Summer 2008
Artist: Doug Aitken
Doug Aitken, American, b. 1968, Migration (still), 2008, 4-projection outdoor video installation. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

“I could have something in a gallery, and the dealer might be really excited about the art, but then walk outside of his building and be really upset by a tag that I’ve created.”
- Barry McGee

“I’m interested in how sound defines space, acoustically; the sculptural aspects of sound. But I’m also interested in the emotive and psychological effects of sound, and voice in particular.”
- Susan Philipsz
Voices From Mars
By Justin Hopper

A few weeks before the Carnegie International’s festive opening, CARNEGIE magazine spoke with two of its featured installation artists as they readied to come to Pittsburgh—Barry McGee, from his home in San Francisco, and Susan Philipsz, from her home in Berlin—and then tailed a third artist, Doug Aitken, as he explored western Pennsylvania with a mission.

Artist: Barry McGee

Barry McGee is down for “Whatever”

Barry McGee is one of the most successful American artists to make the transition from the world of street art and graffiti into the gallery milieu. Recognized by various tag names, McGee’s street work remains known to graffiti enthusiasts around the world. And his gallery work—often employing similar bulbous figures and urban artifacts, ready-mades and themes—is heavily influenced by his street art. Athough, McGee argues, the line between the two is absolute. 

How do you distinguish between your street art and gallery work?
I’m kind of a traditionalist—I like graffiti on the streets. Especially if you’re going to call it street art, it belongs on the streets. I’m actually not that fond of the [trend towards] galleries welcoming graffiti in with open arms. I used to think that the answer was to just paint on the walls and have it painted over, but now I’ve just abandoned the whole thing entirely. It doesn’t belong in galleries. I admire people doing stuff on the street, but once it’s indoors, it becomes a fad, a marketing tool. I like the outdoors as it is; I like my work competing with all the other people trying to get your attention.

Your work for the International, then, is far removed from that medium?
I’m bringing my whole studio—a lot of pattern panel pieces. It’s a curious space—an underused hallway that leads up to the Carnegie’s office spaces—and I’m going to cover a good amount of the walls, with the panels and about 60 VCR players, and—well—I’m not sure what’s going to happen!

What connects your gallery work—patterned panels, vitrine cases full  of objects, etchings—with your previous, street-influenced work?
I always wanted to make art that looks human; art that other humans can understand having been made by the hand of a fellow [person]. And art from junk. Once it’s put out on the  sidewalk, that’s when I want to bring it into the studio and work with it. I’ve been visiting local and municipal museums recently, and I’m fascinated by the objects that they exhibit, that have made it through the transition of time. These   little backwater museums with vitrines filled with artifacts, a couple of pieces of stone, that all make their way together into these little plexi-glass cases. A lot of that happens after the  people are dead and their things are arranged into the vitrine cases. So I thought I’d make my own, before my death.

Was that transition from street to gallery difficult, when you made the leap in the 1990s?
Getting in wasn’t quite that hard, looking back. Now that I’m in, I’m doing everything I can to get back out on the street again, even if it just means doing my work on the front of a building. I considered doing a big graffiti piece on the front of the Carnegie, but Doug Aitken already had that space. I could have something in a gallery, and the dealer might be really excited about the art, but then walk outside of his building and be really upset by a tag that I’ve created.

Artist: Susan Philipsz

Susan Philipsz by the Banks of the Ohio

Scotland-born artist Susan Philipsz creates sound  sculptures that explore the physicality of music and the human voice—its resonance within the human body,   the architecture in which it’s performed, and the cultural context within which people hear a song. For the Carnegie International, Philipsz’s Sunset Song is exhibited in the outdoor courtyard, and a new piece, One and the Same, debuted in the Carnegie Music Hall.

Your work is often determined by the spatial and historical qualities of its exhibition space. How is your International work informed by Pittsburgh?
I chose Sunset Song for the courtyard because I knew that there where many rivers in Pittsburgh. What I didn’t know was that the Ohio River begins in Pittsburgh, which was an amazing coincidence as the song I use for Sunset Song is The Banks of the Ohio. The song is an old American murder ballad and there are two different versions of it. One is a male version—a man takes his sweetheart down by the banks of the Ohio, proposes marriage but she rejects him so he drowns her. The other is from the female perspective—it is he who doesn’t want to marry her, so she stabs him in the heart. The way I’ve recorded it is like a call-and-response duet: both versions start together, and then diverge, like each one’s telling its own version of what’s happened. The sound becomes fainter as the sun sets so that it seems to be moving away from you, like it’s far off in the distance.
My new work, One and the Same, was made with the amazing Carnegie Music Hall in mind. I work with music and sing in my work so I knew that it would be perfect acoustically. I was also taken with the atmosphere of the place. When it’s empty it has an almost eerie atmosphere. Your attention is drawn to the architecture, the empty seats, the curtained theatre boxes, and the lights. I’ve chosen another ballad that became popular in America when Harry Smith released the Anthology in 1952. The song was originally called James Harris and then The Daemon Lover and, finally, The House Carpenter. I’ve chosen these three versions of this song and recorded each one, and they play simultaneously from three different speakers installed in three different parts of the Music Hall. The effect is that the recordings overlap and create an abstract sensation in the space.

