Purple Magazine
— The Cosmos Issue #32

an interview with doug aitken


new horizon, 2019: a mirrored hot-air balloon crossed the massachusetts landscape, landing in several sites, transforming at night into a luminous sculpture and gathering place to share ideas and provoke questions

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM

OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you born in California?
DOUG AITKEN — Yes, in Los Angeles.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Underground culture in California has often been connected to environmental issues. It’s a place where artists are more sensitive to nature, maybe?
DOUG AITKEN — On the West Coast, there’s a sense of openness — a kind of vastness. And in a very short time, you can be in the desert, at the ocean, or in the mountains. That plays a large role in the creativity that comes from here.

OLIVIER ZAHM — At the same time, America has this ideology of having more: more space, more resources, more possibilities. It’s all about refusing the limits. But when you arrive in California, you face the ocean, so you understand there’s a limit.
DOUG AITKEN — You’re at the end of the road [laughs] — in more ways than one!

OLIVIER ZAHM — And we’re maybe at the end of the road of this civilization of no limits.
DOUG AITKEN — That’s very well put from an ecological perspective. We like to have this illusion that there’s this infinite space, but when you really look at the landscape and topography — within a short postwar period, the land has been completely mutated and distorted beyond any natural habitat. I’ve always been fascinated by the definition of landscape — the idea of interior and exterior landscapes, and that relationship between the two. A psychological landscape, you could say.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Can you speak about your next project?
DOUG AITKEN — Yes, it’s a flying sculpture, a 100-foot mirrored balloon structure. I was thinking about the idea of the landscape, and how can we create something that doesn’t exist in one place. It’s not inside a museum or a gallery space, but instead is nomadic and can really move through the landscape — something that can constantly enter different environments and landscapes. I was working on this project and was having a conversation with the oldest land conservation group in America, The Trustees. This is a land trust group that’s existed since the Pilgrims. They have access to 130 different pieces of land — many of the mare just raw nature, or maybe there’s one architectural building and free land around it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it continuous? Are they all in the same area?
DOUG AITKEN — Some are enormous, and some are smaller, but they’re all over New England. When we first started talking about doing a project, I thought, “Do you make a sculpture in one place?” I felt like that idea was conservative, and it dawned on me that if I could make an artwork that could move, we could actually activate many different landscapes andenvironments. I thought, “We could fly!”

