Station to Station

Dazed hops aboard the 'nomadic happening' train as it weaves across the Nevada desert

Arts+Culture Feature
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Winding its way west from New York through plains, mountains and desert, artist Doug Aitken's epic “nomadic happening” hauled a dazzling array of creative talent across America, on a train that glinted silver by day and flashed disco lights through the night. Supported by Levi’s, whose Fall collection centres around the idea of the modern frontier, Aitken’s movable cultural feast rolled towards the Pacific, sporadically stopping en route to spill out its cargo of musicians, artists, photographers, poets, chefs and filmmakers, for one-off events that challenged the slowness and rootedness of traditional art institutions; one whistle from the Union Pacific and Aitken’s itinerant, morphing project moved on. 

His brainchild fuelled an explosion of spontaneous happenings and collaborations, from UFO-sightings to movable sculptures, musical performances from the likes of Ariel Pink, Patti Smith and Thurston Moore, and even a recipe for cactus omelette from artist Ed Ruscha. The train had already made stops at Pittsburgh, Chicago, Kansas City, Santa Fe and Winslow before Dazed climbed on board in the small town of Barstow, in the Mojave desert. Here’s some highlights from our trip:

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The Skyline Drive-In on Old Highway 58

Barstow’s best claim on popular culture is the famous opening line of Hunter Thompson’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.”) Station to Station rivaled Thompson’s cult book for trippy-ness when it set up camp there – with glinting Airstreams, taco trucks and tequila – at the Skyline Drive-In on Old Highway 58, a rugged patch of desert overlooking Barstow.

No Age were first to play as the sun began to dip, backed by 180 photographs taken by Stephen Shore, a photographer famous for his transient images of Americana – faded motel rooms, empty main streets, toasted cheese sandwiches cooling on Formica table tops. This latest work was an improvised series shot the day before in Winslow, Arizona, flashed unedited onto the vast screen against a blood-orange sunset.

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Stephen Shore's photographic series on the drive-in

Framed by a starry night sky, Belgian artist Nicolas Provost’s woozy, six-minute stroboscopic short Gravity flickered onto the double-wide screen next. Interweaving dozens of classic screen kisses, he shattered the narrative into an increasingly disturbing collage that twisted screen romance into an ominous battle of the sexes:

A series of movable sculptures inside Yurts sprang up on the desert floor, including Ernesto Neto’s squishy, flesh-like installation. Its interior evoked the oddly comforting feeling of being inside an enormous stomach. Swiss artist Urs Fischer, whose Yurt emitted ghostly white steam, invited visitors to kick off their shoes and sink into bed beneath a disco ball, surrounded by mirrors.

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Cat Power: "Everyone feels lighter in the magic of the desert."

Chan Marshall, AKA Cat Power had made a deal with Aitken that she’d only take part if she could play in the desert, and the Barstow gig was her highlight. “It was the best performance for me,” she told us the next day, sipping a beer as the train rocked its way towards LA. “It was super realistic being in the desert, there’s nothing man-made around so it liberates your subconscious. Everyone feels lighter in the magic of the desert.”

Beck’s exhilarating Barstow set – backed by a 17-strong choir – was punctuated by a visit from outer space, in the shape of artist Peter Coffin’s UFO, technicoloured lights flashing as it floated above the crowd. (Beck: “I think that’s my ride home.”) Coffin’s flying saucers have spiraled around Gdansk and Rio de Janeiro in the past, but his psychic sculpture seemed most appropriate in Barstow, which is notorious UFO-sighting territory (most likely drones dispatched from the military bases that dot the Mojave). After Beck’s finale, the convivial local crowd pointed out-of-towners towards the bars “you won’t get stabbed in”.

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Cocktail hour in the Frank Sinatra carriage

The next morning, the train pulled out of Barstow and made its way through a primordial desert landscape of ramshackle ghost towns, tumbleweed and creosote towards the sprawl of the Inland Empire. Chan Marshall sat in the double-decker Super Dome, the train’s dining car: “I wish it could last,” she said, “just be a normal museum on wheels, and always be in commission.” The Levi’s carriage hosted drinks for passengers every day at 5:01 (a neat homage to their best-selling jeans) – the place to watch the desert flit by with a sundowner was the vintage “Frank Sinatra car” with floor to ceiling windows. It was commandeered by the Chairman and his Rat Pack back in the 50s for booze-fuelled journeys around the US. 

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Kenneth Anger in his pagan Yurt

When the train rolled in to LA’s Union Station – all wood paneled ceilings, marble floors and art deco lights, Dazed met cult filmmaker Kenneth Anger before Station to Station’s Los Angeles “happening”, inside his glowing red Yurt installation. (Check Dazed’s December issue for our interview with Anger). Three screens flashed his delirious, hallucinogenic Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) to viewers sat on pentagram-shaped seating as Janácek's Glagolitic Mass blasted out.

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One-third of the Congos playing onboard

The train’s journey north, from LA to Oakland was the most spectacular, hugging the coast beside the Pacific, past Santa Barbara, William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon castle in San Luis Obispo and up through San Jose to its final stop, three weeks after it left New York. On board, one third of Jamaican band the Congos serenaded Doug Aitken – the Congos were discovered by Lee Scratch Perry, and had performed the night before with Sun Araw in Los Angeles.

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Olaf Eliasson’s kinetic drawing machine used the movement of the train to trace its progress across America

The final event unfolded at the crumbling, abandoned 16th street station in Oakland. Olaf Breuning, whose art has encompassed everything from transforming Easter island’s ancient sculptures into Easter bunnies, to arm-wrestling competitions in Miami, created a kaleidoscopic smoke installation that kicked off the evening, covering the site with bright streaks of colour. Twin Shadow, Savages, Lia Ices and Dan Deacon – who created a syncronised cellphone performance that flashed everyone’s phones blue, green and magenta – brought the three-week journey to a close.

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Olaf Breuning's smoke installation

But Station to Station isn’t over yet. “It’s open-ended,” Aitken said, “I’m not the author of this, I want to give it away.”

Next week, Levi’s present an event inspired by Station to Station at London’s Oval Space – get your tickets here. www.levi.com/makeourmark/london

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