One train. Ten public cultural happenings. About 4,000 miles of countryside and cityscape.
Not to mention a whole lot of art and music created along the way.
Visual artist Doug Aitken took to the rails in September 2013 and staged an interactive, roving art show, “Station to Station.”
Nine vintage train cars, strewn with multicolored LEDs, zoomed cross-country, filled with a rotating cast of contemporary artists and musicians, including Beck, Patti Smith, Ed Ruscha, William Eggleston, Cat Power, Thurston Moore and Mark Bradford.
Recording and art studios were onboard as well as a video-editing bay; many of the participants created work during the journey, and when the train pulled into cities along its route, they staged public concerts and pop-up gallery shows.
Along the way, Aitken shot and directed a feature film that’s not so much a documentary of the project as it is an offshoot of it. His movie, “Station to Station,” has its U.S. premiere Friday at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles, where it will play for a week.
The film is a textured, visceral collection of 62 shorts capturing moments during the three-week journey: Beck rocking the stage at a remote desert drive-in; guests leaping up and down on a pillowy bed inside artist Urs Fischer’s fog-filled, all-white yurt; whip-cracker and performance artist Chris Camp leading a procession of musicians banging drums through L.A.’s Union Station. As it rollicks along, the film speaks to time and space, creativity, the varied and changing U.S. landscape, and contemporary media and culture.
The “Station to Station” odyssey continues to spawn content. As writer- filmmaker Rick Prelinger comments in the film, “Today, for most people, the default position is to be in motion,” which is a theme of the project.
Just back from London where he staged “Station to Station: A 30 Day Happening” with 100-plus international artists, a somewhat jet-lagged Aitken took time to talk about the new film.
The film has such a unique structure: 62 one-minute shorts. Why did you decide to present it that way, and how does that choice reflect the original train journey?
The “Station to Station” film is a fast-moving journey through the modern creative landscape. It’s a kaleidoscope of voices and impressions rather than a standard linear film.
After the 4,000-mile “Station to Station” train journey, we returned to the studio with a huge amount of footage we’d captured over the course of the entire project. I actually started the editing process with the idea of creating a more traditional, linear documentary, but I realized that just wouldn’t be true to all of the diverse individuals, music and artworks that were part of the project. What it demanded was a very different stricture, a completely new film. The “Station to Station” film is made entirely out of one-minute films, and each of the 62 minutes is a completely different person, place or encounter.
Why create a “Station to Station” film in the first place? And does the lasting nature of the medium run counter to the essence of the original art project, which was more nomadic and fleeting?
For the original journey we took a train across America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and created a series of happenings at each train stop. Each of these events created an unpredictable moment in time, with different artists, musicians and performances. The film is a way to share the many ideas and voices of the project, and its unique energy and structure enables that to come across.
One of the core reasons for creating “Station to Station” was to provide a space for exploration and cultural friction between different mediums. It should be natural for mediums like music, film and art to cross over, and we wanted to empower that process. I’m attracted to things that defy categorization. With “Station to Station,” we wanted to open up the creative process for both the artists and the audience.
Tell us about the soundtrack for the film, which features music created on the train.
The film features many amazing musicians from the project, some completely unknown and others who have a great following, such as Patti Smith, Beck or Ariel Pink. What is truly unique is that much of this music was being written, improvised, developed, performed and recorded on the road as we crossed the country. The train provided a living environment for creativity, where the musicians involved could create completely new compositions as they were inspired by the people and places they encountered.
Do you see the film as a travelogue of sorts, capturing the odyssey? Or is it an evolution of the train journey, the next artistic step?
The film stands as its own work. It’s a kaleidoscopic landscape of modern voices. With each changing minute, it explores creativity through a different artist, musician, place or perspective, moving from one story to the next with a rhythm and momentum like a domino effect. The viewer is led on, moving forward toward new frontiers of creative expressions. One thing leads to another, and so on. ... The “Station to Station” film has been fascinating to create. It feels as though it made itself in a way, and after awhile, the film told us what it needed and began to sculpt itself.
Tell us about the recent “Station to Station: A 30 Day Happening” at the Barbican Centre in London last month. You call it “a continuously evolving living exhibition.”
It truly was a living exhibition that continuously evolved. Every day, new artists, musicians, filmmakers and dancers joined the project, where they rehearsed, performed, introduced and created new work. The “30 Day Happening” opened up the process of creation for all to see. It wasn’t about finished works or end results; it was about seeing the creative process in real time, as it happened.
How does the recently released “Station to Station” book fit in with the film and the original train voyage?
It’s like an electric conversation. It moves from person to person, exploring their thoughts on how and why we create. It’s not authored in a traditional way. It lets the participants speak for themselves. It includes hundreds of images and numerous conversations from the journey, with many of the artists and musicians that were involved in the project, as well as dispatches I wrote looking at the transforming landscape as we moved from east to west.
Did the “Station to Station”" journey change you as an artist or how you think and feel about travel? Do you miss the rails?
There’s something incredible that happens creatively when people are out of their comfort zone. Getting away from your routine, your normal expectations of time and place, creates a sense of friction. That disruption opens you up to new ideas, new ways of doing things that are more nomadic and time-based. It changes your process, and ultimately it changes what you create.
“Station to Station” opens a weeklong run Aug. 21 at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. The bands No Age and Sun Araw will play briefly before some screenings. A Q&A with Aitken will follow the 7:30 p.m. shows Friday and Saturday. Showtimes.