Doug Aitken reflects our obsession with mobile technology

Forty-five years ago, American engineer Martin Cooper stood on a sidewalk in midtown Manhattan and changed the world: he made the first public call on a cell phone. Today, according to a UN study, more people own a mobile phone than a toilet. For the mesmerizing video installation “New Era” (on view at 303 Gallery through May 25), artist Doug Aitken filmed Cooper, now eighty-nine, reminiscing and reflecting on what his invention did. When he says, “You can have everyone in the universe one with everyone else, a single entity that is all-powerful”, it’s not clear if that’s a pro or a con. . He doesn’t talk about planned obsolescence, but he does reflect on mortality: “You start recognizing your limits at some point, and it’s just not going to stop.”

With “New Era,” Aitken strikes a happy medium between rumination and spectacle, while eschewing the showmanship that has left some of his recent projects feeling a little too slick. (Examples include submerged geodesic sculptures off the California coast and a cross-country “nomadic event” produced from a train.) Here he constructed a mirrored hexagonal space inside the gallery , in which three screenings of the same eleven-minute loop film alternate with reflections. The moving images are out of sync and the effect is disorienting, with viewers constantly changing position to take it all in. The result is a crowd of people glued to screens, both mesmerized and acting out with digital-age ADHD. .

Footage of Cooper in a black box studio, facing the sea (a live-action romantic hero of Caspar David Friedrich), and walking through a water-splattered cavern is intercut with panoramic aerial views of urban thoroughfares and remote landscapes , some of them revealing the curved edge of the planet, possibly satellite images from outer space. Best of all are the sequences of an old-school Motorola phone, multiplying kaleidoscopically and set to a soundtrack that shifts from stupendously repetitive, Steve Reich-esque, to full-throttle techno. It’s like a Busby Berkeley routine for Generation Coachella.

“New Era” acknowledges the image overload that has become the new norm, but does not condemn wired lives. Aitken’s message could simply be: Proceed with caution. As Cooper says repeatedly, in his sonorous voice, “I made a call,” it’s as if he’s letting us know that he invented the wheel, but he also discovered the fire. ♦

Comments are closed.