Doug Aitken Has an Eye for Dystopia

“It’s a cauldron of humanity pushed up against the ocean,” says the artist Doug Aitken about Venice Beach, the Los Angeles neighborhood where he lives. He could just as well be talking about his most recent piece, “Wilderness” (2022), an immersive multimedia installation currently on view at Manhattan’s 303 Gallery.

The 12-minute video, projected on a number of large screens that form a circle, depicts a day at a beach less than a mile from Aitken’s house. In the early days of the pandemic, Aitken, who is known for making art that exists somewhere between narrative film, design and sculpture, found himself observing the wide range of visitors who gathered there. He noticed a certain rhythm, which he decided to capture on film: In the early hours of the day, the sun rises and the beach slowly fills with people (this is accompanied in the video by plaintive, almost hypnotic A.I.-generated singing). The figures seem at loose ends, whether they’re standing still or wandering slowly and aimlessly. The lyrics become clearer, as phrases like “always running” and then “out of mind” are repeated. As the day progresses, the tone becomes more ominous. The viewers film the sunset with their smartphones, we see flames in the hills in the distance, a passing plane and cars in a parking lot flash their lights in unison. The music picks up tempo, crowds dance with their hands reaching toward the sky. One can’t help but sense something terrible is going to happen, but the film is on a loop, so instead of us witnessing this climax, it goes back to the beginning and we start another day.

At the gallery, I found myself standing at the center of the room twirling around anxiously to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Leaving the screening room, I encountered one of Aitken’s installations — three cast resin phone booths illuminated from within. The lights seem to respond to the movement of the viewer, glowing brighter as you approach. This part of the show references an earlier work of Aitken’s titled “New Era” (2018), in which the artist features the inventor of the cellphone, Martin Cooper, who hoped his creation would liberate us from our land lines. We now know that the relationship we have with our means of communication is more complicated, that our phones have become less of a release than a perpetual ball and chain. Aitken’s work often looks at technology as a double-edged sword, full of promise but also danger, and he, too, makes us feel connected and alienated, usually at the same time.

“Wilderness” address these related themes — sensory overload, the intermediation of actual experience by technology (why are they looking at the sunset through smartphones?), the fragile state of our environment and, perhaps most important, what that all means for us. It suggests that, for the moment, we seem to have developed a comfortable way of existing in the liminal space between the natural and manufactured, but there is something precarious about this state, and this gives rise to a collective, unspoken anxiety. In May, I met with Aitken for pizza around the corner from the gallery in Chelsea, where he answered T’s Artist’s Questionnaire and we chatted about his new work, his early days in New York, Bruce Nauman and coffee.

What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?

I’m an early riser, I like to be out in the cold ocean water at dawn watching the sun rise behind the city each morning. Neurologically, there’s something about the morning. You’re alert, agile and creatively open during that period of time.

During the pandemic, since I couldn’t travel, I’ve been embracing patterns and routines in a way that I hadn’t before. Creating in a repetitive way can be very liberating. Being in the same place and having a routine can allow you, at times, to go much deeper into the direction you’re exploring. You’re not collaging together your creativity on the road with little fragments — I’ve been able to work with a greater sense of singularity. I really enjoy that.

I’m always working on many projects at once. I don’t want what I’m making to become too precious. If you’re working on something that’s physical, architectural and solid, maybe you try to simultaneously work on something that is de-material, maybe musical or writing. Point and counterpoint.

Right now, we’re developing a new project with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale. It’s a film-artwork that will create a story driven by music and performances that are embedded in the modern city. Simultaneously there’s a land-art project I’ve been working on for several years, in a remote and rugged part of Australia. These two projects play off each other. One is in the land — it’s permanent, and intensely physical and ecological. The other is based on music and moving image. But somehow, they both follow the same path and are both attempting to find new possibilities to empower the viewer and explore a new narrative. That kind of cross-pollination can be inspiring to me.

How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?
I don’t know if there’s a clock for creativity. I mean, you can be in a conversation late at night with a friend and they say an amazing sentence that you remember and maybe later it becomes a starting point for a new project. If I’m in town, I’m at my studio as much as possible, eight to 12 hours a day. My studio is about a mile from where I live, and I try to keep everything in a close walkable radius. I don’t want to waste time commuting if I don’t have to.

