Doug Aitken utilizes almost every medium at his disposal, but he's primarily known for crafting immersive multi-channel video installations with haunting soundtracks. His pieces often make use of non-linear narratives that paint time, memory, and perception as fluid and impressionable concepts. His work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions around the world, in such institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the Serpentine Gallery in London and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. He participated in the Whitney Biennial 1997 and 2000 and earned the International Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999 for the installation "electric earth".
Here Aitken talks to Amanda Sharp, the co-founder of Frieze magazine, in this excerpt from 2001's Phaidon monograph. The two touch on Aitken seeing dreams as interactive short films, his desire to break free from cinematic conventions, and why the world-famous funk musician George Clinton only stays at Day's Inn motels.
Director Werner Herzog once explained that his book On Walking in Ice (1979) came about when he found out that a friend of his was dying in Paris. Herzog decided that if he walked from wherever he was—I assume Munich—to Paris, his friend lived: he felt he could keep his friend alive by walking. A work like this about how individuals can attempt to alter—slow down or speed up—time, how they’re somehow part of a much bigger system.
We all encode our experiences of time at different rates. A single moment from several months ago may consume our thoughts, yet a whole summer five years ago may have completely vanished from our memory. We stretch and condense time until it suits our needs. You could say that time does not move in a linear trajectory, and moreover we’re not all following time using the same system.
When I was twenty-one I worked in an editing room for the first time. We were working long hours, day and night, but for me it was a new sensation, fresh and exciting. When finally I would go home to sleep, my dreams were extremely vivid. As I was moving through a dream, I would look down in the lower right-hand corner of my dream and see numbers: a time code, like the date-time-minute-frame numbers used in editing raw footage. I was surprised that I had never noticed this time code in my dreams before! I also recognized that I no longer needed to watch and witness my dreams passively; I could stop my dream like a freeze frame and look around as if watching a giant, frozen photograph. I could pull back and the dream would rewind so that I could re-assemble it in new ways. That night I re-edited my dreams over and over again.
I suppose my working process is very nomadic. I’m not interested in working out of a sterile, traditional, white-cube studio. I’d like to find a methodology that is constantly site-specific, constantly in flux. Some works which are very fictional demand to be built and constructed as if part of a new reality, while others require an intense investigation into a specific landscape. I would like the permanence of my process to be as temporary as possible. I like to think of an absence of materialism where at the end of the day, all one needs is a table, a chair, a sheet of paper…possibly less. That would be nice; to be without routine and unnecessary possessions.
Uprooting and removal surrounds us, and at times these can be mirrored in our working process. At times I just let go and am assimilated into my landscapes, other times I feel an active resistance. I think there’s something about growing up in America that makes you feel nothing is ever really stationary. Home can be motion at times.
Sometimes you work with found footage and at other times you generate your own images. into the sun (1999) is unusual from this point of view; it falls into a grey area. You shot thousands of your own photographs of Bollywood, chronicling all aspects of the Indian filmmaking industry, and then used them to make a moving film.
In that situation the content revolved around the creation of images, not around any representation of reality. into the sun is a landscape of thousands and thousands of images of Bollywood: sets, actors, lighting, film, the processing factories, the unlimited labor force. I was interested in taking what appeared to be a documentary approach while letting the work slowly implode. I was interested in the image machine itself, not the final product. The process of working on into the sun led me into a kind of lucid dream of the audience’s collective unconscious, one that was tapped, transferred straight onto celluloid, and then reflected back at the audience. There was a perfect connection between the viewers’ desires and how they were mirrored with incredible accuracy in these collective dreams on film. I realized before I’d left India that the work had to exist somewhere between the moving and the still image. The work consists entirely of photographs shot in sequence; at times they sped up to twenty-four frames per second. These photographs temporarily come to life, flicker, and fall apart again. I did not want the work to flow seamlessly; it had to speed up and slow down, break apart and re-form at its own rate. I wanted into the sun to be a flawed illusion, one that eventually collapses in on itself.
Tell me about your use of found footage.
What is found footage? We are losing and finding footage all the time. The information which surrounds us is like a mine; it is our responsibility to actively dig it out and use it for our own needs.