OLIVIER ZAHM — But who will fly the balloon? A licensed pilot?
DOUG AITKEN — Yeah. We tapped into this entire subculture, which has been fascinating! We’ve built the sculpture from scratch — everything from the balloon and the material to the gondola, which is a nomadic studio. We designed it so that an electronic musician could be inside, and it could be flying — and they could do a live improvisation, and we could stream or film that. Or an architect or environmentalist could use it to have a conversation that we could broadcast. So, I saw it almost like this lighthouse, this beacon of light, that was moving across the landscape, where we could share ideas and provoke questions.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the gondola is a studio — is it big, like a room?
DOUG AITKEN — It’s like a small room. It’s pushed by the wind and is friction-free. Friction creates sound, but we’re moving at the same speed as the wind, so there’s no sound. You’re in this space that’s absolutely silent. It’s part of the landscape, of the thermal wind. Different layers of wind move faster or slower. But what’s also interesting, in a Fluxus kind of way, is that you don’t really know where you’re going to land. So, you could end up in a backyard or a field… In a society that’s so controlled, where everything’s so programmed, to actually go on a journey where you don’t know the destination is really mysterious and interesting.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the descent is always a bit risky. You never know exactly where you’re going to land?
DOUGAITKEN — Right. At each location, we have a happening and can have conversations about the future with different individuals — everyone from, say, Scott Bolton from NASA, who’s doing the Jupiter mission, to someone at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] who’s looking at climate change. We can have a series of conversations, and as they lead into dusk and sunset, we have musical performances, and these continue into the night. At that point, the sculpture is no longer reflective — it becomes a light sculpture. It’s covered with light, which is programmable, so it can move and choreograph and create patterns of colors and white light. The light installation can sense the sound of our conversation and move to that. Or it can move to the wind or the environment. It can constantly change.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And it stays one night and moves off the next day?
DOUG AITKEN — Yes, the next morning it flies somewhere else.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s really interesting because I wouldn’t normally call your work land art, but this is a form of contemporary land art.
DOUG AITKEN — Well, when we think of the idea of land art, we often associate it with a certain generation of artists. But we also associate it with something that’s heavy and strong and permanent: a piece like Double Negative [1969-70, Michael Heizer] or Roden Crater [ongoing, James Turrell]. These pieces that are kind of monumental. My interests aren’t in the monumental — they’re in things that are changing and living. I like things that can move and be nomadic.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s also a moving and changing project because we’re in a transitional, ultra-urgent period, with the need to change our attitudes to nature, right? You’re conscious of all these problems…
DOUG AITKEN — A project like this is very time-based. It’s a two-week period. But I’m interested in how we can take this piece of time and sculpt it into a series of dialogues and ideas. And some of them are abstract and esoteric — such as the sound you hear from a musician improvising from the sky. But other things are concrete and urgent. We have someone like [the macro-analyst] Spencer Glendon, who’s this absolute expert in climate change. I’m attracted to the idea that we don’t see art as one thing. Art isn’t definable, and it is as much about meeting someone and having a conversation as it is about seeing something that’s sculptural and symbolic.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You combine every facet of art — the conceptual, the physical, the aesthetic — because your mirror is like a human eye.
DOUG AITKEN — You just made an important point for me. This project, this flying sculpture… I thought about it. I thought, “How can we create something that’s changing continuously?” Could you look at it under a full moon, and it’s reflecting pieces of the moon? And you see it the next morning, and underneath it’s a huge curvature of the landscape around you, like a mirror. The idea that art can be living and be something that’s changing continuously: that’s something I’m extremely attracted to — that an artwork can change over time, where it’s not something to consume and forget. Instead, if an artwork’s something that you can come back to over and over, and you change, and it changes — you have a dialogue. When you were talking earlier about the idea of nature, that’s our fundamental attraction to nature — the ideas of life, change, the seasons, the soil. When you think about the natural system, you have this incredible dichotomy of two systems that are balancing: one’s underground, and one’s above ground. This thing underground is dark, and it’s the root system inside the earth. And you have this thing above that’s rising toward the sun.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And they’re both the source of life. They interact constantly.
DOUG AITKEN — Exactly. And without each other, they don’t exist.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because we also destroy the soil. Not only the ocean, but also the soil, the atmosphere — everything’s combined, and it’s a single system. You’ve been to the ocean, too, with your project.
DOUG AITKEN — The Underwater Pavilions came about because I’d made an agreement with myself that if I did this one project with a museum that was very interior, I’d do something that had no museum, no gallery. I live on the coast and walk out to the ocean every morning. It’s similar to someone else looking out at the desert or the mountains. All you really see is a horizon. You don’t see the ocean — you see the surface. There’s a huge difference because it’s inverted: it’s not above, it’s below. I thought, “Could there be a way that we can make an artwork that’s using the ocean?” But it’s almost as if it’s creating a door to the ocean because it’s so vast and intimidating and expansive that when we see it, we just look at it. We don’t even consider what’s really there.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We’re always on the surface.
DOUG AITKEN — Always. It became almost a journey into space for me. I realized there’s this alternate space — the space above us in the atmosphere, but also the space below us underneath the ocean.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I see the word “vulnerable” on the wall in your studio. Do you think we are that?
DOUG AITKEN — We’re incredibly vulnerable as a race. And a lot of it’s due to our own false confidence. The idea that we can continue and continue… If you look at patterns of ecology, in the 20th century, you see the creation of massproduction, plastics, and advancement through biological manipulation. And when you look at this, you recognize that early on in our culture, there was a system of checks and balances — there was the engineer who invents, and there was someone else who kind of plays the role of the critic or the philosopher, or says, “This is a good idea or a bad idea for society.” But we’ve accelerated past that, where now it’s only the voice of the engineer. And it’s only the race to progress faster and faster. So, there’s no accountability. We make things without having any sense of how they’ll affect humanity, but instead just consider if they’ll have traction, and if they’ll become a commodity.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s going too fast. We’ve been relegated to spectators, in a sense. We’re powerless when faced with this acceleration.
DOUG AITKEN — Yeah, yeah.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, with your balloon, you decelerate? You go at the force of the wind. How did you end up using this idea of the mirror?
DOUG AITKEN — I’d used reflectivity in some other projects. Mirage [2019] was a very full-bodied use of it. With this project, I again wanted to play with that idea of reflectivity. But it’s a soft sculpture and organic, in a way. We ended up reaching out to some people I knew at NASA and asked them about materials.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is the technology complex?
DOUG AITKEN — It required a lot of research. And I really like the idea that an artwork can create a journey into subcultures. We found this subculture of balloon freaks in New Mexico and worked with the monthe project. I was never thinking about a balloon, necessarily. I was thinking about the idea of nomadism — something that could move and change and evolve over time. That was really my goal.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Adding the mirrors created a deformation of what we see — there’s an artificiality that contrasts with the landscape. I like this reflectivity. It’s beautiful because it’s really intriguing and so simple — everyone can relate to it.
DOUG AITKEN — Last week, when you were talking about looking at deep space and where we are, the smallness of us and our actions and our activity and our planet, I was thinking about the Russian film Solaris [1972, by Andreï Tarkovsky]. In Solaris, you have this journey that goes deeper and deeper into space, but by the end of the film, you recognize that the journey is actually internal, not external. And it’s equal parts psychological and physical. That idea’s very important. We’re in a period of such radical transition in our society, but also as individuals. That idea of the screen, for example, the physical world and the screen world — the screen you’re holding, the screen we look at. We find ourselves straddling these two realities. One’s the construct, the fiction, the flattened image that accelerates by us [snapsfingers]. The other one is the floor you’re standing on, the chair you’re seated on, the wind blowing, and the trees outside. And there’s this strange moment in human evolution where we’re moving forward, but we are trying to understand what we’re moving forward into. And that really speaks about the power and the value of art. Because it’s a very intangible space, and one of the qualities of art is that it can be provocative — it can challenge you. And we need to have these questions more than ever now.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you take time for yourself?
DOUG AITKEN — You find the time by accident, almost. I went on Friday to San Francisco to see a performance by Terry Riley, John Zorn, and Laurie Anderson. I flew up there just to see this music, but got there too early, so I was standing outside for an hour and a half with nothing to do. But then I realized: I don’t need to be occupied. It was interesting to just stand there and look at these freaks walk by, these old hippies or young Burners [Burning Man attendees]. It was a kaleidoscope of people — it was kind of amazing. And I found myself completely absorbed [laughs] in this fascinating Mission Street, San Francisco, field of humanity.

