Sound and Image, Self and Place
Interview with Doug Aitken [June 04, 1997]
by Dike Blair
@ a parked car in Chelsea, NYC

Doug Aitken's art doesn't lend itself to a quick take or easy explanation and whenever the work appears to have settled in a stylistic groove, one should prepare to hit a scratch and jump tracks. Aitken creates installations which variously combine film, video, photographs, light and sound; and last spring he presented three new ones at 303 Gallery in NYC. In the basement was a strip of blue landing lights with the ambient sounds of LAX. Another was Cathouse; a room-size, kitty scratch box with carpeted walls into which were inset three monitors showing three people making repetitive and tense gestures. In the main gallery was the center piece of the show, Diamond Sea--an installation of multiple video projections and multi-channel sound. To make it, Aitken traveled to the Namibian desert to a restricted diamond mine where he spent six weeks looking for sound and image. The result has the production values of a National Geographic special and the sensory rush of an IMAX film. Ostensibly the subject is a spectacular near-lunar landscape juxtaposed with machines and a palpable absence of man. But the subject is also the artist and his process. Aitken generously provides viewers with a sensory rich hyper place and allows them to sit behind his eyes and wander around his cranium while he constructs his narrative of self and place.

Aitken also works commercially in film, video and photography. One might see his work, but not necessarily notice his name, in rock videos or magazines like Ray Gun. The film Fury Eyes (1994, originally an installation) has a lipstick cam view of motorcycle racer, Ron Fringer, attempting a speed of 190 MPH intercut with images of Cindy Crawford in her fitness video that Aitken was shooting at a nearby location in the California desert. While his art reflects his sense of style and technical ability, it is more "experimental" than most low-tech video/filmmakers to whom that label is applied. He takes risks and his results can be uneven; but because he questions everything, particularly himself, there are no failures only ambitious, provocative, beautiful and thoughtful experiments.

Dike Blair: You do video installation but I notice that you also make "linear" versions--What's the difference?

Doug Aitken: They present different challenges. I often gravitate toward creating environments and I'm continuously curious about how to experiment and push that further in terms of creating something that's integrated into architecture and is a bit more experiential than just linear film. They're two different pieces really.

Dike Blair: Even though we see video, most of your stuff is shot on film?

Doug Aitken: Pretty much everything I do is shot on film--I'm attracted to film for several reasons; I like the idea of "light," that light is going through a series of optics and burning itself directly into the emulsion. I find that fascinating and don't find that same quality in video. However, with film there's are a lot of variables like the optics, the kind of projector and the environment its in; so I like film for shooting and editing but after that point I want something that's pure data.

Dike Blair: How does your commercial work influence the art?

Doug Aitken: There's always a cross-pollination at work. I find the commercial world fascinating. It's incredible that something you spend a week on is suddenly reaching 2 million viewers. It's something that's so foreign to the art world. But I think the art world needs to confront the idea of communication more. I think that's the question of late 20th Century art, "How much worth do you want to give communication." The art world is in competition with a number of different media--music, film and television--that are moving ahead at warp speed. They're pretty streamlined but they lack the essential thing which is content.

Dike Blair: Would you toss the commercial work if the art world wanted to fully support you?

Doug Aitken: I don't really see a rupture. I don't feel like I'm doing the commercial work just for money. I see it all as a bleed.

Dike Blair: You abstract yourself--you create something commercially then you divorce yourself from yourself and use that info?

Doug Aitken: I know what you're getting at. I think it's an interesting challenge to attempt to invisibly disseminate yourself into the media. Specifically talking about the media, I find myself continuously trying to subvert things. Maybe that's why my interest doesn't wane.

Dike Blair: You don't seem concerned with an "Aitken" look.

Doug Aitken: Well, my "look" would probably be neurotic (laughter).

Dike Blair: Cat House seemed to be about neurosis. It seemed to be the inside of a skull. One of the monitors shows Iggy Pop sitting in a chair--for me, after recognizing him, the rest of the piece disappeared. What was your thinking in using a celebrity.

Doug Aitken: I was interested in bringing in a character like that, in some respects, simply for that reason. I wanted to experiment with taking someone who's information is universal, or certainly more known than your usual actor, and putting them in a quiet moment when they're not feeding off their persona or doing what they're known to do. And then putting them through this sterile, repetitive action. It was an experiment. That is one thing I can say for my work, I'm interested in experimenting--I'm not looking for a "look" I'm looking to explore concepts.

Dike Blair: You seem attracted to coiled power, Iggy, Ron Fringer (motorcycle racer), the rocket, certain things . . .

Doug Aitken: There's a woman that looks like Nico--look at her face. (In response to a passing pedestrian.)

Dike Blair: You seem to be a catalogue of technique. My sense of it is that you use different forms as empty vessels that you fill with "you."

Doug Aitken: I definitely believe in that. Esthetics have always been secondary for me. I want to have the freedom to move freely throughout the media and to adapt and adopt esthetics and genres that I find and to make them my own. I want there to be a nucleus, a core concept, that will link the work together. I also hope that my body of work poses a question. I find myself always moving away from something that is close-ended.

Dike Blair: You do a lot of your own sound?

Doug Aitken: Yeah, in some situations and in others I collaborate. There's a number of ambient musicians that I work with on these projects. I've been experimenting more and more with trying to create hybrid sounds. Soundscapes and sound pieces that reflect the process of making the work. I'm moving away from having image and sound smashed together.

Dike Blair: The Diamond Sea installation was very seductive, it had a club like atmosphere.

Doug Aitken: You're describing entertainment and that comes back to the idea of environment. I make a conscious decision to pull the viewer in and to give them something on a visceral level. Just because we're in the art world do we not edit things? Do we just put the camera on a tripod and let it sit there? Do we just make the same early 80's video art that we've seen a million times because that's the look it's supposed to have? I find myself really disinterested in that. I want to give the viewer something that they will find provocative on an aesthetic level, something to make the attention they give worth their while. I ultimately want depth and questioning and something more elusive.