Doug Aitken Mirrors Our Obsession with Mobile Technology
Forty-five years ago, the American engineer Martin Cooper stood on a sidewalk in midtown Manhattan and changed the world: he made the first public call on a cell phone. Today, according to a U.N. study, more people own mobile phones than they do toilets. For the mesmerizing video installation “New Era” (on view at the 303 Gallery through May 25), the artist Doug Aitken filmed Cooper, who is now eighty-nine, reminiscing and mulling over what his invention has wrought. When he says, “You can have everybody in the universe being one with everyone else, just one entity that is all-powerful,” it’s unclear whether that’s a pro or a con. He doesn’t discuss planned obsolescence, but he does reflect on mortality: “You start recognizing your limitations at some point, and it’s just not going to stop.”
With “New Era,” Aitken finds a sweet spot between rumination and spectacle, while steering clear of the showmanship that has left some of his recent projects feeling a little too slick. (Examples include geodesic sculptures submerged off the California coast and a cross-country “nomadic happening,” produced from a train.) Here, he has constructed a mirrored, hexagonal space inside the gallery, in which three projections from the same eleven-minute loop alternate with reflections. The moving images aren’t in synch, and the effect is disorienting, with viewers restlessly shifting position to take it all in. The result is a crowd of people glued to the screens, at once hypnotized and acting out the A.D.H.D. of the digital age.
Footage of Cooper in a black-box studio, facing the sea (a live-action Romantic hero out of Caspar David Friedrich), and walking through a water-splashed cavern is intercut with sweeping aerial views of urban arteries and remote landscapes, some of them revealing the curving edge of the planet, perhaps satellite shots from outer space. Best of all are the sequences of an old-school Motorola phone, kaleidoscopically multiplying and set to a soundtrack that builds from portentously repetitive, à la Steve Reich, to full-throttle techno. It’s like a Busby Berkeley routine for Generation Coachella.
“New Era” acknowledges the image overload that has become the new normal, but it doesn’t condemn wired lives. Aitken’s message may simply be: proceed with caution. As Cooper repeatedly says, in his sonorous voice, “I made a phone call,” it’s as if he is letting us know that he invented the wheel, but he also discovered fire. ♦