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Doug Aitken on his psychedelic trip through the skies of Massachusetts

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Doug Aitken on his psychedelic trip through the skies of Massachusetts

New Horizon follows a mirror-surfaced hot-air balloon through the wilds of America, with six different landings acting as a beacon for new imaginings of the future

Throughout July, a glistening, reflective hot air balloon will float through the skies of Massachusetts, touching down at six points across the state over a period of nearly three weeks. Each landing takes place at a different magical location, acting as a springboard for conversation, performance, and the emergence of new ideas. 

On this journey, pop culture’s most creative thinkers collide with technologists, climate experts, and humanists, an alchemy that aims to help imagine the future of our culture across politics and pop. New Horizon – the brainchild of contemporary artist Doug Aitken – is a road trip back into the Earth.

The project has been created with the help of The Trustees, America’s oldest land preservation organisation, a group of people who protect and preserve 117 locations across Massachusetts. The lineup for the three-week series of happenings is as spectacular as it is diverse – think Kelsey Lu performing on the beautiful Long Point beachfront at Martha’s Vineyard, followed by an open-air discussion on the future of climate.

For the duration of the project, Dazed’s A Future World will be there to capture the madness and the beauty of New Horizon. To begin, we caught up with Doug Aitken to talk about hot air balloons, a global psychedelic renaissance, and what he believes to be the future of creativity. 

Let’s talk about the mirror-surfaced hot air balloon. Tell me where that idea came from, and what it represents to you in the context of New Horizon.

Doug Aitken: With this project I was looking at creating an artwork in the landscape that could change continuously. I wanted to create something that’s not static, that’s not just artwork that’s sitting in nature, or in a field. I started to think ‘is there a way to create artwork that is nomadic? Something without a place, or in perpetual motion?’  

That idea was something that was eating at me for a while, and it was something I was trying to resolve. Then I thought maybe one way to do this is to create a piece of artwork that could fly. Then the artwork can move from place to place and the journey becomes a part of the narrative too. The process of motion, of moving across a landscape, each of these places can become a lighthouse, a beacon of light for a short period of time before it flies to the next place. It was a very organic project, there was nothing about New Horizon that was premeditated. It was more a series of questions that I was trying to solve and a search to create a new narrative.

New Horizon is a road trip of the future. It’s not an homage to the past in the sense of discovering lost towns and reconnecting with a forgotten landscape. Instead, it’s looking at this idea of ‘where are we going?’” – Doug Aitken

In 2013 you did your Station To Station project, and this very much captures the essence and spirit of the American road trip. What does the idea of the road trip mean to you?

Doug Aitken: New Horizon is a road trip of the future. It’s not an homage of the past in the sense of discovering lost towns and reconnecting with a forgotten landscape. Instead, it’s looking at this idea of ‘where are we going? And how do we see ourselves when moving towards this new landscape, or the future?’ 

Much of the conversations within the project really address this, they speak to those questions. I wanted to do something that wasn’t didactic, not like a series of rehearsed talks or anything literal in that sense. But something more like a turbine of ideas and voices, and within that turbine are radical juxtapositions, abstract things, like for example, improvisational music performances, followed by an amazing scientific conversation about global warming. To me, it’s most interesting when I see unexpected connections, or a collision of ideas.

What do you think the future of creativity is?

Doug Aitken: That’s a very good question but I don’t think that there is one answer. We’re coming into a time where things are becoming increasingly dematerial. Where there is a sense of light-speed connectivity. For example, when looking back at art in the 1960s/70s with the birth of conceptual art, so many of those artists were trying to develop art forms that could be using as little form and mass as possible. We as a society now have come closer to that than ever, and we’ve created new tools to show these ideas but without the physical bulk. And these tools will be very relevant as we move forward.

Is there an iconic road trip of your youth that has had a lasting impact on you? Or a seminal moment that has greatly developed you as an artist or person?

