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Station to Station: Doug Aitken’s Polyphonic Culture Train

By Paul Schmelzer

“Human beings need a starting point.” That tagline—actually the words of the White Stripes’ Jack White—appears on the website for artist Doug Aitken’s project The Source, a 2012 series of video interviews he did with artists, musicians (including White), and thinkers on the origins of creativity. But it just as well might be the slogan of his latest project, Station to Station, a nine-car art train that for three weeks in September will cut across the American heartland from New York to Oakland, with stops for art-free-for-alls in cities like Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Paul, and Barstow along the way. While the rail-bound trek has its distinctly concrete elements—a starting point, an ending point, and a chain of extremely heavy train cars that’ll haul a group of artists between them—he sees it as entirely open-ended: whatever happens along the way, or afterwards, is anybody’s guess.

Dubbed a “nomadic happening,” Station to Station is all about process, Aitken said in a recent phone call from his home in Venice, California. “There is no destination. Everything isn’t building up to reach the end,” he said. “I was interested in that idea of: how can we give equal importance to Minneapolis as to New York?”

In that spirit, Aitken is throwing art happenings in big cities and small, with blue chip artists and lesser-known locals getting more or less equal billing. At its September 12 stop in St. Paul, for instance, music legend Patti Smith shares a stage with Chicago duo White Mystery, and Minneapolis visual artist Kate Casanova’s work will be displayed alongside art by Lawrence Weiner and Thomas Demand.

“This brilliant work is out there,” says Aitken of Casanova’s art, which creates uncanny and poetic environments using living fungi, mushrooms, and hermit crabs, among other natural media. “We should cover her and help this voice that probably has no distribution in the art world, to get that out there.”

So, in addition to being a party bus on rails, Station to Station aims to be, as Aitken puts it, a “cultural activator.” That’s where the Internet comes in. Since March, Station to Station’s team of videographers, social media experts, writers, and editors have had their eyes fixed on the country’s cultural terrain, seeking out unique art, artists, and ideas to share online. Visiting each of the project’s host cities throughout the summer, Aitken and company asked local artists to turn them on to creative people they’d like. Growing organically, the participant list is entirely artist-driven, he adds. “I’m interested in asking, can this project be an exquisite corpse of content, which as it moves, its constantly bringing in different voices, different projects?”

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, for instance, this referral system put them in touch with bands like Brute Heart (whose sound Aitken likened to that of Can, Amon Düül, and 1970s German prog rock), DeStijl Records founder Clint Simonson, and beloved Minneapolis blues fixture Cornbread Harris—all captured via video by the Station to Station to crew. While they’re not officially featured at the project’s Twin Cities stop, Aitken sees these artists as part of the larger universe of Station to Station.

“We’d been talking to people to find who was doing interesting thing in a roots way and a contemporary way,” Aitken said after a June trip to Minneapolis. “We found this fellow, Cornbread Harris, this Sun Ra–like old blues keyboardist. I was thinking, I’d love to film him, hear him talk about creativity and his experiences. But I didn’t want to do it in a tacky blues club. That seemed kind of cliché.” So he asked Harris to perform for the camera crew in an unusual spot: the Walker’s underground parking ramp. (Aitken notes the serendipity: two days later, in that precise spot, another Station to Station performer, Dan Deacon—who plays the project’s final two California stops—turned a rain-delayed Rock the Garden concert into an impromptu underground rave.) All this footage will end up online soon, joined by documentation videos, photos, Instagram shots, and writings posted as the train barrels down the tracks.

Minneapolis’ Casanova is honored that her work will be on view at St. Paul’s Union Depot, where around 1,200 people are expected to turn out. But she’s most excited about the extended reach online.

“There are so many great opportunities in the Twin Cities, but making the transition to being a nationally/internationally recognized artist is a huge hurdle,” she explained. “Station to Station’s platform of accessible web content transmitted through social media has the potential to reach a wide audience.”

But she’s also excited about the interactions she’ll have with artists on the ground. “It’s such an inclusive and celebratory project,” she said. “This train trip is a generative space for creative fusion, and I can’t wait to see what it produces for both me personally and for the overlapping art communities at large.”

Those overlaps are a particular focus of the project for Aitken. “There’s an entire planet of diversity,” he says, “but in so many cases, whether it’s contemporary art or music or architecture, things have become so segregated through the infrastructure that surrounds them. Station to Station came out of a necessity to shake that up.” Later, he added that with the project he’s “trying to create a polyphonic language, as opposed to something more hierarchical.”

He sees Station to Station as a way to present art outside of traditional contexts. He calls the Walker “a beacon” of this kind of thinking, but he’s also got another institution in mind when he thinks about Station to Station. “It’s a little like if you reel back and see what the original mission of Dia [Art Foundation] was when it was really utopian. This idea that it was a place to empower artists to work outside the restrictions of the gallery and museum world.”

He adds that his aim is to make Station to Station a vehicle for empowering both viewers and creators: “I think of it as challenging Ed Ruscha not to make a painting.”

In that specific instance—and probably many others along the train’s 3,000-mile route—that challenge has been answered. At Station to Station’s Winslow, Arizona, stop, attendees won’t see any of Ruscha’s iconic works. Instead, they’ll get a chance to taste an omelet Ruscha concocted.

Doug Aitken interviews architect Jacques Herzog for The Source, 2012

Photo courtesy Doug Aitken Workshop

Nine cars, nine cities, 21 days to cross America

Photo: Ye Rin Mok

Olaf Breuning’s smoke-bomb installation at the Station to Station launch in Brooklyn, Sept. 6, 2013

Photo: Olaf Breuning on Tumblr

Cornbread Harris performs in the Walker’s parking ramp

Photo courtesy Station to Station

Kate Casanova, Vivarium Americana, 2013

Photo courtesy the artist

For each stop on Station to Station‘s journey, Lawrence Weiner has created a unique flag. Pictured: New York

Photo: Station to Station on Instagram