February 2, 2007

The Trouble With sleepwalkers

Art Fag City: MoMA's immense public art project downplays the public and the art

By Paddy Johnson

Doug Aitken: sleepwalkers as it appears from MoMA's 53rd Street façade (Photo: Creative Time)

I defy anyone to travel in this city for more than a few miles without seeing or hearing some mention of Doug Aitken: sleepwalkers, the immense video installation projected on the MoMA façade through Feb. 12. Admittedly, the presentation is stunning: Spanning virtually every flat exterior surface the museum has to offer, viewers have the opportunity to watch anywhere from one to four channels at a time, typically from locations such as West 53rd or 54th Streets, in an adjacent lot often used to corral visitors on busy days, within the MoMA Sculpture Garden and, for those who don't mind exchanging a good film experience for a small amount of warmth, through a very glare-friendly window inside the MoMA Design Store across 53rd. Ryan Donowho, Seu Jorge, Chan Marshall (a k a the singer/songwriter Cat Power), Donald Sutherland and Tilda Swinton respectively play the roles of a bicycle messenger, electrician, postal worker, businessman and an office employee, and the film traces their rise in the morning and journeys to various locations around Manhattan. The soundtrack for the piece comes from the surrounding city itself, and the narrative construct, like most art videos, remains mostly non-linear.

Those are the sounds of a blockbuster hit if I ever heard one: Virtually no dialogue; no plot; no action; and it's about 30 degrees outside -- surely droves of people will flock to see this movie. Indeed, I met about eight outside the museum, each of whom asked the same question I had: Why does sleepwalkers have to screen in the middle of winter?

One MoMA employee told me the choice was a deliberate attempt by the city to recapture the economic success of Christo and Jean-Claude's self-funded Central Park installation The Gates, which, in winter 2005, generated an estimated $254 million in economic activity during typically dead tourism months in New York. While the city did not directly commission Aitken, it did fund Creative Time (an arts organization that commissions artists to create public works), which then partnered with MoMA. The organization acknowledged they were encouraged to present a piece in January as opposed to the already tourist-rich month of December, though they claim the project was always intended to be launched in the winter.

Creative Time spokeswoman Maureen Sullivan explained that maximization of viewing hours helped motivate that decision, an explanation that would make a lot more sense if sub-zero temperatures were pleasurable to experience for extended periods of time. Given that many see video art as something that does not require a theater, or a significant amount of time to digest, Aitken's vague comments in the audio tour could be applied to the choice as well, though it's hard to know what specifically he is talking about when he says he feels a resistance towards traditional cinema: "The viewer is put into kind of a passive role when they are watching these images within the safety of the screen," he pontificates. "And I've always had a desire to try and break that screen in some way."

I guess we're supposed to see the projection itself as a different approach to the conventional cinematic experience -- certainly curators have latched onto this subject as it constitutes the bulk of audio tour. sleepwalkers is about the blurring of public and private, interior and exterior space, we are told. It questions the limits of the museum, says MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach. But this concept plays out rather quickly, relying entirely too much on the medium's relationship with architecture; once projected onto the outside walls of the museum, viewers are expected to think about how a private moment in the shower is now a public one, or how a shot of the inside of the NASDAQ sign can evolve into an inverse iteration of itself and how art, no longer housed by the museum, transforms the building itself into art. I don't want to rain on anyone's parade, but the basic meaning drawn from Aitken's video landing on the side of a building does not constitute the substance of a movie.

Not that the film doesn't have its strengths; certainly the cumulative effect of scenes showcasing the individuality and preciousness of the characters' pleasures -- Sutherland tap dancing on a cab, Marshall twirling in darkness -- has a moving effect. But while the moments are nice, they are a little too quiet for an artist whose accomplished work with sound and visuals landed him high-profile music video commissions with Fatboy Slim and Interpol. Beyond the triteness of elevating the city hum to the position of soundtrack, the street noise feels too organic for a formalist like Aitken; the sleepwalkers trailer matches music to quick cuts of the city and stars, visually and aurally demonstrating the city's pulse in a way that these silent projections never do.

Perhaps fittingly, the success of the trailer falls in line with the real genius of the project: the marketing. Only a successful campaign could raise the profile of an A-list artist (if D-list celebrity) to the extent that every press outlet in the city would cover the event as though the artist had invented the iPhone. Of course, that so few have noted the fact that January isn't exactly a prime time for outdoor screenings indicates something different altogether: It underscores the dominant belief that extended viewing of art films does not affect our ability to understand the work, but rather captivates the vision of New Yorkers without requiring the burden of contemplating it.

UPDATE: The author responds to artist/blogger Tom Moody's further consideration of Doug Aitken and sleepwalkers.

Paddy Johnson is the editor of the New York art blog Art Fag City.

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