A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend a press screening of Los Angeles artist Doug Aitken’s newest video endeavor, Station to Station. Not quite sure what to expect, but intrigued by the offer, I found my way to a cushy, small screening room somewhere on Wilshire Boulevard to view Station to Station: 62 one-minute films created during Aitken’s Atlantic to Pacific, 23-day, 10-city high-speed Amtrak roadtrip through modern creativity.
Unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, Station to Station swept me away, transporting me directly into the eye of our modern American artistic zeitgeist. With contributions by such notable names as Patti Smith, Urs Fischer, Cat Powers, Beck, Ed Ruscha, Sam Falls, Mark Bradford, Thomas Demand, as well as many other creative souls I “met” for the first time, it was a journey I’ll not soon forget, and one I insist you also indulge.
I had the privilege to sit down and interview Aitken about Station to Station for The Art Minion – here are some highlights from my conversation with him.
I loved the film. It really tried to capture something abstract; the creative zeitgeist of our time. How did you go about vetting the participants? There are some very notable names, but I also didn’t know many of them. It seemed like there was a good mix.
There is a responsibility that comes with a project like this to really go out there and see who’s unknown, underrepresented. That might be Kate Casanova in Minneapolis, or Elmer Long out of Barstow with his Bottle Tree Ranch. I felt like, in a lot of ways, it’s an automatic reaction for certain mediums to champion people who work in those mediums only. Often in contemporary art, you see people who are showing in galleries or museums and they’re the people who one immediately goes to. There are a lot of individuals out there, a lot of other kinds of art which are being created in the margins…
Well, how did you learn about them?
It’s about digging. It’s about digging deep. I wanted to use the opportunity to search and to go to different regions, talk to people, see what’s out there, and bring those things to the surface.
That’s important, because history is usually written by the winner, and that’s not how art history should function. The beautiful thing about art is that even though there’s a commercial aspect to it, there’s really no price you can put on it. Who’s to say that the artists who are repped by the 5 main galleries are who we ought be paying attention to? Your project helps to elevate artists in a way that I haven’t really seen done before.
That’s another aspect – medium, and age. You can be working with someone who’s 20, and someone who’s 80. We have Kenneth Anger, who’s past 80, he had created this amazing nomadic red pentagonal tent that traveled our entire journey – an installation that showed a short film he made. Or Ernesto Neto, this Brazilian artist, who made this amazing yurt tent that traveled with the train.
It’s the idea that things become a little more rootless; it’s not about an exhibition for 3 or 4 months at a museum or a commercial gallery, but things that are inherently nomadic and time-based.
The yurts traveled with the train, some of these structures changed as they traveled. I really looked to a lot of people who were involved with the project to step outside of their comfort zone, and to take risks; to do things which were unique to the project or different for them.
Right, like Urs Fischer…
Yes, like Urs Fischer making this strange, nomadic make-out room with a kingsized bed, disco ball, and smoke machine. Or Ed Ruscha saying No, I don’t want to make drawings or paintings for this, I want to make an edible cactus omelette that’s only served in the Mohave Desert.
I didn’t see anything about the cactus omelette in the film! Ed Ruscha’s contribution seemed to me to be more of a narrative – it was beautiful – but I don’t remember anything about a cactus omelette…!
(laughs) The way you spoke about Ed’s presence in the film, that’s how we wanted the film to be – not just these moments of action and explosion, but moments that are reflective, contemplative. Like with Lawrence Weiner, we just filmed 30 hotel rooms and let Lawrence talk over them about the idea of displacement in the modern landscape…
I have to say, some of my favorite short films were some of the ones that were more of a train of thought…
I agree with you. In a lot of ways, in making this project, I recognized that what people want out of film, often, is emotion. They want to cry, or have anger, and this isn’t really the kind of film that we made – we wanted to make something different, a film about ideas, all these particles… one particle leads to another, and eventually, it creates a landscape.
That’s the thing about art… I feel like it’s always trying to make a tangible object out of an idea. The beautiful thing about film is you can narrow it down to 2 dimensions. Your idea doesn’t lose strength in translation.
I like the idea that the film speeds up to a point where it’s not so much about being descriptive anymore. It’s more about ideas, impressions, encounters, as opposed to a documentary that says, now you’re in Albuquerque, now you’re in San Francisco…
I would have considered this a documentary, but it’s not so much informative as it is a snapshot of a moment in time. What initially stimulated the idea of a cross country trip? Was it something you always wanted to do, was it something you did as a child? Where did the idea germinate?
