Doug Aitken in Sites at the Whitney

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04/11/2009 9:00 AM |

Review by Matt Hunger

Even in a museum like the Whitney, multi-channel installation video art seems stuck in a perpetual struggle between gimmick and art, serious and silly. Many filmmakers, traditional and experimental alike, still don’t "get it," or don’t want to. And even if they do, they’re rarely motivated to pursue the form — adding, as it does, the need for an appropriate space involving multiple rooms and projectors to the litany of difficulties involved in filmmaking. Its very requirements take the past 20 years of progress in video distribution — an aspect that differentiated the audience of video from other art — and throws it out the proverbial window. For a relatively new form, this is an unenviable, though perhaps typical position to be in. But problematic as it is, Doug Aitken’s Electric City, spanning four rooms and multiple screens, is one of those rare pieces marrying theoretical tract and concrete example successfully, with multi-channel installation’s unique viewing experience made quite literally (and figuratively) visible. In our art-world mired "in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," this so-called "authentic" (or at least singular) experience makes multi-channel installation relevant. Fortunately, Aitken gives us video installation worthy of the distinction, so convincing in its motivation that it seems impossible for even the most ardent conservative filmmaker to no longer not "get it."

Like Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, the protagonist (if the term applies here) of Electric City wanders through depressed cityscapes interacting with and reacting to life around him. But where Benjamin considers the pinnacle of established industrial cities of early 20th century life through the poetic lens of Baudelaire, Aitken’s protagonist gets no such luck. Appropriately, this installation is shot throughout the unenviable parts of Los Angeles County, its "unique" qualities differentiating it from other cities worldwide. Desolation meets polish nowhere quite like Southern California, and how convenient for us New Yorkers that we can consider it all from the safety of 75th and Madison? But in Electric City, carefree wandering isn’t an option. Aitken forces the hand, along with the rest of his flâneur’s body, interpreting the city not through the pen but through erratic dance movements, his only escape and filtering process for the over-mechanized, under-personalized city streets. And in a city in which any sidewalk is a rarely taken road, this is a particularly significant feat.

What’s most convincing, and appropriate, about Aitken’s piece is the various uses of context. Beyond the relevant idiosyncrasies of Los Angeles itself, there is the context-made-manifest found in the display set-up in each room of the installation — the very heart of multi-channel video. Sergei Eisenstein’s contribution to montage isn’t negated so much as deconstructed, the pieces individually juxtaposed and understood beyond the "sum" of their parts. In one room the central screen projects the face of the dancing flâneur towards the viewer, with screens flanking on either side portraying city images and their respective diegetic sounds that he, and by proxy, the viewer, experiences (e.g. the register at a gas station, a soda machine rejecting a dollar bill, etc). These are the sounds that become the connection points between city dweller and city, between installation viewer and installation. The images and sounds are looped in rhythm with a break-beat soundtrack reinforcing and filling out the aural soundscape that the dancer makes physical by his jerky movements.

If art can be strengthened by its placement, then in only a few cities worldwide can Aitken’s discerning work be most effectively placed. Convenient as it would be for the installation to find its way into other museums throughout the country, there would be an inevitable loss of meaning. This, of course, is one of the drawbacks in such a specific piece of work produced in such a specific medium as video installation. Fortunately in this city it can enjoy a singularity and authenticity rarely found anymore, reaffirming the potential of video installations, not to mention Aitken’s work as a whole.

Doug Aitken’s Electric City is part of the exhibition Sites, on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art through May 3.