By Richard Goldstein
You can catch yourself on the city, reflected in it as you rush by. Glimpses offered by the glass of cars and buildings and strangers’ eyes. While riding a train burning through the city, the images fall along the window like ash. Floating. We were built for each other; the city accepts our bodies and we accept the city.
Sleepwalkers takes five individual stories and presents them in three ways:
Above the 53 Street entrance of the MoMA—a single screen
The open space between 53 and 54 Streets—a double screen
The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden—five screens
The individual stories are symmetrical in their duration, each thirteen minutes. This allows an endless recombinant narrative, which shuffles across MoMA’s façade. Aitken has been working with alternative narration throughout his career. His work in the field is pioneering. He has taken the responsibility to document and archive the processes of his contemporaries who work with alternative narrative structures (to name a few: Pipilotti Rist, Pierre Huyghe, and Ugo Rondinone) in a series of interviews published as Broken Screen. The broken screen experience offers the viewer a radically different presentation of story than the entertainment industry’s linear story. Seeing the film through space democratizes the viewing experience as the audience navigates through the story physically, piecing together their own story.
“The condition of the city is one in which we are surrounded and alone at the same time.”
He utilizes simultaneity, change, and movement to make a relational cinema, in that the story does not lie within the screen, but the relation between the screens. Doug Aitken’s work truly formalizes and romanticizes the effect of the split screen. His aesthetic references sources from the independent vision of Mike Figgis’ Timecode to Michael Gordon’s 1959 camp classic Pillow Talk. In shameless allusion, I can’t help thinking of Doris Day and Rock Hudson sharing the Technicolor screen in quirky split configurations. This kind of coincidence and visual sharing of space motivates Aitken’s piece.
Sleepwalkers is a representation of the world of multiple screens and at the same time provides relief from it. We witness the characters going through their monotonous activities, which crescendo into a unified collective ecstatic experience. The characters and images circle around lost to the rhythm of their dreams, like dervishes spinning out of reality.
“she is dancing/he is dreaming”
The circle is an ever-present trope throughout the cycling of Sleepwalkers. In his abstract reprieves from the narrative course, Aitken uses the circle in reference to the sun and traffic lights. Red and green lights, and the sun are both timekeepers, signaling activity and rest. A circle is a form with no point. It is this banality plus the cyclical endless nature the form implies that expresses the continuity of time and constant motion of Sleepwalkers. There is a slight contradiction in the being of a circle because it is a form with no point as well as an amplified or enlarged point. Likewise, Sleepwalkers incorporates the specific individual stories, from all five boroughs of New York City, alongside their autonomy. The characters merge together and separate—sleepwalking, yes, but more of a balletic amnesia, a collective unconscious? The condition of the city is one in which we are surrounded and alone at the same time. The ambiguity between the private and the public in the nature of the street is what Laurie Anderson speaks of in her City Song, “There are ten million stories in the naked city, but no one can remember which one is theirs.” Sleepwalkers reveals the solitude, longing, and pleasure of post-millennial living.
Richard Goldstein whitehot, New York 2007
2 Laurie Anderson, “City Songs,” Talk Normal: The Laurie Anderson Anthology, 2000, Warner Brothers.