loud paper interviews Doug Aitken

LP: Last time I saw you we were working on the installation at the Fabric Workshop in Philly. We were working on some amorphous screen shapes that reminded me of protein molecules, the way they twisted and bent around on themselves. In a nutshell, what were you after and what are you after, when it comes to putting these things in space?

DA: Yes, we were working on torqued screens for projections, bending and sculpting the screen shapes. In many ways my interest in these projects is in finding space where there can be a nonlinear narrative that the viewer encounters that is not safe and closed off but is instead perhaps more spatial or expansive. I’d like to see an encounter, which allows itself in a generous way for the viewer to have a direct relationship with it.

I believe there is a kind of incredible grey area between art and architecture. Within that space there’s a form of de-materialized architecture. Architecture that no longer relies on concrete and glass yet has a physical presence. This can be manifest in so many ways: from filmic projections and sound works to light treatments. With film, the moving images surround you. Sound is sculpted to have a presence so that it can perceptually collapse and expand or obtain form.

LP: What about when narrative isn’t obvious, when it’s coded into a work really subtly and not available right at the surface? When I was thinking about things to talk about I considered other works by artists like Gordon Matta-Clark, Michael Heizer, like Office Baroque and Double Negative, and various works like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or James Turrell’s Roden Crater. These and a lot of other installations have their own stories to tell, and their spatial aspects are powerful, but quiet, voices within them; they don’t have the filmic aspect. How would you compare your spatial sensibility?

DA: That’s an interesting question. Some of those works, which are very much based in the tradition of earth art, have a degree of weight to them, there’s a kind of monumentality and sense of physicality. I’m more attracted to the idea of lightness and a moment in time which will appear and disappear and leave you with a resonance as opposed to something which can be visited over and over for a long duration. So I think my interests are more in creating something that can lock and unlock quickly.

LP: You see that in the way that your screens are made. I’m thinking back to the Serpentine Gallery exhibition of new ocean and how we were really trying to eliminate the frame around the image and end up with an image floating in space. The torqued screens are an obvious extension of that, an experiment in breaking the image out of the usual planar screens. Although the torques are being saved for later, you recently installed another piece I had helped on, and that seemed to be a closer cousin to the new ocean work.

DA: Interiors, the piece at Fabric Workshop and at Kunsthaus Bregenz, is a work where there’s a series of translucent screens that the viewer can move and walk around. On multiple screens there are different stories in each story/narrative there are different protagonists. They’re in radically different places in the world in diverse situations from perhaps an urban ghetto in Tokyo—where you find auctioneers firing off linguistics in the street—to empty office complexes. In all these narratives you find stories of single individuals and they’re kind of caught in an in-between space where they’re without home and without destination and moving in what appears to be very random journeys. Then at a certain point they suddenly sync up and all these stories come together. In the piece I was interested in the notion of order in chaos, trying to weld together these key moments in random time where there’s synchronicity taking place, a perfect locking of time.

In interiors, when this takes place, all the protagonists kind of speed up and go into a subconscious state. A woman is playing handball so rapidly it creates a tempo of 120 bpm while a man, played by Andre Benjamin, starts talking to himself so fast it becomes this high speed rap and all these layers start to unfold and create this larger composition. Each screen, each channel is a separate audio but they come together through synchronicity to create a single connected audioscape then they break apart again; the characters separate and when the work comes up again it’s a new set of characters and a new cycle. So it continuously reassembles itself and continuously offers a new variation to the viewer.

LP: There was variation in the studio where the four screens were displayed in a symmetrical layout. How does the content relate to the formal aspect of the work, the arrangement of the pieces and how it relates to the idea of chaos, and how it’s played out or not, in the spatial and formal arrangement of the pieces?

DA: [pulls up image on computer from http://www.kunsthaus-bregenz.at/] Here it is installed at the Kunsthaus Bregenz, the museum designed by Peter Zumthor. As you can see it’s a very translucent piece. As you walk through it, you can see through to all the other screens. It’s like a memory cell, a crystalline memory that allows you to see other thoughts from other corners while you’re in a central idea.

LP: What’s going on over there [points to another image on the computer screen]?

DA: This is a new audio installation titled you think, you are. It’s a work in a large spatial area at the ground floor of the Kunsthaus. The museum is very austere, especially the lobby—almost too precious. I brought in raw construction materials and we built out a series of platforms. Some are ring-like, twelve total. Floating above each one is a parabolic speaker. It was very much an attempt to create a kind of sonic architecture.

