On View303 Gallery
April 13 – May 25, 2018
In 1973 Martin Cooper made the first public cell phone call from the street in mid-town Manhattan. New Era, a continuous ten minute, fifty-six second loop video by Doug Aitken responds to that event and the present consequences of this new technology. In a sixteen-foot tall-darkened room, thirty-five by forty feet, three overhead projectors, each set opposite a large mirror, project images in a vast hexagonal installation, accompanied by a spacey electronic musical accompaniment created by Aitken’s studio. Depending on when one enters the loop, we see Cooper, who now is eighty-nine, telling his story. Then the multiple screens erupt with kaleidoscopic images (literally kaleidoscopic as if shot through one of those novelty toys) of the keypad of his cell phone, gigantic landscapes and vast cloverleaf highways viewed from very high above, with no people visible. Moving from the main space one enters the next smaller gallery, where, in natural light, a large neon pulsating sign displays the word “jungle.”
Aitken once said, “We are inside the screen.” The world has become “a film set.” He suggests in such statements, and in this exhibition, that technologies such as the computer screen, cinema, and now the mobile phone, create a hallucinatory world that distorts our “sense of time and self,” dramatically changing the ways in which we experience reality. As Cézanne’s portraits responded to an earlier visual technology, the photograph, which forced artists to rethink the experience of capturing a likeness, the omnipresence of cell phones today has transformed our visual culture.
I agree that the cell phone (and our other novel computer-based technologies) have dramatically transformed almost everyone’s everyday visual experience. In Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film, the very privileged London photographer played by David Hemmings calls the operator from a telephone in his Rolls Royce convertible. At the time such a phone seemed futuristic and outlandish but nowadays we all own much better phones. The question that Antonioni in 1966 and Aitken in 2018 raises is how to interpret such technological changes—and how to understand the ways in which art should best respond. Cell phones are very good when you are trying to contact a missing friend in a crowded city; or when you make your way to an unfamiliar destination using GPS. But as we all know, these little computers can be distracting at dinnertime, and they are potentially dangerous if used when driving. Consider, then, how we sometimes move, quickly and frequently, back and forth between focusing on our smart phones and looking around us. How should that banal experience change the way we make and view gallery art?
Cultural historians describe changes like these in words. A visual artist faces a more challenging task—he or she has to provide a visual response, one interpretation if you will, of technological revolutions. Like any good interpretation of anything, Aitken’s interpretation of the cell phone offers one plausible, but surely disputable point of view. And so it’s worthwhile to consider objections to his analysis. As for his claim that cell phones are inherently immersive, is that entirely correct? I grant that Aitken’s New Era presents an immersive experience, for inside the darkened 303 Gallery all that you see is the video and its reflections. But usually, using your cell phone is very different, for you are not immersed in the tiny screen images. In Aitken’s video, apart from Cooper, no people are visible (except anyone who happens to be in the gallery at the same time you are); but when you use your phone, often other people are present nearby and also, perhaps on your screen. These criticisms shouldn’t undercut my obvious admiration for Aitkin’s show, which, like a lot of good art, inspires a critical response. But allow me one small complaint about an important exhibition: seating for the lengthy video would make the reviewer’s experience easier!