The first work I created using appropriated footage was dawn (1993). dawn was completely constructed from four moralistic films made for teenagers in the 1970s and early 1980s. When I made dawn I was interested in the relationship between media image and personal experience. I felt that before I moved forward to make any new work, I had to reclaim the media I had absorbed when I was young. I wanted to reshape it in a new way, take the experience of passively watching television and reshape the narrative. I decided to edit these four very banal, predictable films with a narrative that could move in a new direction, away from any of the films’ original intentions. I wanted to gain control of the destiny of the characters and assist them into situations and places they could never have gone in the original films. Through the process of re-editing, dawn became an exercise in transforming the dormant energy of the media image.
Surprisingly few artists are dealing with the way the media and technology have become the landscape of our lives, how speed and information are changing everything. When you look at the main character Jiggy moving in electric earth, he could be typing; his movements are almost binary—an either/or option in direction which snaps into place like a synapse. He could be a character out of a William Gibson novel.
Through travel we often visit areas where we don’t plan to stay. They’re outside of our usual experience; we’re travelling to another experience. We’re migrant workers nowadays, people living the facsimile of a jet-set lifestyle without necessarily earning jet-set incomes.
Yes, maybe; at times our feet become wheels, our arms jet wings. The culture is mobile, but then again there are many, many people who aren’t moving much at all. Information moves to them. This is one of the strange situations that I have observed: motion becomes relative after a while. What is moving, us or our surroundings?
I once met George Clinton. He’s a funk musician from a band called Funkadelic, a nice guy who mostly speaks in this space-age-like language he has created. He was playing in Las Vegas at a venue on the strip. Clinton arrived in a limousine and I asked him if he was staying at one of those shimmering crystal hotels. He said no, he preferred a cheap Day’s Inn in the dilapidated part of the city. For the past twenty years on the road, George Clinton only says at Day’s Inn motels, because throughout America every Day’s Inn room is exactly the same: the carpet color, wallpaper pattern, even the angle of the bed and the coffee table. Clinton was searching for a sense of familiarity when he awoke each morning, disoriented from months of touring; he needed to know exactly what the room he was in was like.
In Asian culture you could say that traditionally, through custom and ritual, one slows down deliberately, just for the sake of slowing down. But in Western culture, we speed up to slow down. We seem to be living in an environment that erases its past with a flood of information in the present. Are we attempting to reach a state of nirvana through the oversaturation of information? Is there a point of neutrality, where perception becomes lucid and slow, when one has reached full capacity?
Our blueprints for perception are in constant flux and, as in the design of any construction, there are tests. The test for these blueprints seems inconclusive.
So I suppose my earlier comment, that by accessing the volcanic landscape of Montserrat or the diamond mines of the Namib Desert you are returning that data to our collective data bank, isn’t true?
I don’t feel these works necessarily take places as if they were documents, unearthing them and bringing them to the table for examination. If I’m presenting data, it is without resolution…to question and not to conclude.
Can I ask about your work where you swam the Panama Canal asleep?
In the longest sleep: pacific ocean—atlantic ocean, swimming the panama canal asleep (1999), I swam across the Canal incrementally. I wanted to experiment with an in-between space. I suppose there’s a quiet, unconscious level to that work but also this absurd desire for connection. I often find myself attracted to situations which initially I feel are impossible or improbable; I am drawn to processes that promise no security. At times this puts me into a position where the work must be willed into existence.
You have taken a lot of photographs.
I have a restlessness with the way a photograph captures time. It’s fascinating to me, yet I feel I want something more from the formalism of the medium itself. The static quality of the ‘frozen’ image or ‘decisive moment’ is not enough. I want non-decisive moments, inactions, what has happened before or what is to come. I would like to smash a photograph, open it and see what’s inside. Maybe then this so-called ‘frozen’ time could expand and contract. In that sense images are like liquids.
Photographs, sound works, installations, film, happenings are all just vessels to be filled. I use a medium only when it’s absolutely necessary.
How do you approach your soundscapes?
The area for a conceptual use of sound is so vast. In every project I attempt to approach sound in a different way, creating audio structures that are unique to concept. I often see the sound in these works as language. Some situations have been attempts to work hermetically with the subject matter; in eraser, for example, I wanted to document every sound on-site in Montserrat and create an immense library of field recordings. These sounds were then transformed—stretched out, looped, re-assembled—to create patterns and tempos. The locations and intrinsic sounds became a kind of audio DNA structure.
