Doug Aitken Delves Into Land Art For A Digital World

A film exploring France’s Camargue region comes with its own interactive infographics, thanks to a free iPad app.

In the past 12 months, L.A. artist Doug Aitken has projected his work onto several pretty remarkable canvases: the curving facade of the Hirshhorn Museum and a screen set up on a Greek pleasure barge, for instance. This October, he’ll install his fourth major video exhibition of the year inside a 19th-century train station in Arles, France. And for the first time, the piece will live in perpetuity on the iTunes store, as a free iPad app.


Altered Earth is a series of videos that explore an isolated region of southern France called the Camargue. Aitken became fascinated by the desolate landscape after hearing about it at a dinner party. “[The guests] were speaking about this place that has an incredible resonance,” he told NOWNESS last year. “I had a glass of wine that was on a paper napkin and I noticed drips from the red wine starting to bleed into the pulp of the napkin, just as they were talking about the Rhone River and how it cuts through the wetlands.”

He ended up making seven short silent films about the region. They are without narrative or plot, and move at a glacial pace, panning across Camargue’s salt pans, capturing the region’s wild horses as they’re branded, and exploring a crumbling farmhouse, filled with hundreds of candles. The Luma Foundation, which commissioned the work, calls it “a work of land art for the electronic era.”

In Arles, they’ll be projected on a series of enormous 405-square-foot screens, hung from the steel girders of the hall. Visitors will be invited to explore the screens at their own pace, while California composer Terry Riley plays an original score. “There is no hierarchy to how images and sequences can be strung together,” Aitken explains. “It’s an open experience that will change every time, and be unique for every viewer.”

The non-narrative, high-resolution films make Altered Earth the perfect candidate for an iPad app. I’d even argue that it’s a more complete piece when viewed on a tablet. All seven films are accompanied by elegant infographics that explain the otherwise surreal video content of the video. For example, a sequence that shows piles of salt being harvested has a map of the globe illustrating where Camargue salt is exported, along with a map showing salinity levels in the region. Another visualization compares flamingo breeding zones with conflict zones across Eurasia–the Camargue is filled with World War II era bunkers (and Flamingos). “They will recover and rebuild their eco-systems just as certain as there will be future geopolitical instability in these regions,” Aitken explains. The diagrams, and the app itself, are beautiful documents–it was developed by Meri Media, a British design agency that normally produces luxury fashion apps for iPad.

Altered Earth certainly isn’t the first piece of art that’s come with its own app. In fact, we wrote about an iPad-only group show earlier this summer. What’s unique about the app is how it presents the work. It’s not just a different way to view the finished art. Rather, it gives us a tour of Aitken’s process, beginning with months of research and ending with the beautiful, unsettling films. Viewed as a video installation, Altered Earth is a surrealist tour of a little-known landscape. But on the iPad, it’s a dense analytical investigation that pits landscape versus man.

More in Altered Earth here, or download the free app.


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.