electric earth (still), 1999, video installation with 8 channels of video (color, sound) 8 projections, 4-room architectural environment, 9:50 minutes/loop, installation dimensions variable

electric earth (still), 1999, video installation with 8 channels of video (color, sound) 8 projections, 4-room architectural environment, 9:50 minutes/loop, installation dimensions variable

Doug Aiken: Looking In

The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA

 I have seen Doug Aitken’s video work Electric Earth many times over the last 15 years, but seeing it recently at his sprawling new retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, I suddenly grasped that the piece is presenting something new. The only character in it, a young male dancer, is bringing a solution to a problem that has preoccupied me more and more lately—and probably you, too, if only somewhere in your subconscious.

It is a metaphysical problem that distorts the way we think and behave and leads us into wars and mental illness and ecocide. And here comes this dancer as if holding an antidote, twitching and pop-locking his way toward me in a darkened room. In his body is a return to a very, very old understanding of reality. A reality which we desperately need to recognize and reclaim.

Electric Earth originally caused a stir in 1999 when it won the International Prize at the Venice Biennale. It is a brilliant, holistic vision. In it, a young black man wanders through a distinctly dystopian landscape of empty parking ramps, closed storefronts, a low-rent motel, a coin laundry and the xeric concrete hinterlands surrounding LAX by night; the man’s body rhythmically spasms and pops in response to flashing lights and thumping washing machines and foaming carwash wands that trigger his movement. We have the impression that he is helpless to resist this land-dancing, as he says absently, “That’s the only now I get.”


The setting is gritty and the character’s affect is resigned if not depressed. We’re not encouraged to feel good about the situation. The piece has been hailed by the Whitney as a vision of “preoccupation and alienation”; I have long viewed it as an expression of neuropathy provoked by the artificial and lonely quality of modern urban life. I guess it took me a long time to get the next layer in it: That neuropathy is not just evidence of a problem. It is the solution. He is, after all, dancing.

In this piece now I hear the voice of philosopher Freya Mathews from her book, For Love of Matter: “To live in communicative exchange, erotic engagement, with one’s own immediate environment is to abide in an enchanted state… But what does it mean to be ‘enchanted’? Literally it means to have been wrapped up in chant or song or incantation… World is experienced as enchanted when it has been invoked, awoken, by self in this way; and self is in turn enchanted by its engagement with such an awakened world.”

I have known Aitken for over 20 years and we have published books together. We have talked about his work in airports and seminars, bobbing on surfboards and walking Namibian deserts. He has always said his work is about “communication.” Seeing Electric Earth through the lens of contemporary culture, we see the dancer communicating with found rhythms—“I absorb that energy,” the dancer says, “It’s like I eat it”—and we assume it is sickness. He has to zap and tweak like he does, dancing in front of a Coke machine with a dollar being sucked in and spit out, over and over, because he is sick. The environment and the culture that made it are also sick. But now I see something that my friend never mentioned: that the dancer is using enchantment to heal himself.

The late radical ecologist Paul Shepard wrote, in Nature and Madness, that separation from “the reading of nature as the divine language” has made us insane. By that he meant mostly that we’re stranded in immaturity, perpetual teenagers filled with rage at the failure of ideology and religion and entertainment to fill the void left by our inability to become mature adults. We’re stranded because maturity requires fully participating in the ecology of minds on earth, which includes mountains and rivers and dirt. To be mature, we must be in full communication with the material world as the stuff of our making, as the co-maker of our minds and our bodies, as the co-maker of every thought and idea.

Look around: American culture celebrates bitchy, narcissistic, trigger-happy adolescents. Or as Shepard wrote: “The only society more fearful than one run by children, as in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, might be one run by childish adults.”

Enchantment requires full engagement with the field of experience, and so we must admit that, for the most part, we live in enchantment only with technology. That technology requires near-total dissociation from the material world – including other people. Most of us don’t grow our own food, or make our own furniture or electricity or work tools, or walk to work noticing actual features of geography, or make decisions together with the neighbors, or teach our children. It’s too hard to do all the things humans once did. It’s too complex. So we grip our phones tighter and tighter as they drive us further and further apart. Behind the false joy of “likes” we grow increasingly uneasy.

Functionally, we live in a world that is split, where “reality” means accepting the total separation of mind from body, of psyche from matter. Our society lags far behind science (particularly physics, neuroscience and ecology) and philosophy, which have long ago jettisoned the dualism of Descartes, who held that mind and matter, or particles and consciousness, must be different stuffs. That separation creates a dissociated, dualistic worldview that has had us feeling cranky and wrong for centuries, unable to reach missing parts of our selves. We’re lining up at the therapist’s office in greater and greater numbers, unable to feel whole. Society still holds that the tree and the building and the earth beneath your feet cannot communicate with you, or you with it, and if you do you will probably soon join the ranks of homeless wandering the streets in ever greater numbers, in full conversation with the sidewalk.
Or, like the guy in Aitken’s piece, dancing to stoplights. Alone.

