Starting next Tuesday, eight exterior walls of the Museum of Modern Art and the American Folk Art Museum will do double duty as screens for a striking new video art project, Sleepwalkers, transforming 53rd and 54th Streets into a vast outdoor multiplex. Five short interconnected films will tell the story of one night in the lives of five New Yorkers, played by Donald Sutherland, Tilda Swinton, Cat Power, Seu Jorge, and an unknown, Ryan Donowho, a teenage busker whom the artist, Doug Aitken, met in the subway. Aitken calls the spectacle a “silent film for the 21st century,” and projected every evening from 5 to 10 p.m. for 28 consecutive days, the show is likely to be the most-seen in MoMA’s history.
The 38-year-old Aitken is already something of an art-world prodigy. He won the International Prize at the Venice Biennale when he was 31. He’s had countless solo shows and has exhibited at the Whitney and the Centre Pompidou. He’s even made music videos for Interpol and Fatboy Slim. But Sleepwalkers will elevate Aitken from downtown art stardom to MoMA’s uptown firmament. “Doug is really pushing the envelope,” says Klaus Biesenbach, the chief curator of media at MoMA and the co-curator of the project. “He’s like a scientist who is really obsessed with an experiment and how it furthers the discussion of his body of work.” For MoMA, the project is a chance to shake off its stodgy post- expansion image and to prove those massive new walls have a purpose.
In person, Aitken is friendly and adventurous, the kind of guy who suddenly decides to swim the Panama Canal or to chase locust swarms in the Sinai Peninsula. He’s also a convincing theorist: He’s an urgent proponent of “exploded cinema” and other nonlinear art, which he discusses with people like Rem Koolhaas, Matthew Barney, and Robert Altman in his 2006 book Broken Screen. He’s been drawn to bleak themes of isolation and information overload since his days at art college in Pasadena, specializing in multiscreen installations that force viewers to shape their own narratives. “I don’t want to tell you a story and give you a conclusion,” Aitken says. “I want an open exchange and a reflection of your own way of living.”
“Aitken’s a fascinating guy,” says Peter Eleey of the public art agency Creative Time, and the co-curator of Sleepwalkers. “He has a kind of sensitive, poetic attention to the world, and to be able to balance that with the [managerial] demands of the large-scale productions he does is a very rare gift.”
Aitken loves to scout for exotic new locations. To shoot one of Donowho’s scenes, Aitken and his crew broke into the abandoned nineteenth-century vault of the Atlantic Avenue tunnel, dropping in through a manhole, crawling across an endless dirt passage, then lowering themselves down a broken ladder into utter blackness. “It was like falling into a new world,” he says. Similarly, he used the heliport atop the MetLife Building, which has been closed off since a deadly crash in 1977, as well as a postal sorting center in Queens and an ice rink in Staten Island. Perhaps the most exciting discovery was the bowels of several giant signs in Times Square, including a Coke ad and the nasdaq scroll. “You’re climbing on massive catwalks and scaffolding surrounded by banks and banks of circuitry and flashing red and green lights,” he says. “It’s almost like 2001: A Space Odyssey in there.”
On a cold night in October, Aitken films a scene with Donald Sutherland. He plays an icy executive who travels around midtown in a chauffeured Lincoln Town Car, protected from the rabble until he is struck by a taxi. Sutherland, six foot four and impossibly regal with his pure-white hair and expensive suit and topcoat, strides onto a small staging area on 59th and Ninth. He’s been waiting for hours in the Hudson Hotel, but he’s in a genial mood, goofing around on a walkie-talkie as he sits inside a car hitched to a flatbed truck. A surly police escort arrives, and the caravan slowly crawls toward Times Square. When it passes a T.G.I. Friday’s, onlookers start cheering. “I know you! I know you!” a man shouts, pointing at Sutherland’s faux-sleepy profile. “Who are you?”
“It’s motherfucking Donald Sutherland,” someone replies. “M*A*S*H—the movie.”
Aitken laughs behind the camera: “He’s drawn even crazier crowds than Tilda Swinton.”
Swinton plays a steely office bee whose life is falling apart. Seu Jorge—the Brazilian musician and actor in City of God—is an electrician who makes the advertising signs at Times Square glow. Ryan Donowho is a version of himself—a subway drummer and bike messenger. And avant-folkie Cat Power is a daydreaming postal worker. Aitken gives the banal moments of their jobs a surreal beauty, underscoring the loneliness and forced connectedness of urban life. “The narratives interlock in a kinetic synchronicity and expand and break apart again,” he says. “It’s almost like chaos theory.”
Aitken first had a vision of “skyscrapers communicating with each other” about their “inner lives” during a visit to midtown four years ago. (He lived in New York in the nineties, but calls L.A. home now.) After he brought Creative Time his initial idea in 2003, he and Peter Eleey returned with maps and binoculars, looking for an austere building façade to project on. As they walked down 54th Street, Aitken noticed a huge construction site. “I said, ‘Look at those white walls—that would be perfect for something,’ ” he recalls. “Peter looked at me like, ‘You idiot—that’s MoMA.’ ”