?

DOUG AITKEN — I’m drawn to artworks where the viewer is empowered, where the viewer can perform. I like it when I see an artwork come to life, watching a viewer meld and move with an artwork, or see a viewer transported into someplace that is unique and different. We are currently at a crossroads with art, where one direction is to remain in the tradition we have inherited: the formalism, the mediums we know so well, and the capitalism that surrounds it. On the other hand, we have directions in art that are new and undefined, and new mediums that are dematerialized or experiential. These new areas are unmapped and have unresolved questions. I’m interested in these questions.


JÉRÔME SANS — You often work outside of the institution or the museum. What is your relationship to the museum space?

DOUG AITKEN — An artwork is only an idea. It can be anywhere, anyplace, and in any form. From the Nazca Lines in Peru thousands of years ago to Land art in the 1960s and ’70s, we do not necessarily need architecture to house art; every idea has its own needs.
I don’t think the works that I’ve made that are outside of the museum are intentionally trying to be off-site.

JÉRÔME SANS — How do you feel about film now?

DOUG AITKEN — I don’t even really know how to see the world without cinema. It’s like a diet that we’ve all communally grown up eating. But cinema is in a funky place right now. Yes, amazing films are being made, but the format itself is changing. The rituals are also changing. Instead of the act of driving to a theater to sit in a dark room with a group of people to watch something, the viewer can access an entire universe of film online 24/7. It is also interesting to see directors take the language of cinema to new places, to create longer and more stretched-out episodic stories — or conversely, shorter, tighter, and faster ones. I like the two extremes we are seeing. I like how the film Victoria is a fluid one-take with no edits for over an hour-and-a-half. It creates an amazing visual disruption. When we watch moving images, there are always edits, and that is our excuse to look away. But in Victoria, there are no edits, so it’s hard to stop watching. In some ways with film, I think there is important intrinsic value when time is opened up and slowed down, versus the traditional notion that speeding it up results in more action. I like cinema that opens my perception to an enormous landscape where I can become lost.


JÉRÔME SANS — Your work involves much collaboration with architects, actors, musicians, and artists. The huge project Station to Station explores creativity through various artists, transcending the individual voices for an interdisciplinary proposal. How do you choose to invite other people in the conception of the work?

DOUG AITKEN — In my mind, collaboration is another word for community. Culture can be so segregated, with all of the mediums residing on their own islands — whether it’s cinema, music, contemporary art, or anything else. Each has created its own ecosystem that often does not connect easily with others, and often this is due to capitalism. I want an environment where everything can meld together and cross-pollinate, where there are no boundaries between ideas and creative worlds. Some of the projects I’ve tried to make are attempts to break these walls open and create dynamic dialogue — to bring people who work in different mediums into collaborations and working in new ways. Station to Station was a journey for 4,000 miles across America by train. The train itself was a nomadic studio that was used to continuously generate new art, music, text, film, or anything else. With each stop on the journey, that train station itself was transformed into a happening. Each happening was unique and different from the last. In this project, I found that creating something that was nomadic and that didn’t have a sense of a single place or identity was, for everyone involved, the greatest tool for freedom. When you create a happening, often the goal is to remove the distance between the audience and what is being created — to erase the distance and create a moment that is non-repeatable and unique. With Station to Station, the journey was a canvas, and everyone who participated created something new. There were constant disruptions and new discoveries, and this was mirrored in the movement of the train. In creating this project, I wanted to learn from the journey and from my collaborators and to make things improvisationally. It was about reducing boundaries and creating in a fluid way and watching the electricity in the air come to life to create mysterious new moments.

JÉRÔME SANS — For the past several years, your work has become more and more spectacular, using increasingly sophisticated technologies. How do you manage this “expanding” of your work?

DOUG AITKEN — In art-making, you can’t wait for permission for someone to tell you something is okay to create. No one will ever ask you or know what is brewing in your mind. If you have a concept, and the idea is unique enough, it starts coming to life, and you have to try and will it into existence. There is not much of a support structure in place for the most experimental projects. Recently, I created an installation in the Pacific Ocean, titled the Underwater Pavilions.
The idea was to have three floating sculptures under the surface of the ocean that you had to swim or dive into. They are partially mirrored. As you approach them, they reflect everything around them, and parts of the structures start to grow with sea life and become teaming with fish. I couldn’t stop thinking about this project. I thought there must be a way to make it. Despite my best efforts, there was no support from the contemporary art world in creating it. I developed a fascinating collaboration with a marine conservation group called Parley for the Oceans. Working with this group, who exist far outside of the contemporary art realm, was truly amazing. Suddenly our studio was having conversations with marine biologists and people who built deep-ocean research submarines who were as excited as we were to focus their energies on making this artwork. It was a moving experience. When the Underwater Pavilions were finally installed off Catalina Island — off the California coastline — swimming into them was like an out-of-body experience. Suddenly, you were no longer standing looking at an artwork in a room, but were moving weightlessly and horizontally in slow motion, as if you were floating through another universe. The sculptures were reflecting the sky above, and the underwater landscape was mirrored and reflected in every direction. You find yourself at the center of a space where everything is moving, living, and changing.

