PRINT January 2007


Doug Aitken

THE IMPLICATIONS of the glass-curtain wall for both cinema and architecture were delightfully suggested in Jacques Tati’s monumental Playtime (1967), a film shot in wildly expansive, stunningly deep-focused 70 mm—critic Jonathan Rosenbaum argues that this was Tati’s vision of the shape of contemporary life—and which took as one of its central characters modernism itself. No doubt inspired by Paris’s edge-city La Défense development begun a few years earlier, the film’s exorbitant set (dubbed “Tativille”) features buildings comprising a wilderness of mirrors and windows through which Tati’s human figures (mostly tourists, aptly) struggle to navigate, crossing one another’s paths but somehow failing to connect. We see a workman asking a building security guard for a light, not realizing that a clear wall stands between them; we see the old city, the “Paris” of Eiffel, visible only as the fleeting, distant reflection of a glass door opening in the right light; we peer into ground-floor apartments whose windows frame inhabitants like images on television (which, of course, these tenants are watching). In Playtime building facades become both lens and screen, often at once, as when Tati’s hapless Monsieur Hulot, lost in liminal space, finds himself unable to distinguish between an object and its reflection, between interior and exterior. The new transparency of modern architecture, Tati seemed to be hinting, might serve more as a distancing mechanism.

Flash forward nearly half a century. We have been living with the dizzying perspectives of Tativille for most, if not all, of our lives. The glass curtain has been internalized, made metaphorical. The showroom-apartment dwellers of Playtime have morphed into characters on reality shows. The city pulses with even more tourists, even more information. Data packets from other time zones whisk through glass walls. We try to avoid missed connections with social-networking software and locational GPS. Snapping photographs with our cell phones, forwarding them to friends, we have reached the point where our own images now move faster than we do (as the past nips at the heels of the future). And yet, despite all this, or because of it, there is still an abundance of what might be called Hulot moments, in which we find ourselves temporarily out of joint with the city around us, where we lose ourselves in a thought that is remembered only later, where an unexpected event forces us from our intended path and into unfamiliar terrain, where illusion and reality bleed together in a slow dissolve.

In many ways, this elusive experience of modernity is the subject of Doug Aitken’s Sleepwalkers, 2007, a public work cosponsored by New York’s Creative Time and the Museum of Modern Art, whose exterior walls of glass and granite play host to the piece’s massive film projections this month. Indeed, comprising a series of loosely interlinked narratives that follow five characters throughout the course of somnambulant urban journeys, the artwork was conceived by Aitken years ago when he had a Hulot-like moment of his own, walking in midtown Manhattan late at night after dinner with friends. “I looked up and started to become aware and impressed by how vertical the space was,” he recalls in his New York studio. “I’d lived in Manhattan but never thought about it. I found myself looking at the space, the time of night, the time of year, and had the feeling of suddenly moving from a very social environment to a very isolating one.” But what if those mute slabs that surrounded Aitken on his late-night walk actually had something to say? What if, beyond looking into windows at empty still lifes of after-hours offices, one saw stories reflected—projected—back? Whose stories would they be? Would they have a beginning and an ending? Accordingly, Sleepwalkers in its narrative structure plays with the fragmentary nature of the city, where any block holds multitudes of stories weaving in and out of view, and where any single route might cross untold numbers of these stories, a human network even more complex than the city’s obscured veins of infrastructure. This is what Aitken calls the “broken screen,” the attempt to render reality outside the devices of linear narrative. For the viewer on the street, Sleepwalkers provides a kind of amplification of his or her transitory urban life: The screens follow no set schedule as to what will show where and in what order. “Ideally, it would be a piece that doesn’t have a duration,” says Aitken. “Someone can pull up, double-park, see something, and take that concept away—as much as someone who wants to stand there for a half an hour and get lost.”

Audiences familiar with Aitken’s work will recognize thematic echoes here of previous works such as Electric Earth, 1999, or The Moment, 2004—dream states, nonlinear stories, the merging of the body with the larger or hidden systems that surround us, random connections and dislocations across time and space. His benchmark piece, These Restless Minds, 1998, features auctioneers walking (or drifting, more accurately) through empty urban architectural spaces—intercut with industrial scenes of, for example, traffic—while practicing their craft, the rapid-fire rhythms of their commercial patois suggesting a subjectivity inscribed (if not subsumed) by modern culture. Sleepwalkers similarly reflects a nearly Pynchonian interest in the individual navigating systems within systems, even when it comes to the artist’s preparatory research and final locations for filming, typically hidden-in-plain-sight and off-limits: Among Aitken’s sites from the secret heart of the city are the closed helicopter plat- form on top of the Met Life Building; the massive (third largest in America) postal sorting center in Queens, with its pumping arteries of information; and the inside of the LED sign at One Times Square, a building whose revenue comes not from its nearly vacant interior but from the commercial words and images it displays to the world across a good part of its facade.