What interests you about sound as a sculptural, rather than musical, medium?
I’m interested in how sound defines space, acoustically; the sculptural aspects of sound. But I’m also interested in the emotive and psychological effects of sound, and voice in particular—what happens when you hear an unaccompanied [singing] voice in the public space. For that I’ve used political anthems, folk songs, pop songs, opera—everything. I’m also interested in collective memory—how song can be a trigger for collective memory. Like The Internationale (the communist anthem, which Philipsz performed at former Berlin border crossing Friedrichstraße Station); it sparked old memories for the people living there. And sometimes that is not always a good memory.    I sang it in a way that could be heard as a lament for that era, or a call to political action.

Did you study singing before using it in your artwork?
I never studied singing, though I’ve always liked it. Coming from Glasgow, everybody likes to sing. I was a soprano in the choir, and I was in a band for a little while. When I went to art school, I began to really think about the physicality of singing—what happens in your body when you’re singing, and to the space [around you]. I started to think about the sculptural aspects. It seemed natural, studying for my MA in Belfast, to work in sound, which I’ve done since then. I’ve done film and photography, but even my film work, The Dead, is really a sound work on film.

Hotel Accommodations: Doug Aitken explores western PA—and leaves a light on for you.

Room 104, Red Roof Inn, Monroeville, PA. 
Standing outside the sample room that Red Roof Inn has provided, Doug Aitken is sipping motel-lobby coffee from a paper cup. It’s his fifth or sixth hotel visit today, and most of have been failures: ‘No vacancies’ signs and balking clerks are the order of the day.

For Migration, the California film and video artist wants footage of hotel and motel rooms—and a lot of them. Much like Aitken’s best-known recent work Sleepwalkers, Migration is purpose-shot to be projected onto the façade of a building—Carnegie Museum of Art in this case (look for it at night on both the front and back of the building); the Museum of Modern Art in New York for Sleepwalkers. Unlike Sleepwalkers, however, Migration doesn’t include stars such as Tilda Swinton and Donald Sutherland. Migration, in fact, doesn’t include humans. As testament to the 21st-century nomadic American existence, Migration stars indigenous American fauna: mustangs, owls, bison.

“I wanted to address this idea of a modern landscape and a new form of nomadicism,” says Aitken. “We find ourselves in these hotels—very transitory places—and you have these private moments. [But] the room looks the same as one you might’ve stayed in months ago. That idea of patterns, how that exists across landscape—I started to think there was a way for that Warholian repetition to happen in a cinematic way.”

Aitken imagined a world of hotels bereft of human life; inhabited not by migrating 21st-century Americans but by migrating animals. (The bison, fortunately, would be filmed on a sound stage in L.A.) His idea, concocted on a trip to Pittsburgh last December, began to quickly take shape through a combination of brainstorming and serendipity: The façade of the Museum of Art, for example, turned out to be almost perfectly aligned to Aitken’s film’s aspect ratio. So, in keeping with the theme of his work, when things don’t go as planned—such as being turned away not only from this Red Roof Inn, but from the nearby Day’s Inn—Aitken and company simply smile and migrate down the road.

Room 826, Holiday Inn University Center, Pittsburgh, PA. 
Aitken prowls his hotel room with an experienced air, purging signs of specificity: Here a room-service menu, tossed under the pillow; there a cable-TV table-tent ad, shoved into the nightstand drawer. Aitken’s assistants scramble in silent, military precision, rigging the room’s lamps onto dimmer switches, running electrical lines under the mattress, sighting each corner of the room for light. Within minutes, Aitken is pressing his right eye against the viewer of the massive Arriflex 435 camera.

“That’s it,” says Aitken, roving the camera around the room, nodding appreciatively. “That is a very, very, sterile image.” He pans the room, briefly covering the viewer and going blind, and comes to rest on the window’s fading sunlight as it passes through the room’s standard-issue rocks glasses and ice bucket.

Watching Aitken document Room 826 is a similar process. The intense planning, gentle touch, loving gaze: Such energy poured into something so taken for granted—a mere hotel room—is a minor epiphany in and of itself. Like Aitken’s work in general, it is to see the banal as both ubiquitous and miraculous.

“It’s almost like a survey of the landscape,” says Aitken. “It’s finding many rooms, and documenting them in a way that’s very stylized; mysterious. It’s a cinematic portrayal of an idea that’s somewhat fictional, futuristic [seeming], yet set within our current reality.”
Also in this issue:

Celebrating the Mark that Makes Us Human  ·  American Doggedness and the Carnegie International  ·  Clash of the “Tyrant Lizards”  ·  Hip to Be Square  ·  Special Supplement: Thanks to Our Donors  ·  Director's Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Now Showing  ·  Face Time: Sam Taylor  ·  About Town: Robotic Wonder  ·  Field Trip: Red Hot Find  ·  Science & Nature: Ready, Set, Go! Sports Works 2.0  ·  Artistic License: Kinetic Energy  ·  Another Look: Section of Mollusks