OLIVIER ZAHM — We believe that technology — the phone, the screen, the computer — gives us access to the world, but at the same time it’s the opposite. It’s closing the door to direct perception and communication with our own environment.
DOUG AITKEN — And to randomness and chance. Those ideas are so fundamental for creativity. The idea of the mistake, the flaw, the discovery. The idea of finding something that you didn’t think was there. And then that becomes part of your language. And as we have a society that’s more about controlled mediation and algorithms, we have less space for this discovery.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, we’re more and more controlled. Do you follow science, like astronomy and quantum physics? To me, scientists are very close to artists like you today. They go so far into abstraction, and they speak about us, like you do. You push the idea of art in a very conceptual and sometimes abstract way. You make us experience what’s going on now and the possibilities we have, but also the risk we create for ourselves. Art and science haven’t been this close since the Renaissance, maybe.
DOUG AITKEN — With my friend Scott Bolton from NASA, one of the interesting things is that he’s so deep into space, yet he looks for metaphors to understand physics or ideas that he finds in space and astronomy, and he often looks to musical structure. He finds these analogies with how sound works and how harmonics function, and how a soundwave moves, or how we’re affected by music. That’s very telling — that we see someone who’s looking so far from our planet but is using the tools of culture to understand the abstraction of space.






”We’re incredibly vulnerable as a race. And a lot of it’s due to our own false confidence. The idea that we can continue and continue…” Doug Aitken for Purple 32 – The Cosmos issue.

[Table of contents]

The Cosmos Issue #32

Table of contents

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