Doug Aitken dials in with the American engineer who made the first cell phone call

Doug Aitken dials in with the American engineer who made the first cell phone call

For Doug Aitken’s most recent work, New Era, the artist elevates his signature film installations into a totally immersive experience at 303 Gallery in New York. The 10-minute-long video loop centres on the cell phone, featuring interview clips with American engineer Martin Cooper – the man who made the first handheld cell phone call.

Aitken worked on the piece for about two years after having an epiphany in a coffee shop that literally everyone around him was on their phones. His research led him to Cooper, and the men ultimately spent two days filming an interview discussing the cell phone and the ultimate impact it had on the world.

‘I had an enormous amount of content, but I wasn’t interested in making a documentary or even a document. I decided to use just a few fragments of the conversation– almost like music notes – and embed them in the film,’ said Aitken. ‘The video is not so much about Martin Cooper, even though he is the only human in the work. He takes you to a different place; he rehumanises this moment of radical technology and reframes it within a person’s life.’

New Era (still), 2018, by Doug Aitken. © Doug Aitken. Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York, and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich

Aitken reconfigured the standard white cube space to best display the film. ‘We were really disruptive in how we took the architecture from a four-sided-room to a six-sided-one with mirrors that reflect [the screens] and speakers that project sound from different parts of the room,’ Aitken says. The result transports the viewer into a kaleidoscopic world, amplified through the video itself, with fragmented images of circuitry grids and boards and Motorola cell phones that spin and distort, juxtaposed with soothing, landscape panoramas and Cooper’s interview.

‘I am trying to articulate these views of the world and show the inherent tension and juxtaposition of the landscapes and the grids, repeating and repeating,’ explains Aitken. The artist worked with composer Terry Riley, who drafted a few piano pieces for the images, to create a soundtrack that wavers between soundscape and song.

A curtained hallway branches off from the room and leads to Jungle, a sign that spells out ‘jungle’ three times in myriad coloured lights. Jungle, which also appears New Era (Aitken often references pieces of his work in other works), refocuses the viewer on a single concept after the cacophony of the film experience. The total effect is contemplative, rather than chaotic, a meditation on technology and the human experience.

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