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Doug Aitken on Art

As the California-based artist presents PA, an annual photographic art magazine, Aitken talks inspiration, insomnia and images with Dazed Digital

Working with film, photography, installation, architecture, design and text, to name just a few of his approaches, and having collaborated with Tilda Swinton, Donald Sutherland, Cat Power, Werner Herzog, Ed Ruscha, Rem Koolhaus and Robert Altman, amongst many others, Doug Aitken is both an avid collaborator and incredibly prolific. While his work comes in many forms there is a similar tone and register throughout that exudes a sense of displacement and a dreamlike aesthetic. He has exhibited in museums, institutes and at high profile events internationally, including the Venice Biennale, the Whitney and Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Pompidou Centre, Paris, during his 30-year career. Doug’s recent work, a contribution of over sixty images to photographic art annual PA Magazine is a beautiful set of photographs, shot over a ten-year period, that locates the viewer in his hazy, warm, pastel-coloured vision of a city that seems something like L.A, but is in fact a composite of many cities worldwide. Shot on the fly, rarely, if ever, set up, the pictures engulf the viewer in a compelling yet evasive narrative that draws you in and leaves you desperately searching for more.

Dazed Digital: What first inspired you to create artwork?
Doug Aitken: I have always just made things. I don’t see what I make as being defined by a medium or aesthetic. It probably comes more from a fundamental restlessness, an attempt to create tools for questioning, or understanding and I have always been interested in using a wide spectrum of mediums to do this. By my nature I love the non-linear aspect of art making, a dialogue that you have with someone in a taxi can suddenly become a film a week later. I like it when things move fast and intuitively. I find myself making works out of necessity to get closer to an understanding, or to use art making to dig into a question; into something that’s elusive and evasive to me.  

DD: Do you define an idea for each project or do you have a constant theme you are discussing that runs through all your projects?
Doug Aitken: I think one thing leads to another. Creating for me has never been premeditated. You have concepts that you follow and ideas that you investigate through various projects. There is a natural link between each work, simply by the nature of thought process.

DD: So do you see your work as asking or answering?
Doug Aitken: Definitely asking. I really don’t believe that there is a way of art giving a complete truth, ultimately I don’t believe that a complete truth exists. For me it’s interesting when ideas are being provoked and questions being proposed. I love art that haunts me, that stays with me, that is left embedded in my mind. I don’t really think there is any use for owning or collecting art; it is more about remembering and preserving it in the minds eye and allowing it into your cultural DNA. Really what is valuable about a piece of art is viewing it as an energy source, a reverberation and resonance.

DD: You work across many platforms, film, photography, installation and architecture. Is there one way of working that you have a preference for?
Doug Aitken: I like insomnia. That is my current preference.

DD: Where do your ideas stem from?
Doug Aitken: I find myself making things out of necessity, the necessity to get closer to the understanding of something, or to use art making to dig into a question that is elusive and evasive. I see the works I make as an attempt to create a series of tools, that in the ideal scenario you are offering to the viewer, to help them obtain a further understanding. It’s that idea that inspires me.

DD: There is a dream like quality in parts of your work, a sense that you are looking at a hazy memory. What are you trying to convey in these images?
Doug Aitken: I think the visual landscape that you’re referring to is a kind of in-between space. I am much more interested in the process than the destination. Those images are not about decisive moments.  I am fascinated by the indecisive moment and the peripheral view.

DD: In your multiple screen/multiple narrative film Sleepwalkers you worked with Tilda Swinton, Cat Power and Donald Sutherland, amongst others. What made you approach them?
Doug Aitken: I used a variety of people in Sleepwalkers, some were well known, others not. The roles they played were not about a narrative or a persona, but instead an emotional landscape. Each story was about an individual that increasingly vanished into the world around them. I chose each person because they fitted the character, and understood the role. My initial phone call with Tilda had an awkward moment when she asked “Why me? Why not another actress or a real office worker?” I replied by saying, “Actually I don’t want you, I want you to disappear,” She immediately said she wanted to do it. She understood the project then in a way where we never had to speak about it again.
DD: As well as the visual work you have made, you also create work by conducting artists interviews. Is it important for you to collaborate in this way, to create discussions?
Doug Aitken: I love it; it’s like life force to me. It’s nourishing to have those dialogues and to open up ideas, or help bring exposure to diverse and creative people. The first project that allowed me to do that was the book of conversations and the “happenings” titled Broken Screen. With this project I wanted to explore how time moves, and how time is perceived, its non-linearity and fragmentation. It’s something I’ve always been fascinated by and that project allowed me to begin collecting dialogues with different individuals surrounding this idea. The 20th century is a period defined by cultural and artistic movements. However, the 21st century creative-scape that we occupy now doesn’t really have movements in the same way. Instead it’s made up of diverse individuals working across various platforms simultaneously; art, architecture, film, music and literature. I’m excited by working in a way that allows you to draw a thread through all these different modes of creativity.

DD: As an artist you are incredibly prolific. What is it that drives you to constantly keep making?
Doug Aitken: The easy answer would be mortality but ultimately, making art, is just what I do. It’s not really anything special; one thing leads to another and there is synchronicity. We could be having this conversation now, and then, later, be driving through the desert together to make a film. I thrive off those experiences and I think the more open you are to exchange and flow, the more the creative electricity moves. I see life as a burning meteorite that you can climb all over, and feed off, as it is falling to earth.

See the May issue of Dazed & Confused for an interview with Doug Aitken about his PA Magazine