Nature Machines: Daniel Birnbaum on the Work of Doug Aitken

The Garden, 2017

Doug Aitken seems to be anticipating some sort of technology not yet invented. He looks ahead to a radical rethinking of what “technology” means and what its relationship to nature could be. His creations seem to dodge the dichotomy of technology/nature and would seem more compatible with the baroque understanding of our cosmos as an ever expanding natural organism that contains machinic parts, a view that Leibniz articulates in his Monadology: “Machines of nature, that is to say living bodies, are still machines in their smallest parts right down to infinity.”1
Remember Philip K. Dick’s Preserving Machine, a mechanism capable of processing musical scores into living beings. There is a Johannes Brahms insect and a Richard Wagner animal, and many other bewildering organisms in which artistic genius has been turned into flesh. Dick’s imaginary worlds are populated by fascinating forms of life that escape the categories with which we customarily attempt to grasp the realm of the living. As is usually the case with successful science fiction, these eccentric entities are not only weird. They also capture something that seems essential to our relationship to the realm of living beings: we don’t really know what it is that animates them, and we are not quite sure where to draw the line between that which is alive and that which is not.

Underwater Pavillions, 2016

This uncertainty has only increased in our technologically altered environments, so impregnated with artificial components behaving as if they were given by nature. It seems increasingly clear that when it comes to the concept of life, nothing is entirely clear. A recurrent desire in some of today’s most pertinent works of art is that of penetrating the stuff that surrounds us, revealing that perhaps living things aren’t, entirely; and dead things aren’t quite so, either—and making us wonder about such distinctions in the first place.
No doubt similar motivations can be found in some of today’s most vociferous theoretical approaches as well, not least in those new forms of materialism that attempt to rid our thinking of the obsession with the historically overemphasized relationship between a perceiving subject and a known object. Instead, the argument often goes, we should look into other equally exciting and productive relationships in the world, consisting of so many human and nonhuman forms of agency—technological as well as biological: digital devices and jellyfish, say, or intelligent flowers.

migration (empire), 2008, still

Aitken’s art has paved the way for such a transformation. A horse, a beaver, a deer, an owl, a buffalo, a lion, and a peafowl have all moved into nondescript US hotel rooms, perhaps in anticipation of a world liberated from the anthropocentric prejudices we take for granted. He gives us glimpses of perspectives that go beyond our traditional anthropocentrism. A pavilion installed permanently in the Brazilian rain forest offers a kind of music different from the one created by us humans. Microphones capture the sounds of the Earth turning and the tectonic plates shifting. A reflective hot air balloon transformed into a kinetic sculpture mirrors its surroundings in ways that expand our perceptual apparatus. Moored to the ocean floor, underwater pavilions offer displays that transcend all traditional institutional structures to merge Aitken’s art with the great outside of Earth’s ecosystems.2
Today, with the climate apocalypse in full swing, we perhaps need to start thinking about technology in new, less extractive and destructive terms. In Aitken’s works one finds assemblages that transcend traditional dichotomies such as organic/synthetic and nature/artefact. The visual machines employed are not external to nature because deep down nature is machinic. And you yourself are part of nature in the sense explained by Timothy Morton in Being Ecological: “You are breathing air ... evolution is silently unfolding in the background. Somewhere, a bird is singing and clouds are passing overhead ... You don’t have to be ecological. Because you are ecological.”3


Aitken demonstrates that we are already outside. For decades, he has produced works involving moving imagery that force open the static viewing position separating spectator and artwork. The viewer is invited in to participate. One finds oneself not in front of an image, but inside an immersive environment, within a cinematic space. Like Alice, we pass right through the glass: “Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through.”4 We don’t even need to break any glass since we are already on the other side.

1 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Monadology [1714], § 57; translation from Nicholas Rescher, G. W. Leibniz’s Monadology: An Edition for Students (London: Routledge, 2002), 24 .
2 The Aitken works referenced here are: migration (empire) (2008), Sonic Pavilion (2009), Underwater Pavilions (2016), and New Horizon (2019).
3 Timothy Morton, Being Ecological (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019), 157.
4 Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 127f.
Excerpt from Daniel Birnbaum’s essay ‘Mirror/Glass’ from Works 1992–2022 by Doug Aitken (2022).

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