Artist Doug Aitken Wants to Make Something That Has Never Been Made Before

”We’re all creating, all the time, everyone in their own ways.”

Artist and filmmaker Doug Aitken is heading back to his alma mater this weekend, to pick up a pretty big trophy. ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, where Aitken received his BFA in 1991, is honoring him with their prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Aitken’s work has been shown all over the world, and defies genre. It’s often large-scale, incorporates photography, sculpture, sound, and video, and manifests in the forms of installations, architectural interventions, and time-based media. Much of the work is centered on the idea of “fluidity.”

doug aitken carmen ellis
Doug Aitken

Photo: Carmen Ellis

His Sleepwalkers exhibit in 2007 transformed a New York City block by covering MoMA’s walls with projections. In 2009, Aitken’s Sonic Pavillion was set in a Brazilian hilltop building where listeners could hear the sounds from hundreds of meters below the earth via geographic microphone. His Frontier was a video installation/live theater performance that took place on a floating barge. For Station to Station in 2013, he turned a train into a moving light sculpture and artist performance space, traveling from East to West coasts over three weeks.

We caught up with Aitken to chat about his work and new award, just as he opened a new show at London’s Victoria Miro. The subject: how relationships change in an age dominated by technology.

How do you feel about getting a “lifetime achievement award”–at the age of 51–from ArtCenter, your alma mater?

Really surprised! It came out of left field! Of course I’m grateful and all those things. For me school was a place of radical experimentation. I wasn’t interested in single focus or major. ArtCenter’s kind of a trade school in its way, with all of these different subjects. Car design! Animation! Architecture! I learned how to navigate the system in a non-linear way

Would you say that’s why your work is so multi-disciplinary and non-linear in itself? 

It definitely widened the palate of the way I could work. The segregation between the arts seems fairly unnatural. “Electronic music” is separated from “classical,” but everything’s always crossing over continuously. Someone at 18 now is likely using an iPhone or a computer to make art. But when we adults look at tech, we prefer to see it as a totally separate practice. These divisions will erode over time. At the time I spent at ArtCenter, I was a bit rogue, I think. I think I was using the school as opposed to letting the school use you.

You work outside the confines of galleries and museums, mostly.

There’s room for everything. We’re in an interesting moment in time. Art has mostly been confined to white walls in a museum or gallery. So now, what is the role of the museum? Where do we go from here? What happens when artwork creates its own location, the natural environment? I’m very interested in the question of how to show art. It’s an evolution for myself. I don’t have a body of work, but an ecosystem of work. Artists can create something new with the ocean or the sky–or within a museum space. I’m personally very addicted to what hasn’t existed! If I can put my energy to what doesn’t exist yet, that’s my goal.

Everyone’s been talking about the evolution of L.A. to major cultural city, when it was historically considered “shallow” by some. Thoughts?

Los Angeles is a fascinating city. It has a rich cultural history but the root system is very shallow. We’ve had a 50 or 80 year span, but we don’t have a Renaissance or a Rococo as cultural landmarks. L.A. has film, punk rock, street culture. These things can be seen as relatively shallow, but they have a deep impact on contemporary culture. L.A.’s essential strength is in creating newness, a sense of provocation, youth, rebellion. We’re a port. Our object of transport is to radiate images throughout the world. The depth of it has been neglected for a long time. It’s a flat sprawling landscape, which makes it hard here to define who you are and where you are. The refresh rate is fast. The newness is rampant. But that’s what makes it so creative and so alive.

You use technology as part of your work, to help make a statement about how tech can confuse our identities. But doesn’t all that dealing in tech make your head spin?

Yes! (Laughs) Yeah! Technology is limitless. We need to use technology, tech shouldn’t use us. If you follow that mantra, then tech is only in service to a question, as opposed to defining yourself by the technology.

You’ve spoken of this idea that, within the context of art, “it’s impossible to fail.” But Western culture does not relate to that!

I just have always felt like that. I’m draw to the magnetism of making something because it’s new. It’s a foreign territory. I can’t imagine having a routine, I’d rather just walk away. That sense of the unknown, of what’s foreign,  that’s why you do it. 

Art is an extension of not just what you make, it’s symbiotic with living, breathing, thinking, talking. We’re all creating all the time, everyone in their own ways. The use of language is a form of navigating and learning. It provokes you to look within yourself, to question something you thought you knew. It’s an incredible value in our society, which is so fast and so flat. If you can see an artwork and it stops your timecode, you can find a self-changing perception. And what I love the most is you never know where you’re going to find it. It can be taking the day off. A road trip. In art. Or in fashion. We’re talking about creating. That includes everything.

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