Alternative Focus#4: Projections on the Mall

“Projections on the Mall: Doug Aitken’s Song 1

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden was temporarily turned into a convex 360-degree drive-in (or rather, walk- or drive-by) movie theater through mid-May, with prominent California artist Doug Aitken’s digital film-and-sound installation Song 1 projected onto its familiar round concrete façade. This altogether current piece, funded by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts and commissioned by the Museum, seems worth thinking about and reflecting upon even beyond the end of its run. An ongoing relevance is not the case only because, as Director Richard Koshalek informs us in his catalogue “Statement,” this Aitken work was apparently not too evanescent to be joining the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection. We may be seeing it again in the future and thus it is in a sense still “there.”


The word “projection” as well as the piece’s theme song—the American golden-oldie  “I Only Have Eyes for You”—seem key here, given the installation’s setting on the national Mall (where things can only be symbolic, given the ceremonial nature of that space) and its being mounted in a presidential election year . Writing in the Washington Post March 22, when Aitken’s installation opened to the public, critic Philip Kennicott felicitously gave us metaphorical license to take the resulting aesthetic experience and run with it, concluding: “But one can wish for, and perhaps project, more onto it.”

Thank you; and yes, I think so.

Such interpretational projection is inherent in the nature of Aitken’s chosen medium here. (He has done other kinds of work, although all are related in their basic presuppositions, but more on his aesthetic-production history in a moment.) This is digitalized film “in the expanded field”—with the character of his visual imagery (especially in the way it is handled, in an evocatively juxtaposed and continually eliding fashion) seeming to underline that. Its soundtrack accompaniment summons associative memories drawn from the tune’s decades of re-workings by numerous well-known recording artists. Curator Kerry Brougher speaks appropriately of synaesthesia, or the analogization of visual art and sound as the Modern tradition this synchronization embodies. A dreamlike effect as if constructed by the unconscious.

Virtually every aspect of Aitken’s sensaround experience seems specifically geared to prompting spectators to build their own projection processes into his piece’s otherwise seemingly open-ended structure. The piece self-consciously stimulates every viewer’s interpretation and invites their unique understanding while re-experiencing it as ongoing “loop.” The kinds of visual material chosen contribute to this impulse, simultaneously familiar yet potentially susceptible to various symbolic or personal-experience related readings: people dancing, driving cars and walking in parking garages, playing cards falling through the air; people facing and/or talking to each other, the ocean flowing (its movement making the building seem to be physically revolving), a lighted match burning, and the rhythmic appearance of the various singers of “I Only Have Eyes” . Ironically, despite implying spectator mesmerization, Aitken’s circular video is rather composed of many things that would only be noticed by our peripheral vision,en passant, as we focused on something else. Or, as part of an urban-fabric “image world.”

That domain, with the 1989 Whitney Museum exhibition and catalogue Image World: Art and Media Culture being the seminal source of the term, is where Aitken’s approach to art-making operates. We should look at a few of the artist’s other relevant works, and a brief nutshell history of such “projection art.” Curator Kerry Brougher’s orientation will be also useful by way of setting the stage. Then, we will reconsider our initial suggestion regarding reflection/projection and parallels or similarities with political process (or the possibility this installation thematizes that).

Since he won the Lion d’or at the Venice Biennale in 1999, Aitken’s career has taken off.  He has become so prominent that we even know how he lives: an article on contemporary artists’ houses in the New York Sunday Times Style Magazine of April 1 displays on its cover the one he built for himself. Its interior relates to its California coastline exterior setting in many ways (“inside out” like Song 1), and includes musical stairs.

This existentially serious playfulness also characterizes the two pieces of Aitken’s seeming to have the most to tell us about Song 1. They are his 2006 exhibition of snapshot-like photographs at the Aspen Art Museum titled 99 cent DREAMS and his just-previous, large-scale projection-installation Sleepwalkers, executed for the Museum of Modern Art on its midtown Manhattan building in 2007. The snapshots are still-versions of his characteristic imagery, as it appears in Song 1—seemingly randomly-chosen yet evocative, making the “mediated” nature of contemporary experience palpable, possessing a pathos despite (or even because of) their apparently intentional banality. In an interview with Amanda Sharp, published in what is probably the most important general book on Aitken to date (Daniel Birnbaum et al, Doug Aitken, London: Phaidon, 2001), the artist spoke of his attitude towards such imagery:

