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Art as a prism for ideas

Doug Aitken noticed other creative types toying with storytelling technique, which gave him an idea for a book.

March 25, 2006|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

Artist Doug Aitken is doing everything he can to liberate the 21st century message of his new book from the relatively staid confines of a Gutenberg-era medium. "Broken Screen" -- subtitled "26 Conversations With Doug Aitken: Expanding the Image, Breaking the Narrative" -- is, after all, a group portrait of unruly creative mavericks disinterested in traditional narrative forms.

Not one for small talk, Aitken says: "We live in a temporal landscape where everything about our being is constantly in flux. In that sense, it's a fraud that so many films and so much literature feels this necessity to create a conclusion, a beginning and an end. It denies a lot of the mystique of life, you know?"

To help spread the word about "Broken Screen" -- in suitably nonlinear fashion -- origami artist Bennett Arnstein works in the back room of Aitken's Venice studio, folding loose pages from the book into a 4-foot polyhedron sculpture resembling a geodesic beach ball.

Upstairs, staffers at Doug Aitken Workshop finalize plans for a '60s-inspired, invitation-only "Happening" today at MAK Center Los Angeles.

And next to Aitken's photo-crammed workspace, artist Kelly Sears gazes at a computer as she programs a "Broken Screen" animation piece to be presented, with the origami work and book-related neon sculptures, at the Gallery at Hermes' "Doug Aitken: Broken Screen" exhibition, which continues through April 21.

"We've created kind of a film out of the actual book itself through motion graphics," says Aitken, flipping to a photo-collage spread in the book. "If you go to a section like this, you'll see all these images on screen start to break apart as other ones are revealed."

Aitken got the idea for "Broken Screen" about four years ago when the globe-hopping video installation artist decided that the kinds of late-night conversations he enjoyed with colleagues in Europe and Japan might just be worth preserving. "You'd see these discussions with an artist or a friend going in a really interesting direction at, say, 1 in the morning in Vienna. Then you'd wake up the next morning and it's vaporized. I thought, maybe this should be collected and become like a populist manuscript."

From 2003 to 2005, Aitken interviewed architect Rem Koolhaas, opera and theater auteur Robert Wilson, performance artist Chris Burden, painter Ed Ruscha and photographer Richard Prince. He talked to avant-garde European installation artist Carsten Holler, found veteran movie title designer Pablo Ferro living in the San Fernando Valley, and tracked down experimental filmmakers including Robert Altman, Claire Denis, Werner Herzog, Bruce Conner, Mike Figgis and Alejandro Jodorowsky.

The common bond? "When I looked around at my peer group, I recognized there wasn't really a movement going on where everyone's doing installation art or everyone's painting," Aitken says. "I tried to take a step back and say, 'What is the thread that's connecting what I view as the more progressive work?' I felt it was this struggle with narrative."

Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, sees a whole generation of film and video artists engaged in that struggle. "You're seeing this focus now on people like Doug who are working in the time-based media," he says, citing "Broken Screen" subjects Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Olafur Eliasson, Carsten Holler, Pierre Huyghe and Pipilotti Rist, who were also included at MOCA's recent "Ecstacy: In and About Altered States" group exhibition.

Their work, Schimmel says, is "so fractured, so broken up that the normal sequencing of a narrative is blown apart, and instead it becomes something more visceral and experiential. These artists are dealing with states of experience which one could describe as dreamlike. They create a kind of immersive environment that creates an altered state of perception not based on the linearity of time.

"You understand their work intuitively without it telling you a story."

Particularly interesting about Aitken, Schimmel says, "is that he has, in a sense, brought the kind of fracturing of time and space that had its beginnings in Cubism and applied it to the medium of film," one of the bastions of traditional narrative.

Aitken is the first to credit earlier experiments in fragmented narrative.

"You look at Pablo Ferro, who's so ingrained with the fabric of what we grew up on, image-wise, yet he's totally anonymous. Most people don't know he crafted these innovative titles for Kubrick, or the split screens he did for 'The Thomas Crown Affair' in the '60s. I'm interested in Pablo's work just as much as an Ed Ruscha painting. I've never seen a hierarchy in the arts. It's all sort of a flat line to me, the flat line of stimulation."

In his own work, he has spent the past decade filtering myriad sources of stimulation into a series of provocative video art installations.

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