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The order of things

Peter Lunenfeld's most recent book, "USER: InfoTechnoDemo," was published last fall. He is a professor in the Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

DOUG AITKEN is pretty far removed from the stereotype of the artist, with its tropes of unrecognized genius, unheated garrets and the occasional missing ear. For more than a decade, in museums, galleries and festivals around the globe, the Los Angeles-based Aitken has exhibited complex, multiscreen video environments that are impossible to take in as a unitary whole. His signature installations, like 1999’s “Electric Earth,” a prizewinner at the venerable Venice Biennale, require him to function as director, designer, talent scout, space planner and even something of a travel agent. It’s no wonder, then, that Aitken should come to see the standard modes of linear narrative as inadequate to the task of describing the fragmented life he lives.

When you’ve got existential questions, the best thing to do is talk to your friends. Luckily for Aitken -- as well as for the rest of us -- his friends include filmmakers Robert Altman and Werner Herzog; architects Rem Koolhaas and Greg Lynn; and such artists as painter Ed Ruscha, Swiss video maker Pipilotti Rist and “Cremaster” auteur Matthew Barney. In “Broken Screen: Expanding the Image, Breaking the Narrative,” Aitken curates 26 conversations with these peers and mentors, creating what he calls “a manifesto for navigating the future of communication.” Together, the voices here explore new ways of telling stories that have emerged in the wake of avant-garde moving image experimentation and the relentless innovations in information technologies.

Linear stories are older than Aristotle’s “Poetics” and still dominate popular narrative forms. But as new technologies and media proliferated in the 20th century, so too did nonlinear structures, from the Surrealists’ Exquisite Corpse games before World War II, to the fracturing of time in Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave films, to DJ Spooky’s illbient mix tapes of a decade ago. Right now, computers make the decidedly nonlinear functions of cutting, pasting and linking our default modes of creativity. “Broken Screen” is a richly designed celebration of this moment, well-illustrated with stills from the art, film and video projects under discussion and liberally peppered with pull quotes that distill the conversations into a series of graphic sound bites. Running counter to naysayers on both left and right, Aitken and his friends are unapologetically upbeat about creativity at the dawn of the new millennium.

These are generous conversationalists, encouraging us to participate, to join in constructing new meanings from existing work. For more than a century, they suggest, we have been so immersed in audio-visual narratives that linear storytelling has become at once over-familiar and insufficient. As collagist, filmmaker and all-around West Coast legend Bruce Conner puts it, “nonlinear perception can’t be beat,” because the better attuned you are to it, the more likely you are to “collect various pieces of information and put them into some kind of functional use to make sense of the world.”

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For Conner, nonlinearity is “about consciousness itself,” a subject many of the book’s other participants expand on by talking about their own work and what inspired them. Seminal filmmaker Altman reminisces about the meshing narratives and overlapping dialogue in “Nashville,” while rising young architect Lynn describes the mad sprawl of San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House and avant-garde director Robert Wilson evokes Georges Balanchine’s ballets, where “the dancers, for the most part, dance for themselves.” Aitken and company take on a vast range of references, from Marvel comic books and psychedelic posters to designers Charles and Ray Eames and the latest in 3D-animation software.

It’s a lot of ground to cover, but once you get into the flow, these conversations come across as the way we (should) talk now. Thus, French artist Pierre Huyghe strikes a universal chord when he explains that he carves up the narratives in his video installations to escape overly efficient, and therefore limiting, storytelling. Fragmentation enables him to access what he calls the “exponential present,” a phrase that teeters on the edge of obscurantist art-speak until you consider the always-on, always in-touch culture that many of us inhabit -- complete with the Web, Wi-Fi hot spots, 500 cable channels, downloadable ring tones, peer-to-peer file sharing and more. In such a landscape, there is indeed an explosion of information, which makes Huyghe’s notion of an exponential present not so much pretentious as accurate.

Dialogues have historically served as venues for artists, filmmakers and architects to get their ideas out without having to ape the formality of critical writing. Conversations between artists let them address the nitty-gritty of their craft. The usually inscrutable Barney admits that in journalistic interviews, “I always feel like I’m being forced to talk about things I don’t know anything about. It’s nice to just talk about the way that we make what we do.” The downside of this intimacy is that Aitken and friends can sometimes come off as members of a mutual appreciation society. Aitken is either unwilling or unable to get anything new out of autopoetic mythmaker Kenneth Anger, who virtually invented the music video with his 1960s underground film “Scorpio Rising” (although Anger ruefully admits he never saw a dime from the industry that owes him everything).

The conversations are also something of a transatlantic men’s club, with only three women in the mix and no Asian artists or filmmakers. Equally problematic is the virtual absence of television from these discussions, because TV much more than film defines how we interact with moving images today. At times, it seems like Aitken is trying to graft the cinematic past to the interactive digital future in order to break television’s stranglehold over our imaginations. Other interviews slip over the edge altogether, as when Koolhaas, who designed the Prada Epicenter stores in Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles, describes fashion as nonlinear because it is “the perpetual advent of internal atavistic desires ... almost tragic in intensity.” And you thought it was about a dress and a pair of shoes.

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Still, as an object to think with, “Broken Screen” is a stirring example of what I call visual intellectuality. The book ends with a series of well-illustrated capsule discussions of "[m]oments of alternative narratives and points of light” written by Aitken and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, as well as two seductive, mandala-like diagrams of the history of nonlinear film. Here in particular, Aitken blends image and language to create a “tool for stimulation.” Whether you are an artist, writer, architect or filmmaker trying to figure out where to go next, or someone who wants a deeper understanding of what you just experienced in the museum, online or on screen, the conversations in “Broken Screen” offer a good way to kick-start yourself into the 21st century. *


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