“I am constantly piecing things together, finding fragments of information, splicing them, collaging them, montaging them to create a network of perceptions… In this era of changing perceptions we’re responsible for creating new options with which to communicate… I would rather make departure points, stimuli for questions, provocation. I’m fascinated by the liquidity of time-based media such as sound, motion pictures and photography.” (p.13)

He seems to have also emphasized the multivalent, evanescent, and recombinant as providing “jumping off points” for a new form of communication in Song 1. In another response Aitken stressed that materials are already all around us, and it is our manipulation and projection of meaning onto it them which causes them to resonate:“What is found footage? We are losing and finding footage all the time. The information which surrounds us is like a mine; it is our responsibility to actively dig it out and use it for our own needs.” (p.18)

MoMA’s Sleepwalkers, with oversize bodies projected onto the Museum’s 53rd Street location’s façade and into its sculpture garden, obviously bears the most resemblance to the Hirshhorn piece: not only in that it turns a fine-art museum inside-out by making its exterior walls the artwork, but also in acting as an aesthetic intervention in its environment. It has been said Sleepwalkers is perhaps the more successful work, in that its setting—an always-moving city that never sleeps, full of people moving about but not really noticing each other (as if walking in their sleep, hence the title)—lends itself to a greater extent to such a medium in constant interaction with its surroundings. However, it may be that the rhythm of Washington and the way imagery here has meaning are simply different. In New York, too, MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach saw the integration of viewer into artwork, determining its meaning for themselves: “…each viewer sees the work differently, with the different stories, perspectives, and realities combined and understood in a way entirely dependent on the individual. The juxtapositions and parallels come together at the very moment the viewer stands in front of the work and becomes, in a sense, a protagonist in it…” (NY: MoMA cat., 2007, p.52)

With these electorate-relevant observations in mind, and re-emphasizing that the artist apparently had definite things he wanted to get across with MoMA’s piece, we should quickly move forward to pick up a few necessary pieces of information about the evolution and present state of “video installation” or “ambient film” (as Austro-British video artist and “VJ” Frederick Baker has fittingly labeled it), before looking to the Hirshhorn’s curator for guidance in coming to our political-analogy or election-parallels. To put a long, complex phenomenon into a factually-relevant nutshell: as early as the 1920’s the Bauhaus, which was somewhat snobby about film (despite its programmatic equalizing of “high” and decorative art), artists associated with it like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy experimented with innovations such as Polykino (multi-movies) that can be considered precursors of present media.

Later, a somewhat different approach was utilized by émigré Gyorgy Kepes and others at MIT, as well as a group emerging from the Dusseldorf Academy in Germany (where Joseph Beuys taught). This involved installations that moved, featuring things like stroboscopic lights,that now seem perhaps-passé, naively futuristic combinations of technology and art.

The real historical prologue began in the late 1960s and 70s with video art, of the kind documented by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis’ 1974 show Projected Images, featuring artists working in a new “environmental” way with filmic projections, including Rockne Krebs, Paul Sharits, and Michael Snow. Finally, it is important to mention Aitken’s immediate predecessors and/or still-practicing colleagues who have (as Biesenbach notes in his Sleepwalkers essay, titled “Building Images”) even more specifically done architectural video projection works. There are Simon Attie’s superimposed images of their original facades on the ruins of 1920s structures in Berlin after the fall of the Wall; or Tony Oursler’s 1994 work reflecting the street movement around an East Village movie theater in New York back onto it (Movie Block [Sony]); and the well-known Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiszko’s series of large-scale projections onto monuments and architecture, often “screens” already having symbolic significance. Note that these other employments of techniques paralleling Aitken’s are in general self-consciously political in nature.

If aspects of Aitken’s history as an artist as well as of the background out of which it developed are significant for our understanding of his Song 1, it’s also important to consider its presentation by the commissioning institution and its curator’s orientation. One might argue Kerry Brougher is the piece’s virtual co-creator, particularly after encountering the installation’s catalogue, and reading his lead essay. Certainly the Hirshhorn’s associating itself with this work in the fashion that its catalogue conveys and even embodies—extending to its literal physical shape as an object, an oblong lozenge with flat tapered ends which mimics both the museum building’s round configuration as viewed diagonally from above, at the same time that it references a reel of film seen from the same angle—is recognizable as a form of “branding,” of a kind linking both a “product” and its producer with a particular image (like a logo). This simile, paralleling the Hirshhorn’s signature shape with Aitken’s utilization of it as a round screen for projecting film (the building as well as the medium being part of the “message”), is reiterated throughout the catalogue: with pages devoted solely to images reminding its reader/viewer of this visual parallel.