Doug Aitken: I was always restless. I could never sit still. I wanted to move on, to discover places I knew nothing about. So, the idea of seeking out “the other” feels absolutely essential. I think in a lot of ways there is something that happens when you find yourself open, and your guard is down, and everything becomes new and electric. Even the most minute details. This  kind of disruption allows you to live in the present and engage with the moment.

The lineup that you’ve assembled with New Horizon is incredible, particularly the musicians involved such as Kelsey Lu, Mac Demarco, Julianna Barwick, and Destroyer. What do these artists mean to you, and how did they get involved?

Doug Aitken: It’s a very diverse lineup, which was a conscious effort. Something that wasn’t led by a genre, and really looks at the idea of individuality. Sonically, these musicians are looking at their own paths and are open to the idea of improvisation. So many of these musicians started with the question ‘would it be OK if I just improvised?’ and I love that idea – taking ownership of this really bizarre and unique situation in New Horizon. There’s this idea that these people can play off the landscape, their surroundings, and create a psychological interpretation out of a landscape. This, so to speak, really turns me on because the project is very much about openness and expansion. This is not a lecture or a conference, this is a journey and one without a safety net.

What do you hope to be the result of all this?

Doug Aitken: If New Horizon can sculpt a moment in time, and collage it together in a new way, if it can create a kaleidoscope of ideas and voices that are somehow unique and fresh, then that would be more than enough. In many ways, it’s a de-material artwork; it doesn’t need to be physical or on a wall, in a gallery, it’s something that can just live in a moment of time.

This is a project that is very much wedded to the environment, and in 2019 people seem to be thinking about the world in a really spiritual sense. How inspired are you by the new generation of climate activists?

Doug Aitken: It’s incredible and it’s also so very needed. The future is in the youth of today and they have voices that have to be heard. So when we look around and see this post-apocalyptic landscape full of debris and decay, how do we change this? Change happens within changing structure, within developing new patterns. Creating an awareness where there was none.

“The future is in the youth of today and they have voices that have to be heard. So when we look around and see this post-apocalyptic landscape full of debris and decay, how do we change this?” – Doug Aitken

I think there’s been a recent psychedelic renaissance – in the way that people connect with the world, and also in terms of what drugs they’re taking. New Horizon certainly feels psychedelic – what do you think is behind this renewed taste for tripping?

Doug Aitken: If you look at the last 20 years where we’ve come from a physically tactile and material world, we’ve become increasingly digital which has just accelerated and accelerated. A paragraph used to be sufficient to read, then it was a sentence, and now its a word, or an emoji or an image. 

This reduction and speed in which we’re living in is almost like a tunnel that’s getting narrower and narrower and the flow inside it is moving faster and faster. What I think has happened as a result  is that as we look toward the end of this tunnel we’re coming out with an extreme desire for the physical, tactile world. We want the new real! 

There’s a desire for experience, touching the earth or going off the grid, or something experiential in a very physical natural way. There’s a desire for that which almost feels like a rebirth, and it’s a result of this acceleration. It’s a form of resistance, whether it is conscious or unconscious and a project like New Horizon is a part of that discourse. We want something that is out there; we want to be in a tall grass field tonight under a full moon, or a salt water estuary watching the sunset over sand dunes. In New Horizon we don’t know what‘s going to happen. And when the sculpture takes off in the air, we don’t know where it will land. With this project, we don’t have all the answers and details, and that is part of the proposal.

Why Massachusetts? Is there a specific reason that you wanted to base the project there?

Doug Aitken: There were a couple of reasons really. What I really liked was the idea that we could start the project on this island by the Atlantic Ocean, and then move West from there. The other practical reason – something I’m very grateful for – is that we’re doing this project with a conservation group called The Trustees – the oldest land conservation group in the world. It’s a collective which has I think over 120 different pieces of land they preserve so we’re doing this with an ecological group which has historical significance.