With i am in you the approach to sound was radically different. It was completely reductive. In any given moment, a cacophony of sounds surrounded the viewer. I wanted to slice away the layers of audio to create an organic minimalism: the incredible macro-sound of a beam of wood twisting and knotting to a point of snapping, or the sound of an electrical surge crackling and transforming into the rhythmic sound of clapping hands. In i am in you the sounds were like signals or beacons of light.
Sound seems to play a key role in the installations; for example in diamond sea there’s an enormous score. In a way that’s closer in spirit to the working methods of an avant-garde or experimental filmmaker than most gallery-based artists.
I like to create sound as raw concept. I’m always finding particles of information through listening, whether it’s the sound of the wind as it whistles through a crack in my car window, or the white noise of subway chatter. Just close your eyes in a bus station and listen, just listen. Just listen…someone says, ‘What did you do yesterday?’ Narratives are being written all around us. They’re in the air. I feed off these experiences.
Can you tell me about blow debris (2000)?
In blow debris I was interested in exploring cycles of change as if any given moment could open up onto a multitude of levels. The beginning of the work is open and atmospheric; flares of sunlight shooting into the camera. We are in open, expansive desert-like terrain. Groups of people, naked and unfamiliar with the uses of broken relics of modern civilization strewn around them, almost merge into their environment. Individuals slowly leave the group and travel alone.
The work follows different progressions and narratives exploring the constant degeneration and regeneration all around us. Individuals find themselves in the isolation of these experiences. As they move through their surroundings, they are caught in a cycle of constant transformation.
Throughout the piece a constant sense of turmoil manifests itself, sometimes quietly and subtly, at other times in a more direct and immediate way. We follow each individual in an entirely separate narrative. Although there is a sense of a connection, it only really emerges in the final scenes, where the progressions tighten and become increasingly ordered. We see an aerial view of a suburban housing projects stretching far into the horizon in grid-like symmetry. The individuals we have followed are inside these homes. We sense psychological space narrowing to a finite point. The intense atmosphere earlier in the work is condensed to images of a man flinching his eye, or fingers caressing a kitchen table. We are pulled into a vortex of shifting information, but as this happens in a quiet, almost silent way we begin to notice cracks and inconsistencies. The side of a chair is starting to flake off and turn to dust, filtering through the air into the skin; layers of skin become dust, leaving a DNA trail across a room. In the final scenes, real time seems to accelerate into a process of erosion. The chair disintegrates. The light in a room moves in beams and starts to glow; the room is now a bank of light. The process of deterioration speeds up dramatically. The protagonists begin to dissolve into a cyclone of sand and swirling dust. Everything we see manifests change. All information is caught in a state of flux, graceful and weightless but at the same time violent. It reaches a point where all the components are moving faster and faster, but they begin to fall out of sync. Change occurs on different levels, moving at different rates through time. An object, maybe a lamp or a chair, explodes; meanwhile another object right next to it spins slowly. Relationships with time start to break apart and create faulty connections. Psychological space becomes a flat line.
There is chaos until finally nothing is visible. Everything is white noise. Gradually objects begin to slow down and reverse themselves. Everything slowly returns to its original shape. As the debris falls back as it was, we realize no human presence is left.
In this piece I didn’t want to work with traditional actors and actresses. I wanted a direct connection with the individuals with whom I was working. It was a long process to find people who could mold their persona to fit into the trajectory of the work. I needed a kind of community of people for several scenes, and I found a squatter community called Slab City in the Mojave Desert (California). They live in the remote, warm foothills of the Chocolate Mountains, a location falling between government jurisdictions, a kind of legal black spot without taxes or police. You can find between a hundred and two thousand people in Slab City, depending on the season. Some are completely homeless, others live in campers.
For the particular language that I wanted to create in blow debris, I needed to work at length with some of the individuals. It was a situation in which things could not be misread: I was seen suspiciously, as an outsider, someone with film equipment, someone not to be trusted. At times there can be violent resistance, but I had to create a bridge. It took a while before I had their trust; both sides had to offer a level of vulnerability.
Traditionally, film has a degree of distance or safety from its content. I think about this separation sometimes; I am much more interested in either a zero or indefinite distance between the content of my work and myself.
Could you ever imagine working within the stricter perimeters of conventional film, like the 90-minute boundary, for a different audience?
Cinematic conventions, like 90- or 120-minute films, have become the legacy of the twentieth century. There’s always going to be room to work within those parameters, but for now I’m more interested in new and different systems to be created.