WILDERNESS DOUG AITKEN
interview by olivier zahm
and aleph molinari
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re from LA and studied there, right?
DOUG AITKEN — Yes, I was born here, on the coast. I went to the Art Center [College of Design] with your friend Francois Perrin, who used to teach architecture.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You travel all over the world, but you never really left LA. It’s your studio — it’s your life. And your main inspiration?
DOUG AITKEN — I lived in New York in the ’90s for about 10 years. Then I moved back to LA gradually after I realized it’d be a good idea to have a studio that I could work out of. So, Venice became the ticket for that. When you think about the history of major cities in the world, most of them evolved over time because of trade routes. One of the interesting things about Los Angeles is, if you look at it from the air, you don’t really see any reason for it to be here. There is a harbor, sort of, and there’s agriculture, sort of, but the true explosion of LA happened with the invention of the film industry. Once early Hollywood was created, the idea of film was something that you could create and distribute…
OLIVIER ZAHM — At the very beginning, in 1910, 1915.
DOUG AITKEN — Yes. The greatest export of Los Angeles is images. It’s strange, but it’s a city based on the export of an iconography, a mythology.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s selling the image of LA.
DOUG AITKEN — Yes, it’s selling itself. Which is a great observation, and it is quite true.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And there are incredible old and beautiful theaters and cinemas Downtown. They’re like cathedrals of cinema. They don’t destroy them, but they don’t preserve them. It’s weird.
DOUG AITKEN — They’re like 99 Cents stores and swap meets. That’s one of the ideologies of Los Angeles: you don’t really preserve. You replace, and you repeat, so you have this landscape of constant reinvention and rebuilding, and nobody really knows what’s old. There is a restless energy here that is fascinating because it’s addicted to the present. And when something exists in the past, it’s like a shadow.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s in the dark.
DOUG AITKEN — It’s always to the side.
Los Angeles might not have a deep sense of
cultural history, but it does have an incredibly
dynamic sense of culture when it comes to what
people talk about at dinner, in conversations
about music and art and film. The layers
of subculture, bohemian unrest, and
experimentation are so fertile in
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s an oral culture in a way.
DOUG AITKEN — I think the history is oral, and the historical moments are often live events, performances, actions, situations. Think about Chris Burden’s 747, where he shot the airplane, or Shoot, where he shot himself. These pieces are instantaneous. They take place in a nanosecond, and then it’s over. Yet they reverberate and affect everyone who comes after and creates art, body art, or performance art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, this aspect of performance is part of Californian art. If you think of Paul McCarthy or Mike Kelley… I met Mike briefly in Nice at a show at the Villa Arson — I think it was his first show in France. I was a young critic in 1990. I was very impressed. What was he like?
DOUG AITKEN — Mike was great. He had huge success but was always grounded and was really connected to subcultures, music, and young artists. He was almost more committed to this root system than to his artistic career.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And he was a teacher, too.
DOUG AITKEN — Yes. He’s an interesting person to mention when you talk about Los Angeles because he went to CalArts in the late ’70s, and there was a specific Los Angeles scene in the ’70s and early ’80s, and that scene came out of punk rock, body art, and performance art. It was a really restless moment and extremely noncommercial.
OLIVIER ZAHM — At the time, you could live in California with very little, as long as you had a car.
DOUG AITKEN — That’s key. But that period of the late ’70s and ’80s for Los Angeles was super fertile because the city didn’t get a lot of attention for art and music from the outside, from Europe or New York. That was incredibly healthy for the city because it allowed for an underground scene. You had bands like The Germs, Black Flag, Fear, or X. And then the art scene that was the companion scene to that, with Raymond Pettibon, Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Paul McCarthy, and others. And yet another scene doing performances and happenings.
OLIVIER ZAHM — On the side of the film industry.
DOUG AITKEN — Yes. It had nothing to do with film. It was almost anti that. It was really interesting because many of the voices that we associate with Los Angeles now came out of that period.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you’re still inspired by the history of the city, its secret history that not so many people know about?
DOUG AITKEN — I’m inspired by the Los Angeles that I can get lost in. I like a city where I don’t know what to expect, or where I can find myself in some place that’s completely unfamiliar.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you also have more time.
DOUG AITKEN — Yes. Time is more elastic here.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s not as stressful as New York, Paris, or London, where you have to be in a machine. Especially in Venice Beach, you have even more distance.
DOUG AITKEN — Yes. This is a pretty funky area. Part of it is like it’s always been. Part of it is gentrified, part of it is transient and nomadic — it’s an urban cauldron of diversity. I also like living close to the ocean. And then there’s the end of the road, and there’s the ocean and the sand, and it stops. There’s something amazing about the end of a continent, where the road stops. It creates a certain ideology, a mindset that you find within people. And my video installation Wilderness, which you guys saw in New York, was about that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — About Los Angeles as a terminal zone.
DOUG AITKEN — The end of the road. People who are like the tide of the ocean. Humanity just washing up and washing out every day. What draws someone to the end of the day, the end of the road.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because it’s the end of America, the end of the territory, but it’s also the end of Western expansion.
DOUG AITKEN —
The continent stops, and you find yourself
looking out at the infinite horizon, and
there’s nothing there — you’re looking out at
the idea of the future, at what could be.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That idea of escape in California, beyond this end, also extends to technology and the virtual world, as well as DNA research and posthumanism. There’s a big contrast here between the power of the nature around and the obsession with technology. Do you think technology is a solution, a possible escape, or is it dangerous?
