Along with a cup of Japanese green tea, Doug Aitken serves up a visual anecdote the minute I arrive at his Venice Beach studio, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment he experienced driving along the highway: “I looked over and saw a hot mom – well she obviously thought she was hot – sitting in the back of her car, her driver in the front. She took a pile of notes out of her wallet and was just counting them, a private moment of capitalism, enjoying her wealth.”
We are in the kitchen, at the heart of a sprawling collection of spaces arranged around a courtyard edged with lush foliage. The studio complex is so laid-back that it could be a family home, a feeling emphasised by the proliferation of hip young assistants who exude California cool. They are in fact busy on a variety of Aitken’s ambitious multimedia projects, including his Sky Arts Ignition Series commission that opens this month at Tate Liverpool as part of the Liverpool Biennial. I tell him about the homeless guy I saw weaving through the downtown LA traffic with a sign that read “If I were you and you were me, I would help. Please do.”
Both these scenes could have featured in one of Aitken’s hyper-real yet dream-like film installations in which he uses broken narrative, fragmentation and repetition to immerse the viewer in the solipsistic drama of modern life. His multi-screen installations, architectural interventions, photography, sound experiments, books and live “happenings” all explore the way we navigate the changing world as displaced yet connected individuals: he is a champion of non-linear art.
“Non-linear is almost a template of how we work,” he says. “When ideas cross-pollinate, multiple things happen, work becomes precious. Art is often too aesthetic or formal. I like risks, taking things as far as I can.”
Aitken has been at the forefront of the contemporary art scene since winning the International Prize at the 1999 Venice Biennale, aged 31. “Electric Earth”, an eight-screen installation in three rooms, features a young black dancer travelling through a neon-lit wasteland, body-popping his way past probing surveillance cameras and bleak shop windows, against an insistent industrial soundtrack. The filmwork, an exquisitely edited mash-up of narrative, documentary and music video genres, gives the urban environment a starring role and renders the insignificant immense. “A lot of times I dance so fast that I become what’s around me,” says our protagonist.
Similarly, in “Black Mirror”, shown at Victoria Miro gallery, London, in 2011, Aiken’s lone character, played by actress Chloë Sevigny, recites mantras that crystallise her existence. “Check in, check out,” she incants. “Never stagnate, never stop.” We watch her propelled through space and time by the lonely momentum of the international traveller, vainly attempting to contact someone by phone in one bleak hotel room after another: “Exchange, connect and move on.” The video content was shot in Nicaragua, Hong Kong, the American south-west and Greece, and reworked into a territory of Aitken’s own invention, “a world without borders, a sense of displacement”, he says.
“Black Mirror” was also performed as a live “happening” on the Greek island of Hydra and at the port of Piraeus, Athens, with an installation on a barge in which Sevigny paced around a deconstructed hotel room, describing her existence. “It was a temporal moment,” he says. “A world without borders, which is something we are currently re-working on the outside of the Seattle Art Museum.” The Seattle project will be “a living art work that never repeats itself”, with film projected on to the building turning the museum inside out.
Other high-profile commissions include “Sleepwalkers” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2006), “Frontier” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome (2009) and “Sonic Pavilion” (2009) at the Instituto Inhotim, Brazil, in which the pavilion sits over a deep cut in the earth where Aitken buried geological microphones: visitors are surrounded by the sound of vibrations caused by the rotation of the planet. Aitken has repeated this experiment at his home by the beach, burying nine geo-mikes in the foundations of the house, amplifying the noise of tectonic plate movements as well as the rhythm of the ocean and the sounds of the street. “I can turn it off,” he laughs. “The stairs are ascending notes but I can turn them off too.” Even the kitchen table at the studio doubles as a musical instrument.
“Jack White was here and started playing the table; our conversation turned into music. The nucleus of a project often begins with a friend or colleague; conversation is usually the source of an idea ... ”
Aitken published 26 conversations with artists, film-makers and architects in his 2006 book, Broken Screen, to examine creative expression and communication; now, he says, he wants to see conversations, to “extract that thing”, the creative essence.
Opening on September 15, “The Source” is a six-screen installation housed in a circular pavilion built by architect David Adjaye on Liverpool’s Albert Dock, for which Aitken has filmed conversations with 15 creatives including musician Jack White, architect Jacques Herzog, contemporary artist Thomas Demand, actor Tilda Swinton, photographer William Eggleston and the artist Mike Kelley, who died soon after the interview.
“I wanted to provide a series of doors [into] peoples’ process, to find out if you can use language in a casual, unrehearsed way to see how someone creates something.”
Aitken posed two questions: where does the creative idea start and how is it realised? “I think ideas are architectural,” he ruminates. “Rem Koolhaas comes from a family of film people and film is still a starting-point for him. I wondered if other architects thought like this. Herzog & De Meuron say they’re always referencing art. I don’t feel the need to think in terms of niches, ghettos or categories, we all have questions and ideas; we’re all struggling to find a better definition of why we’re here. Maybe it’s all one conversation.”
Aitken has reduced the original discussions to “crystalline soundbites, succinct, tight, a line that might stay with you. There are other places in academia for longer talks.” In a bid to democratise the artistic happening, he has collaborated with the project’s backers, Sky Arts, taking over the channel for 24 hours to curate programmes inspired by the theme of his project. A Sky Arts Ignition app, the channel’s director tells me, will send users “moments of creative inspiration” throughout the day, to which they can respond.
“Online we will reach a totally different audience,” says Aitken. “This is reality and these are the tools. Do we embrace or reject? It’s different for everyone but I want to make a place where tensions can flow; where there’s energy, noise; it’s all the same story, you just have to tell it the way you tell it.”
‘The Source’ is at Tate Liverpool, September 15 to January 13.