At around 8 p.m. at Union Station in Los Angeles, artist Doug Aitken stood on tiptoes, inspecting through a camera lens indie-rock artist Dan Deacon’s spasmodic set. Under the cavernous Art Deco ceilings of the old ticket lobby, audience members who’d downloaded Deacon’s app held their phones up in a glowing syncopated throb.
“I’ve never tried this before in a train station,” Deacon quipped. The happening in Los Angeles marks the next-to-last stop on Aitken’s Station to Station, a multi-city art project by railway, which sees a variety of artist-travelers sheltered in a patchwork of nine privately-owned vintage coaches from the 1940s and 50s procured by Adam Auxier of Altiplano Railtours (the train’s locomotives are under contract from Amtrak). Furnished with LED lights on the outside to create a moving lightshow, the cars are retrofitted with interior design by artists such as Jorge Pardo.
In each city, Aitken and his crew set up yurts that have housed installations by artists like Urs Fischer, Kenneth Anger, Ernesto Neto and Liz Glynn. Here, in L.A., the yurts were speckled over the Union Station gardens, as people stood in queue to experience what amounted to a pretty strange experience. Glynn’s yurt was transmogrified into an all-black maze, only navigable with a headlamp, which led to the artist, who performed a rambling lecture about the expanding universe. Fischer’s yurt was minimal -- a bed in a dry ice fog that irritated the throat, and probably confused the visitors that were there to see headlining musician Beck or indie bands like Sun Araw and No Age.
Aitken, an L.A.-based artist who specializes in large-scale works that mix technology with analog, insists that despite line-ups that included heavy-hitters like Beck, Patti Smith, Cat Power, Suicide, Jackson Browne and Georgio Moroder, Station to Station wasn’t a traveling music festival like Festival Express, a transcontinental train that transported the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and The Band across Canada. “Station to Station is not a tour,” Aitken rasped hoarsely above Deacon’s din. “It’s not a fixed group of people going. It’s an exquisite corpse; it constantly changes. As the train stops, different musicians, artists, and individuals become a part of it. Some people ride for a while, some people are there for one night.” Indeed, some of the people who rode the train from, say, Barstow to Los Angeles, described a camp-like scene.
Auctioneers and whip-crackers performed at each stop; Aitken worked with the same auctioneers and whip-crackers at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA) 2010 Gala. Music was recorded in a makeshift studio, art was made, and people got to know each other. And an editor at an international art magazine who had ridden the train all the way from New York said that seeing America in its current state was an indelible experience for him.
For Aitken, who rose to fame when he projected his four-channel art film “sleepwalkers” on the side of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2007, he said it was powerful for him to get outside of the art system and create something that helped mend the rift between music culture and contemporary art culture. “For me, it’s about looking at a larger landscape that defies categorization, that defies calling itself film, or visual art, or literature, or music, and saying that really we’re all at the dinner table together,” he says.
The project, which was funded by Levi’s, who had their own yurt featuring the chainstitching of patches onto the backs of vintage Levi’s jean jackets, has been meticulously recorded, which Aitken plans to release in fragments over the next year, challenging what it means to make and distribute a film. “You have the organic -- that’s you and I right now at this place, listening to this music, smelling, and sweating,” says Aitken. “At the same time, we reduce [these experiences] to crystals, which are short films.”
In addition to the films, Aitken has been working on the Station to Station Cultural Fund, which benefits non-traditional arts programming at nine art institutions including MoMA PS1, Carnegie Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Walker Art Center, SITE Santa Fe, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the Sundance Institute, and Arcosanti Institute. Aitken has been commissioning editioned prints with the artists he’s come across on the trip to benefit the fund. These prints will be available on Crowdrise.com after Station to Station finishes up.
The night closed out with Beck, backed by his choir Fred Martin and the Levite Camp, rocking the crowd with stirring renditions of older songs like “One Foot in the Grave” and “Where It’s At.” The Union Station setting made the whole thing feel pretty special, emanating an awe that this sort of large-scale project inspires. After nine cities, clocking in at nearly a month, Aitken’s journey is coming to a close. The last stop, Oakland, happens on Saturday, and then everyone picks up and heads home. I lean in and ask Aitken if he’s tired. He laughs. “I’m alive,” he says. “That’s my only answer on that one. I’ll get back to you in a few days.”