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Doug Aitken’s New Video Installation Tells the Story of the Man Behind the First Cell Phone

The California artist and filmmaker, whose projects range from light sculpture to video projections to book projects, returns to New York after a five-year hiatus with “Doug Aitken: New Era” at 303 Gallery in Chelsea.


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In Doug Aitken’s first video installation to be shown in NYC in ten years, he reflects on technology and communication by telling the story of 89-year-old Martin Cooper, the man who, in the 1970s, created the first ever cell phone. The exhibit, titled New Era, is open at New York’s 303 Gallery and consists of a hexagonal pavilion built into the gallery space. Viewers enter to watch the film, which is shown from three different projectors onto screens surrounded by mirrored walls, creating a kaleidoscopic effect. The result is both hypnotic and unsettling, with escalating images of satellites, freeways, keypads, cell phone towers, and memory boards interrupted by flashes of text and Cooper’s own broken narrative.

Below, our conversation with Aitken—done via cell phone while the artist was location-scouting in the Maldives—on his inspiration for the film, the future of technology, and the best time to view the space.

Rachel: For this exhibit, the mirrored pavilion is similar to the ones you designed for Underwater Pavilions off the coast of California in 2016—except those were moored to the ocean floor.

Doug: “It’s similar in the sense that there’s reflectivity and geometry to it; that was a very immersive piece. The 303 show, in a different but similar way, is architecturally immersive, using film and sound to create a space that’s without time. You fall into this story. It starts with a modern mythology of a man in his late 80s who’s talking into the camera about this invention, which kind of changed everything.”

R: How did you first become interested in Martin Cooper?

D: “Like most people, I find myself looking at how the landscape has changed. You walk into a cafe, and whereas in the past you’d see everyone talking, you now see people focusing on screens. Our society has changed drastically in terms of how we communicate with each other and where the human touch lies, and also the sense of complete connectivity. This is something we’ve never experienced before. We’re coming into a new age, and it poses some very interesting questions.”

R: What’s your take on the future of humanity’s relationship to technology? Negative? Or is that just me? [Laughs]

D: “In a lot of ways we’re collectively stepping into the unknown. I was on a small boat in an atoll yesterday, and there were three people from the local islands and they were all talking [on phones], or looking at screens. For me, it was striking be in a place so vivid and fascinating and alive on a natural level, and perhaps for someone else, since they have seen it so many times, to want be in another world. Technology is ushering in an interesting gray area of questions of self and ethics.”

R: When I read the description of the exhibit it mentioned there would be “future” images. What will those be, your interpretations of the future, and what it will look like?

D: “New Era is anything but a documentary. It’s an artwork that takes the viewer into a different world, a world that’s looking at ideas and taking you places that perhaps language can’t articulate. That’s why I made this artwork. I felt like there were certain ideas or places that I wanted to explore and share that I was unable to do in a more linguistic way. Through image and sound it tries to get closer to that idea of a world that’s completely kinetic and synchronized and, at other times, a landscape that’s vastly isolating.”

R: Were some of your freeway images shot out in Los Angeles?

D: “They were shot all over the place and over a long period of time. It probably doesn’t really matter where it’s shot because it’s these ‘everywhere and nowhere’ places.”

R: When you were speaking with Martin Cooper, did he express thoughts on what cell phone technology has done to society (or what he thinks it will do)?

D: “He remains, on the outside, optimistic. I’m sure that’s in part due to his position—this is his creation. That’s one of the compelling things about making this work. I was interested in how, when we look at technology, we often see something incredibly anonymous and dehumanizing. I found myself saying, ‘did a person actually make this? Can you trace it back to a source?’ That was the nucleus of the project—that the phone came from a man who dedicated time and energy to a tool that enables people to be more nomadic, and more “free,” in his mind. Like the printing press, or the mechanical revolution, or the harnessing of electricity, it’s been a sea change in humanity. It’s profound to think many of these quantum shifts have gone back to an individual. By spending a minute to focus on Cooper, within the work, it humanizes the idea of technology and how it mutates our lives.”

R: Yes, and that there are intended uses for these devices. And it’s true, cell phones do make one more free, but at the same time enslave us and make us constantly available. Can you discuss the second work within the exhibit, Jungle?

D: “Jungle is a neon work that takes the word ‘Jungle’ and repeats it multiple times, in multiple layers of colored light. It’s almost a piece of dance, a repetition where the light sculpture gives every possible iteration of the word. It’s pulsing and moving and changing, and goes into these very abstract patterns based on musical compositions. Then the word will surface again briefly and disappear into other syllables.

At the very end of the show, the last days or so, I want to keep the gallery open 24-hours so it can be something you can wander into at any time, like at two in the morning, and fall asleep in the installation. Or see a sunrise.”

“Doug Aitken: New Era” is on view until May 25 at 303 Gallery, 555 W. 21st St., New York;; and from June 9 to July 21 at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich;


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