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Doug Aitken

The American artist cuts up the boundaries between art, architecture and sound for his ambitious Altered Earth project

Rooted in the divergent landscape of Southern France’s Camargue region, US artist Doug Aitken has set up one of his most ambitious installations to date: Altered Earth. A reputation for cutting paths and making headway through a multi-media wilderness, he blurs the boundaries between art, architecture, landscape and sound. Four years in the making, Altered Earth sees twelve double sided screens, each two-storey high, purposefully placed within the landscape; creating an enormous labyrinth of moving images that the viewer can walk through or view from a distance. In an inspired collaboration, legendary musician Terry Riley performed a specially created soundtrack for the exhibition’s opening night on Saturday 20th October.

Dazed Digital chatted to Doug Aitken about putting this phenomenal project together.

Dazed Digital: What were the first ideas behind Altered Earth?
Doug Aitken:
 It’s an earth work that is looking at the tradition of earth works in the 60s and 70s. In that period you had Spiral Jetty or Lightening Field, pieces that might be in a remote part of the desert; they’re physical and sculptural. I felt I wanted to do a work that addressed a new vision of reality; what I considered was a more contemporary or 21st century vision of reality where there’s very little space between fiction and non-fiction. It’s almost like we’re living in this landscape that’s a continuously changing hologram.

DD: Why did you feel Camargue in France was right for Altered Earth?
Doug Aitken:
 The landscape felt like an hallucinatory crossroads to me; it’s this extreme contrast. You have Nazi bunkers that have been reclaimed by indigenous animals. You have huge brackish salt mines with five-storey high pyramids of salt baking in the sun. You have wild horses moving around. I was interested in seeing these contrasts where you have deep nature, deep ecology, coming into stark contrast with the modern world. It creates a 2001: Space Odyssey type quality in the landscape.

DD: Though you’re a multi-media artist, do you consider an obsession with smart phones the antithesis of your work?
Doug Aitken:
 There’s an expanding world, but there’s also a flattening world. There’s much more information, but all that information’s seen on a small flat screen, that you can’t really have that physical encounter with. That really strikes a chord with Altered Earth. I really want to make this work - out of this specific landscape - and I only ever want to show it in that landscape. The work will never travel to other museums, it will never travel to other countries or other regions, it will only be there. So for the individual to see it, they have to go into the landscape to encounter this work which comes from this landscape.

DD: How do you work to connect with new ways of interacting with technology then?
Doug Aitken:
 It’s about simultaneity. Altered Earth is an enormous hallucinogenic work. At the same time, thinking about the duality, we made this Altered Earth app that we’re releasing next week that we’re giving away free. It’s really an artwork in app form and it takes most of the content of this work and creates more of an electronic landscape to let one move through. I like the idea that there’s nothing to hold onto, there’s no physicality to it, it’s just this code moving through the airwaves. It’s this contrast between this extreme super physical installation and this other thing that’s completely ubiquitous.

DD: Did you see Terry Riley as being exceptionally relevant to this project?
Doug Aitken:
 Yes, I think he’s the most relevant living musician. It’s just incredible the experimentation he’s done; he’s in his late 80s now. He brought more to the table that I ever expected. We were talking about physical structures; I’m very interested by the musical structure in his work, the actual architecture within the sound. I found that to be incredibly valuable for me, more so than visual artists I can think of.

DD: How is collaboration central to your work?
Doug Aitken:
 I think that’s one of the purposes of art, to create a bridge and dialogue. There are certain walks you make that are completely insular, that you make yourself, and you put it up there and hope that bridge happens with the viewer. And I think there’s other kinds of works, however, where you’re allowing the work itself to open up, and you’re allowing the process of making the work to be shared with others. That to me is a very interesting territory.

Altered Earth runs from October 20 — November 20