This should not surprise us, knowing Brougher’s previous best-known work as a scholar lies in the area of the interactions of or inter-relationships between fine art and film (movies or the cinema). In Aitken’s museum commission, this dialogic connection (crucial to contemporary art and film) is in a sense literalized: the external wall of the Hirshhorn, which contains Modern and Contemporary fine art, is turned into a filmic projection (a paradigm for the artistic dialogue Brougher has mapped in his earlier career). Although this participatory curator/artist’s catalogue essay (“Decrystallized Music”) may focus primarily on Song 1’s musical implications in tandem with the piece’s visual components, it is undeniable that his commentary and the metaphorically suggestive, even poetic language he employs (aside from the historical information it conveys’ enormous erudition) effectively lay yet another level of “reflection” atop the work’s as well as that of the spectator. Brougher is himself reflecting on a projected work which incorporates or relies upon the viewer’s reflections.

It is no accident that this curator’s art historical-scholarly tour de force (at least in this author’s admiring opinion) is titled Art and Film since 1945: Hall of Mirrors (LA: Museum of Contemporary Art and NY: Monacelli Press, 1996—an exhibition and catalogue). There he writes of film as “the art form of the twentieth century,” which “by its very dual nature, helped to break down the barriers between art and entertainment, high and low.” (“Introduction,” p. 12). Could there be any more accurate characterization of part of what Aitken’s Song 1 seemingly attempts to demonstrate or accomplish, one facet of what it is about? For our present purposes, to return (circularly, like the Hirshhorn’s configuration) to where this review’s argument began, it is more pertinent that Brougher’s sub-title is “Hall of Mirrors”: bringing to mind the famous scene in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, with reflections reflecting reflections ad infinitum. For this brings us back to the initially-broached topic of the processes of projection and reflection within the political arena, and the possibility that Aitken’s implicit project (or part of it) with respect to his video installation on the Mall, was a kind of commentary on those mechanisms, as they are playing out in an election year.

If so, one might view Aitken’s kaleidoscopic digital-visual spectacle as analogous to (or proffering analogies for) the construction of political figures’ identities (this year, those of presidential candidates). By now it has become virtual common knowledge (or at least suspicion), with widespread cynicism exacerbated by media commentary-hype and would-be presidents’ often-shifting or “evolving” views, that candidates’ self-presentation and/or even construction of themselves involves reflecting back to an electorate what it seems to desire. With the public audience’s various constituencies’ viewpoints and priorities deciphered through polling (defining for example womens’, African-Americans’, Hispanics’, the Tea Partys’, the religious rights’, and blue-collar preferences as potential voters), it is possible to see candidates responding to that information by shaping their political identities as virtual projections of it. This can be seen, again like the Hirshhorn’s layout, to be a circular process: political/presidential hopefuls themselves seek to provide a persona or “screen” onto which a spectatorship/electorate projects their preoccupations. As we have seen here and other commentators have observed, the utilization of or reliance upon viewers’ reflections when experiencing Aitken’s film installation to complete or even constitute it (extending as far as becoming “protagonists” within the artwork, as Biesenbach wrote), parallels the structures of American political elections now. Song 1 is, so to speak, as dependent upon its viewing public to constitute it—with reflections and projections stimulated by its suggestive imagery and open-ended structures—as are the presidential candidates and their platforms. “I Only Have Eyes for You,” the electorate could croon, seduced into choosing their own projected (and to some extent, manufactured) desires.

Whether Aitken’s Song 1 installation was reacting to these processes as so viewed by simply reflecting them back to us, or rather adopting a seditious or even critical stance in relation to them being difficult to know, one suspects that perhaps both are true and his work is thus ironical (or holds two equally valid but opposed points of view simultaneously). At any rate, both understandings of this installation depend upon the viewer’s perspective, and can perhaps not be definitively established as standing truths, but are instead located only in the minds of those who view Song 1 (as is the case with voters at election time).

In manipulating or making use of images’ powerful ability to motivate or stimulate the viewer’s projections, Aitken constructs (and, it can be argued, is referencing) similarities between the processes involved in both art and politics. Recognizing the multivalent intelligence of his Song 1, it seems more likely that such implicit commentary was consciously intended rather than not. In other words, it and he reflect, and reflect upon, “projections” currently altogether present (and in the process of being accounted for) even far beyond Washington’s Mall.

Julia Bernard, Editorial Consultant


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