I was really into the idea of creative displacement. The idea that you can be in a studio, or a musician can be in a rehearsal space in the city that they live in – and you’re there every day. The idea of place never changes. But, what if you disrupt the idea of place, and take someone outside of that comfort zone, or that sense of security? They’re in a situation where they’re creating in motion, surrounded by things that are constantly unfamiliar.
Do you see it as a test of guile and wit? See how you can do when you’re outside of your comfort zone?
I see it more as a liberation, like a chance to experiment… and I think that’s one of the things that people who participated in the project really shared in, really recognizing that this was a space to experiment, a different kind of platform than they’re used to working in….
Everything was designed for function. I just wanted a functioning nomadic studio – the train itself was a tool that anyone could use.
Who designed the LEDs on the outside of the train? I loved it, I thought they were so beautiful. I thought some of the best shots in the film were of the train zooming through the landscape with the LEDs dancing in motion.
I actually designed it. I didn’t want to focus on the light sculpture too much, but I tried to design the train so it was a zoetrope. My idea was that you could have someone standing in the middle of the night, wherever they are, in a city or a farm or a desert, and they’re standing still, and this train is moving at a certain speed past them, but the lights on the train are moving the opposite direction at the same speed. So, if the person is standing there and they blink their eyes in an nanosecond, it’s absolutely motionless, like standing still… I liked the idea that the light is its own choreography moving through the landscape.
Well, I thought your light sculpture on the train was one of the most magical aspects of the film. The lights seemed like the main character in the film, the one consistent thread… Was your last stop in Redondo Beach, your hometown?
No, actually, the last place we stopped was an abandoned train station, which was actually quite ironic. It’s this amazing station in Oakland, surrounded by a fence, and in the background, you see a huge freeway with concrete overpasses surrounding it – I was interested in the idea that you get all the way to the west and it’s almost like the tracks have eroded or disappeared – the station is dormant. The fact that we were able to use this location for one night and take it over and turn it into a very volatile happening seemed like the perfect coda for the project.
Everything seems to mash together in the end – The Hammer Comes Down is intertwined with the flamenco dancers – I know you intended for the happenings to build upon each other and grow as the trip evolved…
I liked the idea that the film became less like a series of stories and more like a musical composition as it progressed. There’s a certain point where there’s no more people talking, no more portraits, it begins moving on its own, it’s an organism moving, building up speed, accelerating – I want to see it as a musical composition; to bring in the rhythm of the feet moving on the floor, or this voice calling out, or the tempo of a drum…
How much preparation can you really make for an organic happening? How much of it was planned, how much of it did you leave up to the artists?
I think everyone had their own approach. Some people wanted to bring nothing, just use the moment to improvise. I wanted to respect the space people needed to make their own approach, to not make something programmed or scheduled. All we can really schedule is we’re going to have this space, this empty train station tomorrow – and it’s going to have to be for three hours. At the end of the day, we can have a dialogue and invite people, but it’s more interesting if it’s less planned.
A project like this really reveals process. You see how people work with process and engage in it. You hear Eleanor Friedberger talking about only being interested in the lyrics of her songs, and the music comes from somewhere else sometime later. Or Destruction Unit, who we found in the Arizona desert in their garage, and they don’t even really talk about it – you just go in there and it gets loud.
I was actually quite surprised by how many musicians you featured in Station to Station. Most often, people like to divide music and the fine arts and you fearlessly put them on an equal playing ground…
Do you plan on returning to film outside of the gallery setting?
I never intended to make a feature film in a theater, but that format of a linear film that you sit down and watch actually seemed to make the most sense for a project like this that is so kaleidoscopic. I felt like, if we can make something that’s not a documentary as such, but we can sit down and be immersed in these ideas, that would be the last stage of this project: to give away these ideas in that kind of format. In a sense, a film is like a train, it’s nomadic – it can move anywhere. It doesn’t need to be shown in a museum, it can really be out there in the world. It seemed the best way to give away the project and the concepts.
At the Nuart Theatre there will be a musical performance by No Age at 7:20pm prior to the 7:30pm show, and by White Mystery at 9:40pm prior to the 9:50pm show on Friday, August 21, and a performance from Sun Araw on Saturday, August 22 at 7:20pm prior to the 7:30pm show. All shows will be followed by a Q&A with director Doug Aitken.
Doug Aitken will have a book signing for the companion book to STATION TO STATION on Saturday, August 22 at 4:30pm at Cinefile Video (next door to the Nuart Theatre).
All images: Film Still, Station to Station. Doug Aitken. 2013.