Geert Lovink on Tue, 18 Apr 2006 08:49:06 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Review of Doug Aitken's book, by Peter Lunenfeld

The order of things
By Peter Lunenfeld

April 16, 2006

'Broken Screen: Expanding the Image, Breaking the Narrative: 26
Conversations With Doug Aitken'

Edited by Noel Daniel
D.A.P/Distributed Art Publishers: 302 pp., $40

DOUG AITKEN is pretty far removed from the stereotype of the artist,
with its tropes of unrecognized genius, unheated garrets and the
occasional missing ear. For more than a decade, in museums, galleries
and festivals around the globe, the Los Angeles-based Aitken has
exhibited complex, multiscreen video environments that are impossible
to take in as a unitary whole. His signature installations, like 1999's
"Electric Earth," a prizewinner at the venerable Venice Biennale,
require him to function as director, designer, talent scout, space
planner and even something of a travel agent. It's no wonder, then,
that Aitken should come to see the standard modes of linear narrative
as inadequate to the task of describing the fragmented life he lives.

When you've got existential questions, the best thing to do is talk to
your friends. Luckily for Aitken ? as well as for the rest of us ? his
friends include filmmakers Robert Altman and Werner Herzog; architects
Rem Koolhaas and Greg Lynn; and such artists as painter Ed Ruscha,
Swiss video maker Pipilotti Rist and "Cremaster" auteur Matthew Barney.
In "Broken Screen: Expanding the Image, Breaking the Narrative," Aitken
curates 26 conversations with these peers and mentors, creating what he
calls "a manifesto for navigating the future of communication."
Together, the voices here explore new ways of telling stories that have
emerged in the wake of avant-garde moving image experimentation and the
relentless innovations in information technologies.

Linear stories are older than Aristotle's "Poetics" and still dominate
popular narrative forms. But as new technologies and media proliferated
in the 20th century, so too did nonlinear structures, from the
Surrealists' Exquisite Corpse games before World War II, to the
fracturing of time in Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave films, to DJ Spooky's
illbient mix tapes of a decade ago. Right now, computers make the
decidedly nonlinear functions of cutting, pasting and linking our
default modes of creativity. "Broken Screen" is a richly designed
celebration of this moment, well-illustrated with stills from the art,
film and video projects under discussion and liberally peppered with
pull quotes that distill the conversations into a series of graphic
sound bites. Running counter to naysayers on both left and right,
Aitken and his friends are unapologetically upbeat about creativity at
the dawn of the new millennium.

These are generous conversationalists, encouraging us to participate,
to join in constructing new meanings from existing work. For more than
a century, they suggest, we have been so immersed in audio-visual
narratives that linear storytelling has become at once over-familiar
and insufficient. As collagist, filmmaker and all-around West Coast
legend Bruce Conner puts it, "nonlinear perception can't be beat,"
because the better attuned you are to it, the more likely you are to
"collect various pieces of information and put them into some kind of
functional use to make sense of the world."

For Conner, nonlinearity is "about consciousness itself," a subject
many of the book's other participants expand on by talking about their
own work and what inspired them. Seminal filmmaker Altman reminisces
about the meshing narratives and overlapping dialogue in "Nashville,"
while rising young architect Lynn describes the mad sprawl of San
Jose's Winchester Mystery House and avant-garde director Robert Wilson
evokes Georges Balanchine's ballets, where "the dancers, for the most
part, dance for themselves." Aitken and company take on a vast range of
references, from Marvel comic books and psychedelic posters to
designers Charles and Ray Eames and the latest in 3D-animation

It's a lot of ground to cover, but once you get into the flow, these
conversations come across as the way we (should) talk now. Thus, French
artist Pierre Huyghe strikes a universal chord when he explains that he
carves up the narratives in his video installations to escape overly
efficient, and therefore limiting, storytelling. Fragmentation enables
him to access what he calls the "exponential present," a phrase that
teeters on the edge of obscurantist art-speak until you consider the
always-on, always in-touch culture that many of us inhabit ? complete
with the Web, Wi-Fi hot spots, 500 cable channels, downloadable ring
tones, peer-to-peer file sharing and more. In such a landscape, there
is indeed an explosion of information, which makes Huyghe's notion of
an exponential present not so much pretentious as accurate.

Dialogues have historically served as venues for artists, filmmakers
and architects to get their ideas out without having to ape the
formality of critical writing. Conversations between artists let them
address the nitty-gritty of their craft. The usually inscrutable Barney
admits that in journalistic interviews, "I always feel like I'm being
forced to talk about things I don't know anything about. It's nice to
just talk about the way that we make what we do." The downside of this
intimacy is that Aitken and friends can sometimes come off as members
of a mutual appreciation society. Aitken is either unwilling or unable
to get anything new out of autopoetic mythmaker Kenneth Anger, who
virtually invented the music video with his 1960s underground film
"Scorpio Rising" (although Anger ruefully admits he never saw a dime
from the industry that owes him everything).

The conversations are also something of a transatlantic men's club,
with only three women in the mix and no Asian artists or filmmakers.
Equally problematic is the virtual absence of television from these
discussions, because TV much more than film defines how we interact
with moving images today. At times, it seems like Aitken is trying to
graft the cinematic past to the interactive digital future in order to
break television's stranglehold over our imaginations. Other interviews
slip over the edge altogether, as when Koolhaas, who designed the Prada
Epicenter stores in Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles, describes fashion
as nonlinear because it is "the perpetual advent of internal atavistic
desires ? almost tragic in intensity." And you thought it was about a
dress and a pair of shoes.

Still, as an object to think with, "Broken Screen" is a stirring
example of what I call visual intellectuality. The book ends with a
series of well-illustrated capsule discussions of "[m]oments of
alternative narratives and points of light" written by Aitken and
curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, as well as two seductive, mandala-like
diagrams of the history of nonlinear film. Here in particular, Aitken
blends image and language to create a "tool for stimulation." Whether
you are an artist, writer, architect or filmmaker trying to figure out
where to go next, or someone who wants a deeper understanding of what
you just experienced in the museum, online or on screen, the
conversations in "Broken Screen" offer a good way to kick-start
yourself into the 21st century.

Peter Lunenfeld's most recent book, "USER: InfoTechnoDemo," was
published last fall. He is a professor in the Media Design Program at
Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

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