in Features | 03 MAR 98
Featured in
Issue 39

No Man's Lands

Doug Aitken

in Features | 03 MAR 98

In his classic 1964 study, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan used the myth of Echo and Narcissus to dramatise the onslaught of entertainment and spectacle that came to a head in the early 20th century. In his account, Narcissus (whose name he suggests derives from the Greek word narcosis) was caught up in an electronic feedback loop in which even Echo's pleas came back to him as fragments of his own voice. One could say that DJ Echo electronically sampled parts of Narcissus, but to no avail, for Narcissus was numb to all entreaty. It is this numbness that McLuhan defined as the ontological condition of a modern electronic culture that cannot physically absorb its own electronic output. Like Echo's pleas to Narcissus, Doug Aitken samples parts of our own cultural narcissism operating in the gaps between sound and vision, figure and ground, conflating the topographic with the electronic. This idea of landscape as mediascape hovers throughout Aitken's films and videos.

Graduating from Los Angeles' Art Center, Aitken is part of a young generation of artists using film and video who have emerged from Southern California in the 90s and whose number includes, among others, Diana Thater, T.J. Wilcox, Jessica Bronson and Sharon Lockhart. LA, the global centre of the entertainment and communication industries, is an apposite location for Aitken, not least because he has negotiated for himself a space between the world of commercial film and video on the one hand and the world of the art gallery on the other. Working as a director of music videos when he is not shooting his own films, Aitken is in a position to make his visual interventions in several different spheres. The symbiosis between these positions becomes apparent in his videos Autumn (1994) and Transformer (1995), which both deploy the look and feel of music videos. In the case of Autumn Aitken wanted to create three music videos, each with their own narrative, to be aired separately at different times as part of his commercial production. The resulting video, shown in galleries, fuses together the three separate narratives in a non-linear fashion. Located on the precipice between the oft-thought mutually exclusive realms of art and entertainment, Autumn stands as an emblematic example of Aitken's video practice, investigating the cultural numbness generated by the flow of media images.

I'd Die for You (1993), shot on video, brings together footage from 14 John Wayne films ranging chronologically from Dark Command (1940) through to films like The Searchers (1956) and True Grit (1969) to the actor's final performance in The Shootist (1976). In each of these slowed down excerpts Wayne is shot, drowned, burned alive, beaten or otherwise maimed in a Promethean onslaught of repetitious and at times quite clichéd Hollywood deaths. As these film clips send the actor through his agonised, expiring gyrations, an almost imperceptible soundtrack washes over us with ambient noise recorded by Aitken at the site of John Wayne's grave at Ocean View Memorial Park in Newport Beach, California. Here Echo sits by Wayne's actual resting place playing back the sampled sounds of his real death - cars driving on the highway, gusts of wind, silence. I'd Die for You is a strange Hollywood memento mori whose soundtrack provides a dissonant conceptual counterpoint to the flow of melodramatic images that constituted the landscape of John Wayne's life on screen.

At first glance Aitken's work might seem less apparently critical than that of an earlier generation of video appropriation artists such as Dara Birnbaum, the Ant Farm Collective, or the whimsical and politically biting video stylings of the New York public access legends Paper Tiger Television. But born four years after the publication of McLuhan's Understanding Media, Aitken is part of a generation of American youth who received their first civic and moral lessons not from Plato's Republic but from television programmes like School House Rock and The ABC Afterschool Special. In Dawn (1993) Aitken explores the exigencies of this new televisual enlightenment in the form of teenage angst films, collaging excerpts from four different examples of these psychodramas of white, suburban disaffection. While this genre clearly had its origins in the 50s with films like Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which chronicled the emergence of the 'teenage' demographic, this genre perhaps reached the zenith of its popularity in the late 70s and early 80s. Dawn cuts quickly between a number of 'at risk' youth including a parentally defiant Linda Blair (star of The Exorcist) and a suicidal blond boy who eventually careens his car over a cliff. By manifesting his own experiment in adolescent angst, Aitken's video creates a new film that provides a non-judgmental analysis of these coming-of-age morality plays on which a whole generation of American suburban youth were weaned. What becomes clear in looking at this work is that Aitken sees the media not as the entity Adorno derisively called 'the culture industry', but as just another landscape to traverse neither uncritically nor dogmatically.

Sitting in a Chinese restaurant in West Hollywood, Aitken recounted a very McLuhanesque anecdote about the penetration of electronic media in the modern world. While travelling in Tanzania he came across a newspaper article reporting a disruption in a remote movie theatre which was showing George Lucas' The Return of the Jedi (1983). Halfway into the film the Ewoks emerge speaking a language that turned out to be an obscure Tanzanian dialect, which Lucas's sound people had sampled for the voices of these creatures. The film had worked its way to this remote location only to reflect the local language back at its viewers, causing a powerful social disturbance. In this case Echo shook the narcotic effect of cultural narcissism, revealing to Aitken the power and reach of the media, and this power has become a central theme in his work. In his video Monsoon (1995), for example, Aitken became obsessed with the idea of going to Jonestown, Guyana, the site of the 1978 mass suicide by the People's Temple cult led by the Reverend Jim Jones, a tragedy that made the recent Heaven's Gate Hale Bopp mass suicide look almost banal by comparison. The project was defined by two organising principles: that he would go there with no preconceptions of what he might find, and that he would stay there until a monsoon occurred. Arriving at the site of the settlement without a shooting script, Aitken conducted a rather deadpan surveillance of the site, finding mere fragments of a village that had been reclaimed by the jungle in the 20 years since the Kool Aid was mixed with poison. Panning over dirt roads, a rain forest and partially buried tractor tyres, his first overtly topographic landscape piece conducts a slow narrative burn with an anticlimactic conclusion in an oncoming monsoon that never quite arrives. Put on the map by a media event of fin de siècle dimensions, Jonestown had simply disappeared into the geography of the rainforest.