The parabolic creates a kind of force field of audio. The piece consists of twelve discrete channels synchronized, all the sound of breathing, but the breathing begins to change and transforms on each exhale into the sound of a larger and larger audience, eventually reaching levels of peak hysteria, as if one very gentle breath when exhaled were 500,000 people. So it’s a strange piece. Visually, the architectural treatment was key to it; I wanted it to be very minimal. I had a translucent scrim dyed a warm earth tone that transforms all the incoming light. It gives it a subtle, humanistic feel.

LP: About the transformation of the new ocean pieces, from the Serpentine to the Kunsthaus: originally new ocean had a real sense of procession, or progression, at least for me. It calls to mind Le Corbusier’s promenade architecturale, where there’s a journey one takes, a kind of scripted journey designed into the experience of the space. It was pretty theatrical that way, and even dramatic, the way we completely changed the normal circulation of the building. You’ve got thaw and new ocean cycle installed at the Kunsthaus and I see that thaw has been really transformed. It looks like it’s been doubled or reflected.

DA: The exhibition new ocean, at the end of the day will travel to four different locations, four cities. I wanted to created an exhibition that constantly changed, that was not a traveling exhibition in the traditional sense, but one that metamorphosized. I wanted it remixed over and over. Perhaps the show you see in London and Torino are completely different shows. It’s been an experiment, on a personal level, to stimulate the idea of what an exhibition is and how it can manifest itself. These ideas of change, transformation, nomadicism are central to the structure for new ocean.

LP: You even re-edited the video for the Kunsthaus?

DA: Yeah, there are aspects of the video that have been radically edited or other things where the sound has changed or been lost. Architecturally, rooms just completely mutate. I see it almost as sand – like sand, I wanted it to have a kind of warm, visceral feeling when it’s held in your hand, but I’m also interested in seeing how it falls through the cracks in your fingers.

The things which I value most as a viewer, whether it’s a good movie or a book or anything, is something which cannot be held onto; something which has a resonance that remains with me, that questions me, but which is not necessarily tangible.

LP: Do you think you have more opportunities to form that resonance using the film versus using the actual installation and physical make up and spatial arrangement?

DA: Not necessarily. I mean you look at each side as a blank canvas. The works can change. The works do change. Like the work thaw, at one moment it was in a subterranean basement and then it becomes something completely different at the next location.

LP: But the ephemeral, intangible qualities are much more a product of the film. I’d say the film is the major communicator for your purposes. We can make translucent screens that help to defy solid space, or solid form, but without the films they just sit there.

DA: There are definitely architectural sites that have a tremendous amount of resonance, sometimes due to historical interventions or historical infusions of events which have occurred. Some, like the Salk Institute, have their own kind of existential beauty. I think it’s more the notion that ideas can be at the core, and ideas and concepts can stimulate response, but it’s often not possible to specifically guide what that response will be. I think the only machine in which our society has perfected the manipulation of responses is Hollywood feature filmmaking.

LP: Yeah, Spielberg.

DA: Precisely. As when there’s a film which might be stupid, and the story is so bad you laugh at it, but sitting on an airplane flying across the Midwest, alone in your seat, forced to watch this thing, your resistance and your criticality break down. You find yourself crying precisely because the recipe is perfected. So it’s very much context. The new blueprint of the gallery in the twentieth century was the white cube. Running simultaneously was the invention of the black box, which was the cinema. I think of them being designed as force fields to manipulate the viewer into focusing on something in a world becoming increasingly chaotic. The blueprint of the salon-style hanging of exhibition went out of favor in the early twentieth century. It’s almost now that architecture has taken on the role of creating blinders or aiding and abetting in the act of focusing the viewer. It’s something I’m interested in. I don’t necessarily believe in all the manifestations that have occurred—I’m not interested in IMAX, I’m not interested in being overwhelmed by a sixty-foot screen because it’s usually pretty boring. I want something more than to just be stimulated on a retinal level. A lot of what the work that I’m attempting to make or experimenting with searches towards a different kind of blueprint for perception, a different way of putting the collage which surrounds us together in a way which doesn’t have to rely on the tradition of linear narrative. Instead it addresses the expansiveness of living rather than trying to condense it and make sense of it in a small sound bite.

Much of my work is invested in the theory of finding a kind of idea-architecture that is immediate and ephemeral. Where the ideas of content, perception and viewing collide. Creating ideas as something that can be walked through instead of just thought about, or that there can be a physicality to a concept. I think seeing these as a definition of a new form of architecture is kind of important.