JÉRÔME SANS — Several projects, such as Mirage (2017) in the Southern California desert, or the Underwater Pavilions (2016), take place in remote places. Unlike Land art, your installations function entirely in response to the surrounding landscape and the environment, but with a fluid relationship with them. How do you consider the influence of nature within your work?

DOUG AITKEN — I think there is a return to the real. This is a time where we’re looking again at the physical earth and landscape, and returning to human and geological experiences. The limitations we’re finding in the digital and virtual worlds make us want something more, a return to an experience that is not synthetic and artificial. As I swam underwater toward the Underwater Pavilions in the cold Pacific Ocean last winter, I reached my hand out over a cluster of rocks and seaweed and felt my finger scratch across the barnacles. I felt my flesh cut and scrape a little bit. I smiled for an instant at this tactile reminder that I was a human on this planet, vulnerable, and a visitor in an ocean that was so foreign and unique. Mirage, the installation on a desert hillside in the Mojave Desert, is an installation in the form of a suburban house. This house-like structure is completely constructed out of mirrored surfaces, inside and out. When the rising sun reflects through the corridors and rooms inside, light bursts in every direction. In the afternoon, the bright light creates a Fata Morgana where the house completely disappears into the landscape, and at night the bright full moon reflects and multiplies through all the mirrored walls inside the architecture. It was surprising for me to watch Mirage change so completely each day as the sun moved across it differently. Its reflective material transformed itself into a living artwork; with each encounter, it changes continuously. I want to see artworks that surprise, destabilize, and shock me, that open perspectives for me in new ways. If you know where something is going, why do you need to go there?

JÉRÔME SANS — Recently, in The Garden — shown at the Aarhus Art Museum in Denmark, featuring a tropical garden surrounding a minimalist white cube pavilion with modern furniture — you invited viewers to physically destroy the living room inside. What do you mean by creating this room for anger, a place to unwind and to lose oneself?

DOUG AITKEN — This project, The Garden, fuses nature with a sterilized modern environment and breaks down the barriers between nature and mechanization. Nature has been seen as a place to gain respite and release from the stresses of modern city life. We’re witnessing this in the 21st century, nature and machines wedging closer to each other, and the line that separated the organic and industrial is now distorted. A part of The Garden is living, and you encounter a lush, dense, jungle-like landscape. As viewers explore, they come upon other parts of the artwork — the serene glass structure recalls minimalism, but when the space is activated, it becomes an “anger room.” The tranquility and calmness of the minimalistic room are disrupted, and it becomes a charged emotional space pulsing with energy. In this installation, it’s the viewer who is empowered as both witness and auteur, asked to both react and act, and given the opportunity to push their expression to an extreme.

JÉRÔME SANS — What do you think of the Instagram culture, where artworks are shared and consumed online without much contextual information?

DOUG AITKEN — It’s a Darwinistic moment for images. The quantity of new images has never been greater, faster, constantly replacing and replenishing itself. Although there is this acceleration and flattening of information, I think there’ll always be only a certain number of images per year or decade that become iconic. These images are needed to become anchor points for culture changes or shifts. We are in the midst of true democratization of the image, and the freedom for anyone to author and share. There’s something beautiful about this. However, it’s also very overwhelming at times. The new language has been born, one which is flat, fast, and temporary. The new images are like mercury. They are never static or fixed, but instead constantly changing. We are working on a new installation right now.
The story at the center of the work revolves around an inventor, Martin Cooper, who now is in his late 80s. In 1972 he invented the very first cell phone. It’s amazing when you hear this old gray-haired man speak about this vision he had to see everyone communicate nomadically. In some ways, his invention of the mobile phone is comparable to the invention of the wheel or the harnessing of electricity. But now, because of this device that he created, everything merges faster, everything connects and becomes one. At the end of filming, he leaned his frail body over and looked into the camera and said, “But where will this go from here?”

JÉRÔME SANS — You seem to live yourself within the artistic and aesthetic environment you create. How does your artistic approach and work spread through your way of life?

DOUG AITKEN — I don’t really know how to answer that. I don’t really see a difference between art-making and living without art. You breathe in experience, and you breathe out what you make. It’s really very simple.


[Table of contents]

Purple 76 Index issue #29 S/S 2018

Table of contents

Purple Index 76

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