And yet.

As I watch the guy dancing to stoplights I feel the overwhelming urge to dance! There in the darkness of Aitken’s installation, I start to move. If there is pathology in this piece, I have to follow that illness to its roots to find why it’s happening. We have bodies that are made to dance. We were born to dance to something, not just something in our own heads but to relate to the otherness in a way that resonates in our bodies, that matters, because it is dancing into another part of ourselves which resides out there, in the world. Our minds evolved to read what Native Americans call the “original instructions,” the languages spoken by possums and rocks and rivers, and as those languages are hushed by technology we’re trying desperately to read whatever takes their place.

So the guy in this artwork is interpreting the otherness of technology. Coke machines. Payphone lights. The clacking of shopping cart wheels. But he has made a monumental breakthrough: he has decided to openly embrace the idea that these material objects pulse with psychic energy. The pulse is not just in him – it’s in them. He cannot interpret from nothing; something is being projected. The objects around him have subjectivity. They are hurling out some kind of message, some kind of desire, some kind of content presented to the imagination. It’s not the electricity that’s making him move around. It’s the recognition that every thing has a beat. It’s a psychic Earth.

The human imagination is the collector and interpreter of all inputs, even when we don’t quite understand what they are. Messages arrive. Know me, they say. Our job, as George Clinton sang, is to “dance our way out of our constrictions.”

In this breakthrough we find the communion that Wordsworth described in his “Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”: “And I have felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean, and the living air, / And the blue sky, and in the mind of man, / A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things.”

Wordsworth probably had a more bucolic presence in mind, but “a motion and a spirit” also inhabit the built environment. It vibrates in the desperate-seeming trophy store. In the rolling bottle cap. It’s a felt presence. Brian Wilson, interviewed in an issue of Raygun magazine when I was an editor there, said, “You know that lobster radar deep in the bottom of the ocean? I’ve got some of that.”

Which allows him to read the environment. Lobsters, after all, have being. If the definition of being is to have subjectivity, to have interiority or some level of awareness, then they have being. And anything they can detect with their radar (whatever that is) must also have being, must be, as understood since the days of Aristotle and Plato, raying out with some kind of presentation of their own interiority in order to be detected.

And so I can’t see the dancer as having given himself over to some kind of dark triumph of the artificial world, but rather as a guy who has decided – unlike the rest of us – to honestly confront reality. For, in reality, all matter pulses with this psychic content. It sizzles and shines. The material world around you appeals to your imagination, constantly, urgently. Otherwise you wouldn’t notice it at all. Maybe we should start noticing it afresh.

Aitken’s piece throws a dystopian world in your face, indicating that it needs fixing. Maturity is required in order to do that fixing, and that requires a reality that’s two-sided and thus really real. Aitken might not have figured this when he made the piece. Mathews wrote, “we can only know that material objects are real, and thereby escape the skepticism that has held philosophy in its grip since the time of Descartes, if the nature of such objects admits of a subjectival aspect.” In other words, that objects talk and that we hear them. The only way to bridge the dualism of self and other is to realize both are animate, both are talking, both are part of a continuum of the same stuff. Mathews adds, “it is only the reanimation of the world that enables the subject to reconnect with reality.”

So this cat is literally dancing to architecture. He may be more sane than any of us. What does it mean to live in such a world, and walk through the fire in those shoes? Let’s let it imbue every physical thing, either in nature or in the built environment, with new power and significance. In a reality that is both material and psychic, sputzing and twitching with messages, living things from algae to elephants suddenly look more like kin: we co-evolved with them, learning to read our niche, the instructions in the landscape, and to know our place in the ecology of mind. We feel horrible about the almost-certain extinction of elephants because they talk to us. But this communication doesn’t stop at the so-called “living” world. When all things have being and psychic juice, the distinctions between living and nonliving flip-flop and fail. Shouldn’t we be more careful in the way we build a 7-Eleven, or a vending machine, or a school, or a culture? All that stuff—that slapdash, fast-extruded, expedient, compromised, half-realized, oftentimes shitty from the get-go, but really, really real stuff —that stuff is talking to you. Co-making you. That stuff is us.

So I feel my shoulders start to twitch and leap in the darkness of Aitken’s installation. My Dutch ancestors haven’t danced in generations. I look at my wife and smile, and she gives me a little hip swivel. She’s a great dancer; a gardener, she intuited all of this without having to write an essay.

As Shepard said about reading the landscape, “We have not lost, and cannot lose, the genuine impulse. It awaits only an authentic expression.” Feet, don’t fail me now.