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The order of things

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

April 16, 2006|Peter Lunenfeld | 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.

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 software.

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.

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