But Aitken's concern with the geographic landscape dates back to his earliest works such as Inflection (1992) and Fury Eyes (1993), which brought together the technological and the topographic in two very distinct ways. In Inflection, the artist attached a small film camera to a high-powered model rocket which was then launched in the sky over a southern Californian suburb. Transferred to video and then played back in super-slow motion, this ballistic cinematic experience turns the familiar suburban terrain into an abstract set of glyphs. Are these strange cyphers crop circles? Proof that aliens do in fact exist? No, they're baseball diamonds and parking lots, the all too familiar territory of Cherokee Jeep-driving soccer moms and their progeny. Mimicking the frequently aired NASA footage documenting the launch of rockets, Aitken's film creates an abstract portrait of Southern California.

Fury Eyes (1993), on the other hand, begins as a documentation of Ron Fringer's attempt to drive a supercharged motorcycle down a racetrack at 190 miles an hour. Seemingly a meditation on the love of speed as eulogised by F.T. Marinetti in the Futurist Manifesto, this video is just as much about technological failure. After the surveillance camera attached to the motorcycle disintegrates as Fringer approaches 170 miles per hour, Aitken cuts to a sequence of concluding scenes. These include segments of a Cindy Crawford exercise video that he had worked on as Director of Photography, for which he happened to have chosen as a backdrop a photographic enlargement of the landscape at the Palmdale International Raceway. Here Aitken demonstrates the subversiveness of his schizophrenic position as a producer of images, inserting his own backdrop into Crawford's commercial video while he incorporates the supermodel into his own artwork. In the end, like so many of Aitken's pieces, Fury Eyes is a non-sequitur that conflates the landscape and the mediascape while denying the viewer narrative closure of any kind.

Aitken's most sophisticated and complicated work to date has been his film Diamond Sea (1997), which premiered simultaneously as a single channel video in last year's Whitney Biennial and as a multi-channel video installation at New York's 303 Gallery. Similar in both concept and intent to his earlier video Monsoon, Diamond Sea is the result of Aitken's obsession with an area on the map of Namibia the size of California bearing the designation 'Diamond Areas 1 and 2'. These highly profitable desert mining regions have been closed to the outside world since 1908, creating a hermetically sealed time capsule of sorts, unexposed to the gaze of 90 years of media culture. Fascinated by the kind of light he might find in this landscape, Aitken spent a year sorting through bureaucratic red tape before obtaining access to this part of Namibia. The result of about a month travelling around the area and living in corporate dormitories, his film documents a bizarrely alien desert landscape, populated by a wide array of exotic and highly sophisticated mining technology, shifting sand, and wild Portuguese horses - descendants of the equine survivors of a shipwreck. As the artist himself has suggested, this film was his Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog's maniacally heroic film about the hauling of a riverboat over a small mountain). Like Herzog, Aitken was driven to this place by a blind faith. Once he arrived, he found an enormous negative space that had nothing tangible around which he could form a narrative. His camera nonetheless found its way to a series of highly automated, computer-controlled mining machines, abandoned corporate dormitories, surveillance helicopters, and the landscape itself. These he brought together with both live sound recorded on location as well as the music of electronica and noise producers such as Aphex Twin, Gastr del Sol and Oval. Providing a visual equivalent to the tradition of ambient music, Aitken takes a landscape completely cut off from the outside world and transforms its negative space into the status of a subject. Moving away from the mediascape proper, Diamond Sea seductively glides across this terrain into a realm that questions the fictional construction of the topographic. For in the end, Aitken's work suggests that the topographic and the electronic landscape are equally constructed and eminently subject to the demands of narrative construction.

In Jean-Luc Godard's film Weekend (1967) we follow a bourgeois couple as they drive out of Paris into the country through a landscape littered with car wrecks and paranoiac carnage. Aitken's work takes us on a trajectory through a similar landscape littered with the electronic detritus of McLuhan's overheated media culture, but his strategy is not the détournement of the Situationists, who attacked the society of the spectacle by appropriating and subverting its meanings. In his films and videos, Aitken has manifested a decisive break in the feedback loop between Echo and Narcissus, replacing McLuhan's narcotic numbness with a methadone antidote. Eschewing the notion that we can somehow be located outside the electronic and topographic landscape, Aitken deftly manoeuvres within their boundaries in a war of position that shifts as frequently as the sands of the Namib desert.