The idea that a building’s semiotic power might be worth more than the space it contains, or that the message it is sending is something beyond the traditional tropes of architecture (e.g., power, efficiency, beauty), has been set in motion by the widening availability and affordability of buildable screens. The horizon looms with materials such as illuminated concrete, with sidewalks themselves becoming screens. The changing rooms of the Rem Koolhaas–designed Prada boutique in New York hint at the larger possibilities—glass walls that change from opaque to translucent at a switch, “magic mirrors” that delay one’s reflection to create a complete view of the clothing. As the Times Square model of commercially accessing and holding people’s attention (“virtual” architectures, if you will) spreads and begins to alter the urban landscape, one might consider Sleepwalkers as a kind of intervention in the changing psychogeography of the city, in which whole building surfaces come to life, actively making appeals to passersby, telling stories about themselves, or changing in response to fluctuating conditions.

Significantly, in describing the work, Aitken uses the word film as often as he does architecture. Asked which term is more appropriately used, he replies: “I’d like it if these works can contribute to that blurring, perhaps proposing that there is a hybrid space, a fluid conceptual space that is not concerned with categorization. I’d like to see Sleepwalkers as a work where ideas can change and evolve within the work and continue shifting in their relationship to the viewer.” Aitken’s idea was to take the exterior spaces of midtown Manhattan—which after hours become “lifeless and cool and detached,” he says—and add what he calls an “emotional skin.” His vision is that someone, say, an office worker, will be walking by when “all of a sudden she finds this image, not knowing why it’s there. She pauses and watches it, and after a bit realizes there’s not a Nike swoosh. Maybe she sees something about her personal experience, some idea that relates to her on a very small level.”

Yet this uncanny experience is bound to be complicated by the presence of celebrities: Aitken’s characters are drawn from Hollywood (e.g., Donald Sutherland and Tilda Swinton) as well as the indie pantheon (e.g., Chan “Cat Power” Marshall and Seu Jorge). Sutherland plays “a very severe” businessman, lost in a world of numbers, who is hit by a taxi and sent into a frenetic, paint-job-destroying dance on the hood; Brazilian favela bard Jorge cameos as an LED sign operator; Marshall toils as a postal worker; Swinton portrays an executive. Ryan Donowho also appears, as a street drummer.

As with a Nike swoosh, the celebrity visage can suck all the air out of the room, a punctum (per Roland Barthes) that arrests the eye and forestalls further interpretation. One wonders whether the familiarity of celebrity undermines the piece’s idea of small, personal (and yet anonymous) urban moments. But then again, the very presence of a famous face, projected on an unexpected place and not selling something (one thinks of Bill Murray, in the reflective vertiginous neon whirl of Tokyo, seeing the billboard of himself in Lost in Translation [2003]), might be exactly what compels the viewers who were not headed into MoMA to stop and look. The mirror-shades cool of MoMA instead becomes an entrancing urban drive-in (or drive-by), “celebrity architecture” writ large, public art that does not announce itself as such. The celebs’ recognizable presence also makes it easier for Aitken to pull off any number of narrative in-jokes—we may see Swinton pick up a book with an image of Donowho on the cover, or we may notice that the spot from which we are viewing Sutherland is in fact the location where he was filmed (“furthering the attempt,” says Aitken, “to question the relationship between what you’re watching and where you’re viewing it from”).

Whether film or architecture, the project required Aitken to discard most of what he knew about either discipline. Architects do not usually think of their buildings in terms of “aspect ratios,” and filmmakers do not usually have to worry about how setbacks and other building contours will affect their projections. At MoMA there are also technical challenges, such as a facade that ranges from fritted glass to black granite, which contribute to a rather unstable display surface. (An adhesive scrim will be applied to some surfaces to increase opacity.) Aitken recalls that he could see “through the image during an early test projection” a light in the office of someone working late and the janitorial staff cleaning after hours. “For me that was so relevant,” he says, “seeing that level of reality blend through into the same image plane as fictional narrative. There’s a kaleidoscope of viewing perspectives, many of which I can’t even predict. Everything I know about cinema doesn’t apply when the images are much larger and moving simultaneously, and when there’s no sound except the sound of the city living and breathing.”

What somehow links Tati’s Playtime and Aitken’s Sleepwalkers over these many decades is a desire to animate, or perhaps fenestrate, the glass walls of the city with human life, perhaps suggesting a new way of living with our buildings. Aitken speaks of wanting “to fold Manhattan inside out and create a kind of architecture that is living and flowing, a waterfall of information and ideas.” He wants, in an act of seductive legerdemain, to make MoMA dissolve, to make it become what’s around it. Similarly, as in previous works, he envisions the human protagonists becoming one with the city around them, circadian rhythms syncing up with the hum of sodium-arc lighting. He moves toward a minimalist economy of images: hands twitching awake, bodies in motion. For example, per Aitken, Swinton’s appearance “was not a role, but a challenge: to start with a character and just progressively disappear into the environment.” Sleepwalkers is a vanishing act of art and architecture, slipping behind and beyond the glass curtain.

Tom Vanderbilt is a writer based in New York.