On Art and Social Media

An Interview with Doug Aitken

by Nathan Worcester


Artist and filmmaker Doug Aitken has been exploring the aesthetic possibilities of technology in his work for over three decades. In recent years, he has capitalized on the immense potential of social media, curating one of the art world’s most intriguing Instagram accounts.

In an interview with the New Art Examiner, he shared some of his thoughts on social media, the Lumière brothers, fiction vs. non-fiction, and Bruce Conner’s visit to a thrift store, among other things:



New Art Examiner: I’m interested in some of the paradoxes in something like Instagram. What do you think it means for someone in fine art to capitalize on a medium that is, I think, genuinely democratizing, but that is also privately owned and data-mined—and that people often find invasive?

Doug Aitken: There’s always been a relationship between art and technology. I don’t mean technology leading art—I mean working in different systems, trying to find ways to sculpt and shape different forms of communication. We can see this so far back, from the invention of perspective to the Gutenberg printing press…


Doug Aitken, Elevation-1049. Photo courtesy of Torviol Jashari and Doug Aitken Workshop.


To me, Instagram is very interesting. If we look at the arc of the moving image, the invention of cinema with, say, for example, the Lumière brothers, we see this language that really exploded in the 20th century. I think cinema’s the great language of the 20th century. But as the 20th century progressed, we found ourselves having this very rigid time codes—these very strict formats that we had to work within. For example, movies at ninety minutes or two hours, or a short film has a [rigid] duration. Everything became very standardized. And I think that created siloing within communication, within film, within what formats could be used for what. I think it kind of calcified. A short film could never be taken seriously because a long film was supposed to be substantial—those kinds of clichés.


Doug Aitken, NewHorizon, Crane-Estate, 2019. Photo by Jamie Barron.


With the revolution of self-publishing and the revolution of digital platforms, it explodes those structures and time codes. It blows them open…

There are different platforms that can handle [it]—or that you can excavate to work that way—that weren’t there before. So, to me that’s what’s kind of compelling—the fact that we can experiment with a five second artwork or film or loop, or a thirty second piece. It allows for all these possibilities…

You [also] have this vast landscape of conversations and dialogues that can be activated.


NAE: This is somewhat my generational perspective, but to a certain extent, everybody who’s grown up with these technologies is a creator, or sees themselves to some extent in that light… And yet it’s also a particular infrastructure that is, to some extent and in some respects, under the influence of particular monied interests or states. There are other factors that intercede that we’ve become more aware of in the past few years.

DA: Yeah—but isn’t that true of the history of communication?


Doug Aitken, The Garden, 2017, Photo courtesy of Doug Aitken Workshop.


NAE: That’s true…

I looked at your Flag and Debris work. There it seems like you’re highlighting phrases like ‘Digital Detox’ and ‘Resist Algorithms.’ What did that come out of?

DA: We’re moving into uncharted waters. We find ourselves stepping into a landscape that’s not really defined—it’s kind of a haze on the horizon, almost. And that, to me, is extremely interesting. And this has been accelerated with COVID, with 2020, with all the kind of elements at play right now. But this would have happened anyways. We’re moving fast, we’re accelerating into this landscape that we don’t really have an idea of how to navigate that well… It puts people in a situation where they’re insecure or they’re overly confident. They don’t quite know what the next step is.


Doug Aitken, Flag and Debris Installation. Photo by Evan Bedford.


With the body of work, Flag and Debris, I found myself at the beginning of COVID, like everyone else, locked at home, looking at four walls, not really able to do the things that I would normally do. And I started thinking about the subject that we’re talking about right now—this new frontier that we’re moving into. And I started thinking, ‘To make art right now, maybe I should just set these parameters’—like Arte Povera parameters. I’d say, ‘I’m just going to use what’s around me in my house. Pull some fabric out of the closet, pull some discarded clothes, and start putting them together—making phrases, words, language…’

And the language that came to me were these very, very contemporary words and phrases. Speaking about algorithms, pattern, code—thinking about the phrasing and the language that’s being pushed out that we’re not even used to understanding yet, as a society. And with that work, I almost want to use the slowness and the stillness of the handmade, sewing these words and phrases which are very liquid and very accelerated—slowing down that information and reflecting upon those ideas.

For myself, the idea of art is something that’s incredibly fluid. I don’t really see the idea that someone’s going to define themselves by medium—like, ‘You are a painter.’ We’re people. We have ideas, and we use what’s around us, or we invent mediums or ways of working… I think that’s why, for me, Instagram is interesting, and it feels kind of intuitive. It feels interesting, being able to step into a space and know that the parameters are very short bursts of information—this very concise image or phrasing. And how can that work? How can that work if you have this little digital pulse that you just put out there, and you see how it radiates, or if it does?


