Doug Aitken at his studio. Below, Union Station in September 2013. Photos by Iris Schneider.
Doug Aitken likes to open things up. Among the objects in his Venice studio is a huge wooden dining table that he designed. Upon closer inspection, you notice symmetrical cuts and realize the piece is really a drum meant to be played at its 4 ends with mallets, like an African drum. He had been thinking about all the dinner parties he's gone to, and what to do when it gets boring. "This way," he said, "you could start up a whole different kind of conversation."
So it's not that all that surprising that Aitken would have come up with his latest big idea, a way to have a different conversation about art, music, time and place. Called "Station to Station," the multi-media sound and light project crossed the country housed in a train that was a mobile laboratory for artistic, musical and visual exploration. It became a collaboration between more than 42 artists and musicians and an intermittent audience connecting with the train as it moved west to Los Angeles' Union Station and finally Oakland.
I remember when the train pulled in to Union Station. A happening is the perfect description. There was music: Beck performed in the old ticket area, along with the band No Age and electronic DJ Dan Deacon. There were yurts lit from within by Urs Fisher and Liz Glynn and art by Stephen Shore, Ed Ruscha and Lawrence Weiner. Along the route there had been performances by Jackson Browne and Patti Smith. Ed Ruscha made cactus omelets in the desert. Giorgio Moroder was aboard using the sounds of the train in a musical composition. Music and art were on display in and around Union Station, as they had been on the trek across the country.
"I saw it as a necessity to make an alternative platform to culture," Aitken said recently during an interview in his Venice studio. "It wasn't restricted to being inside a museum or a gallery. It was about trying to work with the voice of the individual, to empower people to create things they wouldn't have made or encountered normally." In formulating the idea, he talked about and thought about how to create an artistic dialogue. He decided to use a train that would become a moving series of environments and studios, send it across the country and create happenings whenever and wherever it paused in its journey. "For every train, there is a station and many of these architectural spaces built in the 20's and 30's are completely dormant. We could create contemporary kunsthalls and this negative space can become stimuli for language and the creative act. It would become a sequence of events rather than one language."
Working with such a wide range of artists and musicians, each with their own individual vision, Aitken's train became a moving month-long art project about space and time, changing as it traveled and giving people an opportunity to interact with art at its stops along the route.
Arranging for the train to start and stop along the way was a logistical endeavor that took three years to plan. Indeed, the stops made it possible to allow commuter trains to speed by. Along with the help of a "prodigy train kid," Adam Auxler, Aitken was able to create a unique series of train cars and craft a schedule to cross the country in under 30 days. "It was almost a time code," Aitken explained. The train would be able to be on the tracks for a certain period, then have to pull off and wait several hours before it could continue. He wanted to make something purely artist-driven and off the grid -- using abandoned train stations allowed for that. The car interiors themselves became spaces to be designed and lived in by the artists. He loved the idea of many different individuals creating art that would be packaged as a continuum and presenting it to people who might otherwise never be exposed to it. At various stops, local townspeople came out to see the art and hear the music. Local artists whose work is otherwise unknown were invited to participate.
Aitken had spent the month filming the ride. When he thought about how to present what he had captured on film he decided that knitting together a series of one minute films could best represent the totality of the parts. "It becomes a composition, rather than a narrative," he said. (Random fact: I became part of the narrative. About two minutes in, I appear onscreen, a member of the audience at Union Station. That was a totally weird surprise.)
The film opens at the Nuart on Friday. A musical performance by No Age begins ten minutes prior to the 7:30 p.m. show, and by White Mystery ten minutes prior to the 9:50 p.m. All shows will be followed by a Q&A with Aitken. He also will sign the film's companion book on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at Cinefile Video (next door to the Nuart.)