What’s the first piece of art you ever made?

I can’t answer that one. I was always making things from when I was very young, even before I knew the word “art.” I was using whatever was around me, whether it was ripping up used magazines to make collages, constantly drawing or figuring out how to work a camera. Creating is like breathing for me.

I’m impressed by someone who can work in so many different mediums.

I think you’ll find that all mediums are very interconnected. If you talk about film, for example, the pacing and editing of a scene in a movie actually have an invisible rhythm to them and, if you extract that, you can see how similar it is to a musical composition.

Rem Koolhaas once said to me, “People think that my architecture is based on architecture but, when I was young, I studied film. My father was a filmmaker. Every time I design a building, I see the lobby as the opening scene of a film, and the next room like a transitional scene and so on. ” He was describing how the structure of film is a structure just like architecture. But what he was also really saying is that the structure of storytelling and engaging the viewer in a dialogue is something that has universal qualities. The core ideas are not really defined by the ink on the paper, the film or the building. These mediums are just structures to hold the ideas.

What’s the worst studio you ever had?

When I first moved to New York City in 1992, I had a studio in the South Street Seaport with no heating, no cooling, no windows, barely a solid floor and a padlock on the door.

It was that same section of the seaport that Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and other artists had been in the 1960s but, at this point, there was almost no one there … just tumbleweeds and mafia!

I found out later this little studio/labyrinth was called the Cave. When I first showed up, this guy showed me this dark 300-square-foot cubicle. It was freezing in the winter and cooking in the summer. There was a brick wall with a rectangular section of strangely colored bricks, and I thought there might be a window behind this, so I took a sledgehammer, knocked out all the bricks and where there should have been a window with a view, there was just another brick wall 6 inches away.

How long before you had a show?

I got lucky because I met some other young artists in the early ’90s downtown scene who also had diverse backgrounds like Matthew Barney, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Andrea Zittel. The first shows I was part of were in squats or art storage rooms like AC Projects, or at the time Gavin Brown would set up little shows for us in derelict buildings. The art in that scene was very individualistic. It was a dynamic moment.

Where did you live then?

My first place in New York was a hallway that I rented in the West Village. But I escaped from there quickly and moved on.

I hope it was a wide hallway at least. When you start a new piece, where do you begin? What’s the first step?

Where do ideas start? “Wilderness,” the show I just opened at 303 Gallery, is an example of a very organic starting point. At the beginning of the pandemic when the lockdown was stringent, I would slide out of my house each evening to watch the setting sun. But over time, I became more interested in watching other people watching this ritual. There was a universal quality to it, where people appeared to pause for a moment, lose their self-awareness and stare toward the distant horizon as the sun vanished and the sky transformed to darkness. Gradually, I started filming people watching the setting sun. I didn’t have a goal to make an artwork out of this yet. I just found it fascinating. Eventually, I began to feel a story about the future emerging, and I started writing out words and phrases that related to this. That language evolved into short songs and, as the weeks and months progressed, I would ask strangers who were watching the sunsets to sing these song cycles and I would film them.

Over time, “Wilderness” became more fictional, and the narrative focused on the uncertainty of the future in front of us. The work has moments of deep human connection while at other times it is quite alienating and vulnerable. I mention “Wilderness” when you asked about the starting point because there really is no one way to create. The only way to create is to simply start doing something.

How do you know when you’re done?

Artworks finish themselves; they can reach a point when they recede from you and there’s nothing left to add. It’s a strange moment because you know the work is no longer yours when it has created its own internal system. Often, you create something that’s taken a large amount of time and intimacy, and when the work is complete, it suddenly feels utterly foreign, almost alien in a way. That’s an interesting sensation, when you see that thing that you’ve created, and now it can live on its own.

How do you feel when your work is misinterpreted?

Some artists hold on to very specific narratives, but my work is quite open. I’m more interested in what you bring to it, as opposed to what I have brought. I would like an artwork to be a source of energy, something that can generate friction and empower discovery.

