Confronting the Ubiquity of Technology with Doug Aitken

Doug Aitken’s NEW ERA, (still), 2018. © Doug Aitken courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York, and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.
Doug Aitken’s NEW ERA, (still), 2018. © Doug Aitken courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York, and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.

Artist Doug Aitken defies the definition of genre. This holds especially true as you enter into New Era at 303 Gallery and find yourself immersed in a hexagonal pavilion of screens and mirrored walls. You are at once transported to a world where film and sound weave into a narrative of technology’s impact on our most basic humanity. This narrative isn’t a pleasant account of progression. It is a dark take on the dystopian landscape we have created by inviting technology into every part of our lives.

The experience takes ordinary, familiar images – old cell phone and the freeways of Southern California – and reshapes them into beautiful visuals that lose their form. Here, Aitken discusses his process as well as New Era’s place in present day.

Doug Aitken’s NEW ERA, (still), 2018. © Doug Aitken; courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York, and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.

What does the conception of a new idea look like? Where do you begin? Creating an artwork is a mysterious and mercurial process… there is no right way, there is no one way, and there is no wrong way.

The interesting thing for me about the art making process is there is no real starting point, I see it as a continuum We are moving and experiencing continuously. We are in flux as as is everything around us, I like it when I see ideas that move in a fast improvisational way, when concepts collide and create friction.

With some projects, the concept arrives complete, in an instant. There are other artworks that are very process based, some you work on for years, they hit you with obstacles, confront you with insurmountable challenges and try to break you, but you realize they are making themselves in the process.

Your work is not confined to one specific medium or technique and generally is created using many different elements together. When you began your career, did you foresee creating such a diverse practice? I never really thought about working in one medium, I was always drawn to the idea that art was a space that was open and expansive and limitless. Everything around us has a possibility for transformation, to become a question or to be provoked a new way and be transformed into an artwork. There are really no limits. It’s a very traditional approach to define yourself by one medium or form, I respect that, however my approach is a little bit different, I’m interested in the concept, and what kind of language each idea can build, and how the language can grow into something that is unique and autonomous from myself.

How do you view technology’s role in the art world? There’s always been some form of technology and innovation in society. It seems the question now is that we use the technology as opposed to using us. It’s inspiring to see artists use new mediums and to humanize them, to bring a sense of warmth and experimentation to cold technological mediums. So much of our history comes from innovation, from the creation of perspective, to the photographic image and how it changed the world around us and then the invention of the moving image. Now, however, technology is more seamlessly part of our world, and this is the screen era and we open our screens and swim in oceans of information each day.

Doug Aitken
Doug Aitken’s NEW ERA, (still), 2018. © Doug Aitken; courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York, and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.

Your site-specific works are in their nature ephemeral - they are eventually removed from their settings as if they were never there. Is it ever difficult saying goodbye to these pieces? The Long Goodbye. I love that Altman film. Every artwork is a time piece in its own way. From work like Spiral Jetty, that disappeared for decades underwater only and re-emerge, to a happening that burns hot for a few hours and then is over and will only live on within memory. To make an artwork is to sculpt time. And time is always moving.

I’m not so much interested in the physical permanence of an artwork, but in the resonance or the idea of that artwork. I’m attracted to artworks that empower the viewer, and works that the viewer authors or completes. I like to see artworks that go beyond the artist, and the ideas pollinate and go beyond their physical artwork. Many of your works find their home in nature. Can you describe what it’s like to make works housed in the comparatively confined space of a gallery? The landscape is a canvas as much is the gallery space. I am always fascinated in working within the white cube, I see it as place to experiment, to transform and distort. There is something special about the challenge of what you can do with a completely neutral white room.

The new installation New Era is really intended to be seen as an installation, the work creates a very elastic sense of space and time. The room has six walls and every other wall is mirror. When standing within, the images all bend out to infinity. I wanted the gallery space to transform, I wanted the architecture to become liquid, and move like a fast and rhythmic hallucination. It’s an architecture of acceleration. At times New Era moves deep into abstraction while and other moments it slows down to a very human and vulnerable pace.

Doug Aitken’s NEW ERA, (still), 2018. © Doug Aitken; courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York, and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.

What do you hope is the take-away from New Era? It is a strange work. It is a modern mythology, the story of an intelligent, frail, white bearded 89-year-old man who in a slow matter-of-fact way talks about his invention of the cell phone, when you look at our landscape, this is been as radical of a change as the mechanical revolution, or the harnessing of electricity. We are living in a new era, one of complete connectivity and one where the screen space is equal to the physical space around us. This surreal shift in evolution brings us into a new frontier, one that is unexpected and we have not fully been prepared for, where do we go from here and how do we confront the future?

I see New Era as a work that asks us questions as we sit at the edge of the horizon, and as we look out, we look towards a complex and mysterious future.

What’s next? What are you excited about right now? I must confess, I’m excited about lunch! We are out in the Indian Ocean as I write this, looking at locations for a new land art project. Yesterday we visited an island that is sinking due to the oceans rise, every day on the low tide it would appear, then later disappear underwater again. I am excited to breathe in and breathe out.

"New Era" will be on view at 303 Gallery (New York) until May 25 and at Galerie Eva Presenhuber from June 9 – June 21 (Zurich).