DOUG AITKEN — It’s all of those things on the West Coast. The birth of Silicon Valley was a second chapter of the utopian ideals from the San Francisco Bay Area. Experimentation with LSD, communal living, the idea of opening up society into new directions. As the ’60s became the ’70s, the hippie generation found itself more like The Big Chill generation that was about getting a job and becoming a professional. What happened was that the physical world didn’t allow the utopian possibilities, but there was a possibility to invent worlds. This early period in the 1980s, in San Francisco, was about a sense of idealism. Like anything, these things change, they evolve, and they go from being idealistic to capitalistic and super technologically oriented. Which connects people across distances.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your work is also about connection. You connect the screen to other screens, and present a different video experience.
DOUG AITKEN — Yes. I’m fascinated by the idea of breaking the screen and trying to find ways in which an artwork can engage a viewer more proactively, to create new recipes for perception with the ingredients that we have. As a society, we have inherited a very static form of art, something we go and see.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like painting.
DOUG AITKEN — Yes, it’s on a wall, it’s an object, and we see it and judge it, and then we pass it. But is it possible to have other kinds of art, where you’re inside of it, or it’s inside of you, or it’s changing continuously, or it’s different every time you see it?
OLIVIER ZAHM — When you enter your mirrored room, Mirage, in Palm Springs, everyone is reflected in the mirror and looking at each other in secret ways. And the landscape is reflected inside. It’s an interesting physical and visual experience of how we can connect.
DOUG AITKEN — I subscribe to that idea of engagement, of art being a system that can be in dialogue in many more ways.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I really enjoy the way you did the screen installation for Wilderness, which was circular and with eight different screens depicting a multiplicity of stories. You look at one screen, but then there’s another story or another screen changing the narrative, and then another one. Eight times! How do you edit the projections?
DOUG AITKEN — I was wondering if it was possible to transform film into choreography. Could film start doing the movements of the body? Could I hear your voice, and you hear mine respond? So, with Wilderness, I was interested in opening it up in that way. I took a really simple motif — the end of the day, the setting sun, the passage to night — and created an exorcism, following people and bringing people, and having a pulsing energy, a diversity of voices. I don’t know if you noticed, but the voices are digital — the voices coming out of all the humans are synthetic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you mean by synthetic voices?
DOUG AITKEN — In the earlier parts of the piece a young girl sings, and a young girl’s voice comes out, but as the piece progresses, the voices become more distorted. There is more feedback or a male voice coming out of a young woman. With that work, I wanted to tell the story through language, but I wanted the language to be sung.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you start by recording people speaking or with artificial voices?
DOUG AITKEN — I began by writing out phrases or words that I wanted to be in the work. Then I had the idea of not using humans but using AI for the voices and vocals in the work.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The machine is speaking to you. The machine is singing.
DOUG AITKEN — Completely. And it’s in a human form, a vulnerable form.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because there’s nothing more emotional than the voice. But here it’s a machine.
DOUG AITKEN — Yes. [Laughs] Watch out!
OLIVIER ZAHM — In Wilderness, there’s also a feeling of solitude, which is very Californian. People go to the beach, and there’s nothing else to see other than looking at the sunset. People are in their cars alone, in parking lots, looking at their screens and phones. Is it something you constructed or that you observed?
DOUG AITKEN — No, I constructed it. The daytime scenes are quite natural. You see the sun, the sky, the ocean, but as day turns to night, the screen becomes more of a personality. The screen gives off light, and it’s pulsing. In a way, it has a persona, and I wanted that to take over as the piece progressed, for the screen of the phone to become a more powerful presence.
ALEPH MOLINARI — There’s also a post-dystopian element. All these characters seem to live in alienation. Is that your view of society?
DOUG AITKEN — In that piece, I wanted to explore and portray that sense of disconnect. The idea that you have this natural occurrence that will happen every day: the sunset, the end of the day, the entrance of the night. But within that piece, you see throngs of people who, at the same time, feel detached — everyone’s quite isolated. It was something I would notice, and it just grew in the film into a more fictional layer.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s a ritual to go and see the sun set — it’s like a religion.
DOUG AITKEN — Totally. It’s incredible how many days we filmed. We started filming three years ago. We would go out there to film, and then we’d forget about it for a while and go film some more. So, what you see is a huge collage of time, even though it looks like it’s one or two days. It was an interesting exercise to take all these different days and just make them merge and become one, and just erase the difference.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you shot it during the Covid pandemic?
DOUG AITKEN — We shot two works during Covid: Flags and Debris and Wilderness, and it was incredible. There was nobody around for the first year and a half. No security, no police. Nobody on the highways. Suddenly you have this vision of Los Angeles empty. And you could do whatever you wanted.
ALEPH MOLINARI — A perfect Doug Aitken scenario.
DOUG AITKEN — Yes. I couldn’t ask for more. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — Especially in a very regulated city like Los Angeles. The paradox is that California is one of the most high-tech places on the planet now, but people end up in front of the sunset with their phones, making a video of the most common natural phenomenon.
DOUG AITKEN — I think that the other side of the move toward technology is that our lives become more inundated. We want food, we use an app. We want a car, we use an app.
We basically have a neurology here [points to phone] to do anything, but it also breeds an extreme willingness to escape — to have an adventure, to be off the grid, to be in nature, to get the fuck out of here. I see these two dualities.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Which are very contrasted in LA.
DOUG AITKEN — Yes, and accessible here because in an hour or two, you could be in a desert, on a mountain, by an ocean. This is why for Mirage, the mirrored house in the desert, I wanted to make an artwork that isn’t inside a museum or a gallery, but it’s just out there. It has no security, no windows, no doors — it’s just architecture in the desert. What would happen? And I really didn’t expect that people would react to it as strongly as they did.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was a massive success, a new form of land art.
DOUG AITKEN — Yes, the work tapped into this desire that we were talking about. We want to have art experiences that can actually make us step out of our comfort zone and discover. And that’s incredibly healthy because it’s allowing us to not look at culture as a commodity, and see it instead as something dematerialized.
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