What do you listen to when you are working?

I am obsessed with music and constantly searching for new sounds. I find inspiration in music, maybe more than any other medium. The crossover with art is so natural.

At the beginning of quarantine, when everybody had to make a very small bubble of friends or family, my friend Mike D [of the Beastie Boys] and I agreed to meet every Monday night for dinner at my house. This went on for over a year. It became an incredible ongoing conversation where we could continuously share discoveries, music, film, stories and ideas. It was kind of like a listening party and culture workshop, where you’re constantly bringing new music to the table or trying to dig up a diamond in the rough.

When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?

It’s such a socially awkward thing to say. If I have that conversation with a stranger in a parking lot, I just say, “I make things.”

Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?

Mexican food would be my desert island choice.

How often do you talk to other artists?

Some of my closest friends are artists or musicians, but the people I’m close with are all very diverse. My oldest friend is a longshoreman and, if you call him, he can look out the window and tell you what the economy is doing in real time based on the movement of shipping and freight in the harbor.

Where do you live?

I live in Venice Beach, which has a strange and interesting history, from the Light and Space artists of the ’60s to the Dogtown skate scene and the early punk movement. At the end of my street is where Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) lives, and next to that is where Rudolph Valentino’s beach house was. By simply walking down the street, you sense different strata of history.

What do you do when you’re procrastinating?

I like being outdoors and off the grid. If I had a definition of a vacation, dirt roads would be mandatory.

What’s the last thing that made you cry?

Airplane films kill me. On a recent flight I watched “Nuclear Family” (2021), an episodic documentary. As I started watching it, I realized it was directed by an old friend I used to work with, Ry Russo-Young. It was her life story and followed her birth through artificial insemination that evolved into a legal battle between her mothers and donor father. It was strange being immersed in this story playing on a tiny screen on a 14-hour flight.

What do you usually wear when you work?

[Gestures to his outfit] When I work, it’s always the same thing: a dark shirt, dark pants to hide the dirt and running shoes to keep me moving fast. Making art is a mind and body practice.

What do you buy in bulk with most frequency?

What do you buy in bulk?

Organic peanut butter from Whole Foods. The kind they grind up.

For an American, I’m totally late to the coffee game, but I just discovered the power of caffeine. But I don’t like the taste of coffee at all, so it has to be hidden with some other flavors. I know that sounds disgusting. It became a pandemic morning ritual, drink caffeine, go to the studio and explode with new projects for a few hours, then burn out. I guess I’m just catching up to the rest of the world.

What’s your favorite artwork (by someone else)?

Bruce Nauman’s “From Hand to Mouth” (1967). It’s so reductive and minimal. It’s poignant yet mysterious. It’s only a modest wax sculpture and so simply made, but it radiates in my mind in infinite ways.

What are you reading?

I’ve been reading all of the books by the music critic Alex Ross over the pandemic, from “Wagnerism” (2020) toThe Rest Is Noise” (2007), which actually requires several rereads. I’ve also been into biographies. Sometimes the more tertiary characters make more interesting stories than the famous headliners. “Pegasus Epitaph” (2014) is the memoir of [Michael Stuart-Ware,] the former drummer of Love, a psychedelic band from around 1965 to the early ’70s. As you’re reading the story of this supposedly peaceful hippie band, it’s revealed that at times members of the group supported themselves by holding up liquor stores!

Under a Hoodoo Moon” (1994) by Dr. John is an absolute classic. His autobiography traces an incredible firsthand journey of the invention of early rock and its divergent influences. It’s a very honest, raw and unfiltered life journey. When that book arrived in my mailbox, it looked like it had been hand-printed at Staples — very lo-fi. Currently I’m reading “The Power Broker” (by Robert Caro, 1974), a book on Robert Moses and his Machiavellian manipulation of New York City through urban planning.

We’re living in a revolution of self-publishing, whether its streaming, social media or any other new distribution model. The architecture of information is immediate and it’s moving at light speed. At times, we can get lost in this jungle of information. But we can also discover some amazing new creations that are like crystals glowing in the night.

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