For a half hour on March 25th, a corner of downtown Seattle became an unlikely vortex of 1960s culture: Hundreds of partiers gathered outside the Seattle Art Museum for what was officially described as a “happening.” Members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra played Terry Riley’s monumental symphony, In C. And most importantly, the artist Doug Aitken unveiled a permanent installation called Mirror, an “urban earthwork.”
The major difference between Mirror and, say, Spiral Jetty, is that it’s digital. The massive LED screen wraps the museum’s facade like paper on a present, covering the stonework with a constantly changing array of moving images. To fill the screen, Aitken shot hundreds of hours of video documenting everything from the shimmering Pacific Ocean to the floor of a Boeing assembly factory. It is “a dynamic representation of the constantly changing environments that make up Seattle and the Northwest,” explain SAM’s curators.
Mirror also reacts to the world around it–hence its name. Aitken has installed several permanent sensors around the museum; these monitor the weather, the amount of human activity, and the sound levels nearby. An algorithm alters the video output, pulling in footage and editing it simultaneously to reflect the mood of the world around it. “I was interested if the work can move on its own and constantly create its own sequences, patterns and composition. Like a minimalist musical composition,” Aitken said in a statement, explaining why he chose Riley’s In C to accompany the unveiling. “However, the work must generate its own tempos and patterns feeding off the landscape, movement, temperature, light or darkness, wind or many other live organic things around it.”
The whole installation recalls the work of classic Land Art figures like Walter De Maria and Robert Smithson. It’s a piece that attempts to navigate a course between monumentality and constant change–something Smithson wrote frequently about, saying, “I am for an art that takes into account the direct effect of the elements as they exist from day to day apart from representation.” Smithson died in 1973, long before the prevalence of algorithms and LEDs. But it’s easy to imagine him working, as Aitken often does, with digital film as an architectural device. Or as Aitken described it in Architectural Record last week, “liquid architecture.”
Check out Mirror at SAM, in perpetuity.