NAE: It’s powerful, because you can really see, ‘Wow, this is something that people are responding to—that seems to speak to the moment.’ But you also find yourself—I’m a bit of a contrarian, so I’ll always push back—you also find yourself developing these feedback loops if you’re not careful, where [you wonder], ‘Is this something that I’m putting out because it’s consumable, or is this something that I happen to be using this medium to put out?’

DA: Yeah—and I think you’ve always seen art coopting popular media forms. Look at the DADA, reappropriating advertisements and cutting them up…

What’s interesting to me is when someone takes a medium, like social media, and they actually do something with it instead of just use it to advertise—where they actually use the format itself as a new form of canvas, and they bring something to it that didn’t exist before.

For the longest time, in the editorial world, there were editors who specialized in certain durations. There’s a friend of mine who’s just an incredible editor at thirty second spots—commercials. This was a specialty that was really in demand for decades and decades—someone who could really tell a story in thirty seconds.

The attention span for Instagram isn’t thirty seconds—it’s five to ten seconds. The commercial that we all grew up watching and digesting and repeating—that’s almost like a feature film compared to the attention span of an Instagram viewer.

So, in this kind of attention merchant’s way, you see this larger populace’s attention has been reduced and eroded even further. So now you have to create a story or a narrative or an impact that has even less time to work with!


NAE: And if your focus is in presenting deliberately fractured narratives, which seems to be a theme in the way that you approach at least some of your work, then it seems like it’s a particularly resonant medium for that…

DA: And you can see it as an experiment—as a way of workshopping these ideas that you have, putting out these little tests or experiments. That’s one of the things that has been lacking in contemporary art. Isn’t contemporary art supposed to be a space for experimentation? Isn’t it supposed to be an area that isn’t about only refinement—that it’s also about losing it and really pushing ideas to their extremes, their breaking point?

I think that art has been increasingly conservative over the last decades, and maybe there’s a moment now—this last twelve months or so—where the language of art can refresh itself. It can get back to the core of what it can or could to, as opposed to how it was subservient so much…


NAE: It seems like [Flag and Debris] was presented in such a gripping way televisually—but when I think about the concept of these dancers, these amorphous forms, occupying a vacant Los Angeles landscape, a lot of what’s interesting is this notion of reengagement with something  more real and concrete—something that’s hard not to consume over digital media, simply because that’s so central to the way we consume anything, but at the same time, it’s sort of an attempt to ‘digitally detox,’ as you might put it.

DA: Sometimes you kind of question, ‘What’s fiction? What’s non-fiction? What’s real?’ The last twelve months really put that into question—what is this world around us? What is Chicago when you look out your window and there’s not a human out, every store is closed, the city is in lockdown. It’s something we haven’t experienced before…

Maybe this allows us to reflect, in a way—to question, in a way, which we just simply could never have done before. You actually have this time and space to think, to look at the long game, absorb something and come back to it again and again, not just replace it and move on. You and I and people who are engaged in creativity and culture, we really need to take those elements and not lose them. When we phase out of this, we need to fight to preserve the integrity of what’s come out of this, and not find a situation where we’re reverting back to the way it was.


Doug Aitken, Flag and Debris Installation. Photo by Evan Bedford.



NAE: You mentioned that you’re especially interested in social media in new ways. Are there any other visual artists out there who have particularly powerful social media accounts?

DA: As far as artists, I’m not really sure. But there’s people who really exploit it in strange, interesting ways.

There’s actually this Eastern European electronic musician who does some great stuff. His name’s Tommy Cash. It’s completely fucked up, but I think, ‘That’s so fresh! Where did that come from?’

It also creates this portal where you discover other voices, other people doing things… [Tommy Cash] is making some of the most peculiar and disturbing short clips, and he has nothing to do with art, and he’s not in the contemporary art world at all. And I think that’s kind of refreshing in a way…

There’s such an interesting history of artists trying to use media—I’m thinking of Chris Burden’s TV Hijack, which is one of the most disturbing and violent things you’ve ever seen, where he’s on cable access or public television in some small region—I think it’s Irvine—and he starts taking the commentator hostage…

Bruce Conner made this movie in the fifties—he told me he went to a thrift store or something, and they were selling all these sixteen-millimeter newsreels, because they played newsreels before World War II in movie theaters, so you knew what was going on in the world… So, he found all these old black and white newsreels, and bought them for cheap, and they cut them up and made that tour-de-force of A Movie—a complete collage remix of the media at that point in time.

It’s kind of in the blood of a lot of artists, and this is just another evolution of it.


Final thought from Doug:

“I don’t think the artist should be beholden to their work existing inside a room, a space—and this allows us to push this further.”


Nathan Worcester is the managing editor of the New Art Examiner. He lives in Chicago.


Doug Aitken, Flag and Debris Installation. Photo by Evan Bedford.



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