Inspired by movement, by the ebb and flow of human history, but perhaps most of all the here and now—like, right now—Doug Aitken is the kind of artist whose goal is to shake things up. Less in the sense of the provocateur (though his work, in terms of scale alone, is avant-garde), than in the tradition of radical purists like Werner Herzog and Caravaggio, he aims to excite with beauty the primal state of humans, that is, the ecstatic wonderment that comes with being totally immersed in the moment. Station to Station, his biggest body of work, began as a happening wherein fellow artists, including Olafur Eliasson, Nam June Paik, Beck, and dozens more created art, music, science—culture, in its broadest sense—aboard a cross-country train. Then, it was a massive multidisciplinary installation at London's Barbican Centre. In 2015, it premiered as a feature film comprised of 62 individual, minute-long films.
Aitken is a gatherer, in the broadest sense, bringing people, places, and even history itself into conversation. Thus at last month's Symposium Stockholm, a two-day conference devoted to new ideas, new technologies, and the people bringing them to life, he was the perfect speaker, both on his own and in a panel discussion with Laura Brown of Harper’s Bazaar, Daniel Birnbaum of Moderna Museet, artist Jordan Wolfson, and Staffan Ahrenberg of Cahiers d’Art. Following invigorating back-to-back talks, The Creators Project caught up with Doug Aitken to talk mystery, dead tech, and the importance of experiencing things at their most irreducible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Creators Project: A lot of what you get at big conferences involves projecting an image, like a certain sort of startup prestige and new world-new money ‘keeping up with the Joneses’-ing. There’s also this top-down thing that happens, where it’s like, “We’re going to decide what the future looks like.” [At Symposium Stockholm], it’s more like, “Let’s figure out how to make and share this future with as many people as possible.”
Doug Aitken: A lot of times what we receive in culture is the finished project. You go to a museum and see a show; you hear the digital song released; but you don’t really have any understanding of where it came from—the architectural idea, the network tapestry of influences that create one singular thing. That’s, more often than not, not part of the discourse when you talk about symposiums or lectures, because they become like these, like, synthetic touring circuses, these talks that are so formulaic, and you kind of imagine the people sitting for hours in their bedrooms in front of their mirrors perfecting their hand gestures. In the end, it’s such bullshit, because you don’t have that space for randomness to come up, or spontaneity. Maybe that’s the thing that can happen here—maybe this is a little bit looser, and because it’s more coming from a city, and there’s a root system, there’s a possibility for something that has a little more friction to it.
Do you do a lot of thinking about the future?
That’s an interesting question. I think it’s hard to answer, because there is no future. There’s only today. I don’t think about the future so much as the present, but I really try to think about the present. To create artwork is a strange system where part of it is intuition, part of it is muscle memory, and part of it is curiosity. You’re constantly weaving these things across each other, and that creates the path for experimentation, or trying to create a new language within a work. The idea of the future, like setting out to make something new for the future, for me, seems a little bit daunting. But I love the idea that everything around you is a possibility; everything is electric, and everything is electrifying in its potentiality to be something—to be a nutrient for an organic idea.
Do you feel like technology is a means to an end?
Technology for me is just a set of constantly evolving tools, and I think it’s important to recognize that without the voice of the individual, the tools are nothing. The idea of a kind of Darwinism fascinates me because you see, right now more than ever, this sort of influx of new tools, new software, new hardware, like every season, every month. Where do the tools go that aren’t used? There must be this entire continent that’s just a cemetery, a tech junkyard.
There are actually a couple all over the world.
In China and Central Africa…
And one in Brazil, too. A massive tech dump. It’s crazy.
We’ve kind of created this landscape that’s infinite and endless, so if you don’t use it, it just goes out there and it just floats away. The whole system of technology is like a hologram: it presents itself to be real, but if you don’t turn it on, you don’t use it, eventually it vanishes.
Sort of vanishes, though… Right now there are more cars than people, and that was already the case, like, 15 years ago.
Cars design the city, you know? What does it take for a 150lb human to require a car that weighs a thousand pounds? That’s technology. You think about the idea of artists and technology: there’s a relationship with technology at almost every juncture of the history of art, whether it’s Leonardo da Vinci working on perspective or a flying machine, or like these audacious proposals for urban planning, or it’s Caravaggio creating layers of black to create a greater sense of depth. We love to think of ourselves as being the alpha race in the present, but there’s this incredible trajectory which is ongoing, which is always kind of this investigation into how to penetrate the real, how to get at something that is more real. We’re always trying to understand that we’re actually here, we’re breathing, and we’re touching, but our minds are somewhere else. I think that the disconnect between the physical self and the psychological self is a lot of what brings on the creation of all of the things we’re talking about here.
So, one big tech industry buzz-term is ‘radical transparency,’ this idea that a startup, for instance, show you exactly what it’s doing, tell you everything. The goal is that the corporations of the future will allow consumers to know exactly what’s going on within them. Art itself is inherently radically transparent, but I think it enables the artist to not have to be. Can you tell me a bit about how mystery, and the idea of concealed wonderment, has guided your process?
It’s hard a question to answer, because I don’t really have one. I think every work you make is different; every one generates its own branch, its own dialogue. But, all that aside, what I look for in an artwork, when I see someone create something, when I’m blind and I open the door to that museum, I look for disruption, for something that disrupts familiar patterns and awakens me. Something that lodges me in the present. Earlier in our conversation we were talking about the idea of the now, the idea of the present, and I think that’s such a such a valuable commodity. It’s so rare that we’re actually able to engage something in absolute real time.
In some ways, technology is creating tools that purport to help us be in the present, but do they really, or do they take us somewhere else? Or do they take our minds somewhere else? For me, that’s the most interesting thing about the processes of art making: to have that moment where there’s this complete engagement and there’s nothing else. Everything else just falls away, and that can be a nanosecond, or that can be hours when you’re lost in something, but in the end, you take those experiences away and they become like your DNA. 10 years later, or three months later, you reference back on that moment, on that encounter, and that, like DNA, is what allows you to grow.
Lastly, what are you working on these days?
We’re actually doing this really large show in Los Angeles in September. It’s a very experimental show in the sense that I’ve been holding off on doing a museum show in North America for awhile. I just wanna make new work, instead of doing something as a collection. Finally, I thought about it and I had this idea for the show we’re gonna do at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. It’s a huge, empty space. I thought about it, and I thought, often when you go inside a museum, you walk inside, and it’s you and a series of works. The place is lit, you judge which artwork you want to have a relationship with, and you walk over to it, for example. But I thought, What if you abort that? What if you open the door to the museum, and suddenly there’s no sense of place, no sense of time? You just walk in and those things are erased completely, and you’re on this living soundstage, like the entire museum becomes a soundstage, a set of ideas and encounters, and there’s no one way to go, and the viewer is completely empowered on their own to make their own narrative, create their own experience out of it—that’s what we’re doing. We’re gonna take the whole entire Geffen Contemporary at MOCA and create this sequence of works and encounters.
In some situations, there’s like a tiny door that you have to find and you go through, and it might be to an entire installation. In other areas, we’re cutting open the museum floor and turning it into a waterfall that’s pouring through the museum roof, with underwater microphones. In other parts, we’re creating these moving-image billboards, this kaleidoscope of different encounters. But the idea goes back to what we were talking about: Is it possible to create a structure that allows a viewer to really leave himself, and be in direct confrontation with their own making?