Broken Screen: 26 Conversations with Doug Aitken

Book Review by David L. Jacobs

Broken Screen: Expanding The Image, Breaking The Narrative
26 Conversations with Doug Aitken
Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2006
288 pp, $40
ISBN-10: 1933045264

Over a century ago, psychologist William James coined the phrase "bloomin, buzzin' confusion" to describe the consciousness of human infants before language and culture begin to do their work. James, of course, was writing long before the mass media and, later, the digital revolution transformed his phrase into a bloomin', buzzin' fact of contemporary life.

In Broken Screen, 26 Conversations with Doug Aitken, filmmaker Doug Aitkin grapples with this bloomin, buzzin' confusions with an eclectic array of international artists, filmmakers and architects including John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Rem Koolhaas, Matthew Barney, Pipilotti Rist, Olafur Eliason, Werner Herzog and the late Robert Altman. Some of the artists question, if not subvert the dominance of Aristotelian beginnings, middles and ends. As Amos Vogel says, "We need new options because the old-fashioned, straightforward, linear narratives...have none of the real mysteries of existence that we all know to be true in our own lives." Others use art to reflect the lightning-quick associations born of consciousness, of minds darting here and there with little discernible logic. Many focus on how the media have intensified fragmentation: the endless flux (and influx) of ads, cell phones, piped music, spam, video games - the cacophony, aural and visual, of everyday life. Unlike generations of earlier artists, many current practitioners hold their mirrors up to nature without discovering or constructing much coherence. Some revel in the ambiguities; others embrace the chaos. For Robert Altman, "the greatest accolade anyone could give me about one of my films is to say, 'I don't know what that was about, but man, was it right on.'" The Belgian installation artist Carsten Holler suggests that confusion is "a very productive and beautiful state of mind to me, yet it's something that we often have difficulty appreciating...It can mean succumbing to a specific form of confusion where you don't know as much as you did before. Paradoxically, that can be very productive." These artists explore challenging issues like influence and the meaning of their work without seeking refuge in formalist analysis, matters of technique, or overly arcane theory. As Werner Herzog memorably puts it, "The real question is how you wrestle meaning from film and meaning from life." Aitken sometimes allows the conversations to digress, which is only appropriate, given his emphatic position on the limits of linear thinking and structure. This spontaneity allows for unexpected flashes of wit and insight, and I am thankful that in later editing Aitken allowed them to stand. Where else would one encounter the eminent stage and opera designer, Robert Wilson, comparing theater to a hamburger, complete with mustard, pickles and lettuce? After Richard Prince riffs on the pleasures of slipping off to the afternoon movies, Aitken shifts the focus back to one of the book's leitmotifs:

Owning a VCR meant you suddenly had a device of nonlinearity at your fingertips. You could rewind, fast-forward, and pause the narrative, essentially breaking the time signature of the film.

Or here's Chris Burden, recounting a unique form of photo-retribution:

Chris: When I was in graduate school at UC Irvine there were these really mean secretaries who were just shitty. I don't know why, but they were just nasty. I had a little Minox spy camera then, right, and a developing tank at home. I'd take pictures of them surreptitiously and then go home, develop the negatives, chop them up, put them in my breakfast cereal, and eat the negatives.

Doug: No way!
Chris: Yeah! Ha ha. And the next time I saw them and they were mean to me, it felt really good! I was empowered...I'd processed them in a sort of cannibalistic way and somehow it took away their power.

The design of Broken Screen deserves special mention. Images by each artist are interspersed within the corresponding conversation, though in a decontextualized fashion (minimal information on the images' sources appear in an appendix at the end of the book). Sometimes an excerpt from a conversation is splayed across an adjoining page, set at angles and in different fonts. White text on black switches to black on white on the next page. Text sometimes runs over or bleeds into the images, which are arrayed horizontally, vertically, diagonally. Intense, irruptive splashes of color play across the pages. The book is itself a fractured narrative that forces the reader/viewer into a proactive position. What could have been an off-putting series of design gimmicks instead engages the reader's attention while reinforcing and expanding the themes of the conversations.Bloomin' and buzzin' never looked so good.