In Doug Aitken’s Station to Station, a movie composed of 62 one-minute films, each recording an artistic “happening” that took place on a 4,000-mile train ride across the US, there is a section devoted to one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 1970s, Jackson Browne. He is in Winslow, Arizona, and recites a poem to camera. His once-boyish face is lined, his expression rueful.
“I did want to see Winslow one more time” is the final line of the poem, and he lets slip an ironic smile. Popular culture aficionados will get the reference: it comes from Browne’s most famous song, co-written with Glenn Frey of the Eagles, “Take It Easy”. It is where he was once “standin’ on a corner”, celebrating the “fine sight” of “a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me”.
“Take It Easy” was the touchstone of easy-going Californian hedonism, but the Winslow we see here is a desolate and lonely place. Browne’s words have an elegiac quality. That carefree spirit, he seems to say, went with the Santa Ana winds.
“Jackson had never been back to Winslow,” Aitken explains to me. The two men made the happening happen, and found a poignant moment, almost by accident. “I thought a lot about the idea of time,” Aitken says of the film. “Cinema is usually thought of as a place where you lose time. But I thought, what if we make a film that actually addresses time?” The sequence of one-minute films can feel a little awkward, he says. “But then, perhaps, you fall into the rhythm. And they become like modern haikus.”
We are speaking in central London’s Victoria Miro gallery, where Aitken has a small solo show of works. But he is also in town to supervise another, very different, incarnation of Station to Station: beginning today, a fresh series of happenings will unfurl in the more concentrated surrounds of the Barbican Centre. “It is almost a contradiction in terms,” admits Aitken of the move from sprawling, rural US to the edge of the City of London. But what he hopes to create, over the next 30 days, is a “platform for progressive culture and new artistic experimentation”. The cast of artists he has invited is varied and impressive: from the protean rock star Beck, accompanied by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and a selection of British poets, to the veteran minimalist composer Terry Riley, writing for an ensemble featuring brass, percussion, toy pianos and a children’s choir. All are outside their comfort zone: that is the whole point.
What is important is not necessarily the end result, Aitken polemicises, but the process at work. “Culture is the language that will bring us into the future. But at the same time it is being surrounded by this conservative, capitalist system, which makes it harder than ever for individuals who have voices to push them as far as they can go.”
Station to Station, he says, is an invitation to artists to do the things they have always wanted to do, but been denied the opportunity, or indeed to do things they have never previously considered.
“The idea is that it is this kind of living organism, which is constantly changing and evolving. Terry Riley, who is 80, told me that he is always invited to work in concert halls, and asked me if he could play inside the exhibition spaces, improvising something new every day.”
I am guessing Aitken agreed? “Oh, that was a ‘yes!’”
Flux and fluidity are the key words that recur in descriptions of Aitken’s multimedia artistic practice, which frequently turns away from what he calls the “inherent formalism” of much of contemporary art. “Our culture is not this thing to be seen from a distance. We need to be embracing the friction of it all — that is where the energy is.” He is, in this respect, an enabler, a bringer-together, a Diaghilev on the hyper-fast highways of the new technology.
I say there seems to be an improbable popular demand for avant-garde experimentation in the current cultural climate. “I think there is a hunger for things that wake you up,” Aitken replies. “Something that makes you peel back your eyes, that reminds you that you are alive. Art is at its best when it is in the ‘now’.”
The railway version of Station to Station attempted to use the idea of nomadism to challenge the idea of fixed location. The Barbican version, by contrast, will be like a “broadcast tower”, with all the various happenings being disseminated to as wide a public as possible, through free admission to all its daytime activities. Among these will be the Vinyl Factory recording studio, producing daily editions of some of the artists’ work. The ideal visitor, Aitken says, will drop in “as if at a dinner party, where there is this huge wooden table, and there are just one or two people who you want to talk to, you don’t know anyone else, but by the end of the evening you know everyone”.
But what are we throwing away with all this evanescent activity, I ask Aitken? Is the traditional idea of art, as something still and contemplative, that aims for lasting transcendental impact, defunct?
“Not at all. There is room for everything.” Aitken himself moves between extremes of artistic method, he says. “When I came off Station to Station, I took one-and-a-half years off, cancelled everything, sat in my studio and became really interested in the idea of the passing of time.
“Art is always a search for understanding, and the different levels and frequencies of that search feel completely comfortable and natural to me.”
Aitken was born in 1968 in Los Angeles County: a potent combination of mythologies of time and place, I suggest. “We are all affected by the time we are born into, and of course that feeds into your work. Society is based on storytelling — religious myths, opera, film — and 1968 was always seen as a time of rupture and fragmentation. I have always been interested in those words.”
He made his reputation with his video installations, recorded in locations such as the diamond mines of Africa and India’s Bollywood. He won the International Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999 for his “Electric Earth” installation, an eight-screen depiction of urban angst that was promiscuous in its audacious mix of media.
Next month, a retrospective of his work will open at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, and I ask how he feels about looking back at his work.
“I never look back,” he says disarmingly. “I was completely in denial that I ever made anything until about a year ago. Every time I was asked to do a show that looked at my previous work, I would hijack it with some more new work.”
Did it finally make him feel happy, coming to terms with his own past? He evades the question. “I am more interested in how I can bring my works together, to make them connect with each other,” he says. Always moving forward, like that train to nowhere. There is no station that can bring him to a halt. “I guess it does give you some freedom, that ability to look back over your shoulder, and see the shadows behind you,” he finally concedes.
He turns his shoulder to illustrate his point, but there is, in our top-lit gallery space, no shadow on the wall, and he bursts out laughing.
‘Station to Station: A 30 Day Happening’, Barbican, London, to July 26, barbican.org.uk; the film is in UK cinemas and available on demand now.
Doug Aitken’ at Victoria Miro Mayfair, London, to July 31 and Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, July 9–September 27, schirn.de
Photographs: Anna Huix; Doug Aitken Workshop; Alicia J. Rose; Brian Doyle