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

Artist Doug Aitken Says Life Is a Film and We're All Directing

Doug Aitken wants to put reality into question in his new show on the origins of the cell phone, now on view at 303 Gallery.

by Sarah Valdez
Apr 17 2018, 4:10pm

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

New Era, Doug Aitken’s first exhibition in New York in five years, explores the advent of the cell phone and its planet-changing inventor, Martin Cooper, as well as our obsession with screens and the future of connectivity—all in a selfie-worthy, immersive environment. For better and worse, he sheds light on the lines between our actual surroundings and the onscreen landscapes that inform our mental and spiritual realities: where we’re going and where we’ve been with our little devices.

GARAGE: Your new work starts out with a long shot of a Motorola phone, one of the first cell phones, so uncannily resembling the Empire State Building in Andy Warhol’s Empire—which he said was all about time passing. You do a lot with patience and time in your work. Can you say a bit about this?

Doug Aitken: The analogy you made between the Empire State building and the cell phone is very interesting. Both of these are icons of different periods of time, and profound symbols of change. One concrete, glass and monumental and the other, the cell phone, intended to be tiny and de-material. I think we’re moving into a direction that’s increasingly de-material, a future that is about complete connectivity with less and less focus the physical and tactile.

In Warhol’s Empire from 1964, the film is not only about the power of duration, but the idea that whatever was on the screen you would watch because it was a representation of the real, and at that time the film image was more interesting than reality.

Unlike Warhol’s Empire, we no longer are struck and amazed by the screen itself; instead, we are inside the screen. This is what the cell phone has done: it’s the screen each of us carries always and everywhere. The screen-world is no longer our escape from the physical world. Today, it’s all one. The cinema as we knew it is gone. We are living in a landscape now that strangely doubles as a film set for all of us.

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

You were in touch with Martin Cooper, the inventor of the first cell phone, for your new work. How was it interacting with him? Did he know he’d invented something as culture-changing as the atomic bomb?

When we think about technology, we see it as anonymous, something that was just made somehow, that feels beyond the touch of human hands.

One day I was sitting at a wood table with the contents of my pocket strewn out, I looked to my phone, and I thought…did a person really make this…who and why? The question led to finding Martin Cooper. Creating New Era was a journey of questions, such as: Where are we going from here? When I spoke to him, it was amazing to think that there was a person out there, a gentle, intelligent, bearded 89-year-old man who is responsible for this. I thought it was important to re-humanize these tools that we use. Tools that have changed our way of seeing the world. It’s important to connect them back to the human trajectory.

What you’ve done with graphics here is new for you, as far as I know. I know you’ve, for instance, brought wild creatures indoors so their miraculous features are full frontal. The patterns you’re bringing out in computer chips remind me of the way you deal with owl feathers. What about the age-old question of human versus nature?

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 at other moments it slows down to a very human and vulnerable pace, and these are the moments when we see Martin, the inventor. In some ways, New Era takes you to the edge of a horizon and questions what is beyond.

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

We’re in the age of Instagram and social media. Our cell phones do so much to transmit images, which is part of why the old Motorla is such an artifact. How do you incorporate the new technology into your work? Do you want people taking selfies in your new show?

To me, what’s interesting about that is the confluence of images, the sheer quantity in which images are not only made but also disseminated. I read that last year more images were created in the year than the history of humankind. This changes how we see and what we value. Do we value images in the same way when we know they are replaced almost immediately? Do we believe images as really the carriers of news and integrity when we know how mercurial they are? And how does art move in this fast-flowing river? Is the wave of selfies and image sharing really an existential way of reminding us we are actually here on earth and actually exist in living flesh and blood?

It seems at times like life is the film…and we are all in it together, while at the same time each of us is directing our own live version.

In art, as we move forward, I think the viewer’s role will change and be less passive. There will be new forms of art-making that will be living and continuously changing and interactive. There will be art that we will experience and live with. Art we will have continuously changing dialogues with. It’s important we change the way we see art and find alternatives beyond the traditional role of the viewer as voyeur, who sees the artwork as passive and with an invisible distance judges it from afar.

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

As an artist, you’re into cross-disciplinary practices. You seem to often be bringing the outdoors indoors, making work that makes people in the art world think you’ve kind of lost your mind. I’m not in that camp. But what do you think of that?

Well, as they say: “a mind blown is a mind shown.”

Currently there is a separation between all the mediums, music, art, architecture, performance and everything else. It’s as if they have each become their own cultural fiefdoms. But when you sit with a friend over dinner, you have a conversation and talk about many different mediums at once because it’s all really one cloud. I think if we look into the future we won’t see such segregation between mediums.

There is such an incredible history of poly media creators…From Iannis Xenakis, a formal architect who started turning his architecture into avant-garde music to Walter De Maria, a classically trained musician who went on to innovate Land Art and make pieces like Lightning Fields.

You’ve been accused of putting reality into question. Do you agree with this, and if so, why would you do such a thing?

Yes, I hope I am guilty of that. My ears are restless, my mind can’t sleep, I can’t get enough, there's always more…but always too little time to experience it.

New Era will be on view at 303 Gallery in New York April 13–May 25 and Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Zurich June 9-June 21.

Doug Aitken
cell phones