Those art lovers who either lived in or happened to be passing through New York in early 2007 will no doubt remember Doug Aitken’s Sleepwalkers. The installation projected eight moving-picture images onto the exterior walls of the Museum of Modern Art (c0-produced with Creative Time) every night for nearly a month. The film itself followed five different characters, all New Yorkers, throughout the course of an evening, but there was no dialogue and narrative, and the images would shift and switch places at MoMA. Seeing the actors’ faces, their movements and experiences, as well as Aitken’s artful, evocative shots of their surroundings, projected onto the facade of the museum was mesmerizing. Aitken is clearly interested in the way art interacts with the world: Sleepwalkers is partly about the ever-shifting place at which the concrete world dissolves into geometric abstraction, and then resolves and re-forms. These visual ideas were echoed in the architecture of MoMA, and the effect was transporting. It was a must-see art event before there were quite so many of them around town.
Packaging all that magic, and hopefully re-creating some of it, is a difficult task. But it’s one that Aitken, Princeton Architectural Press and DFA Records have attempted — not with your run-of-the-mill art book, mind you, but with a box. Which is beautiful, and fun to open and unpack. (It’s like Hanukkah in here!) Included in said box are: a double-sided poster of artwork by Aitken; a record (vinyl) of a sort of soundtrack to Sleepwalkers, which has mostly psychedelic electronica songs by the band Broadcast, as well as live recordings of Aitken’s hilarious opera “The Handle Comes Up, the Hammer Comes Down” and subway drummers; a collage-y, large-format “visual diary” with sketches and photos related to the making of Sleepwalkers; two flipbooks with images from the film; a CD that replicates the LP, for those of us without record players; and a DVD that features both a linear cut of Sleepwalkers made especially for the box and an installation video of the film as it was shown on the side of MoMA.
The meat of the box is really the DVD. The big, 96-page “visual diary” should theoretically be exciting, too, and it sort of is, but it’s mostly comprised of stills from the film and inspirational photos, which, although they’re laid out quite nicely, lack the power of the film itself (which you can see two ways on the DVD). There are also writings by Aitken, short texts sketching out characters and scenarios. These are occasionally evocative but mostly simplistic and/or melodramatic: “Outside, the helicopter circles over and over. It doesn’t matter anymore what it’s chasing or searching for. It’s the sound, only the sound that is important.”
The DVD is where things get good, as you can watch a made-for-your-TV-or-computer version of Sleepwalkers or relive the MoMA experience. The former isn’t as transporting as the original, but Aitken has added new characters since MoMA, some non–New Yorkers, allowing us to see a broadened version of his vision of the world. He’s done a thoughtful job adapting a nonlinear, non-narrative film to viewing circumstances that usually don’t favor such open-endedness, and the roughly 12-minute cut is definitely a welcome and immersive introduction for those who missed it at MoMA. But make sure to watch the MoMA installation film afterwards — it echoes Aitken’s comments, in an interview printed in the visual diary, that he wanted “to find a way to transport architecture into a realm where it becomes very fluid.” It reminds you that Sleepwalkers is (or was) best experienced on, rather than in, a box.
The Sleepwalkers Box is available from Princeton Architectural Press and other online booksellers.