Doug Aitken's 'Station to Station' Is Art Without Borders

wilkinson aitken
©Doug Aitken

Four years ago multimedia artist Doug Aitken began thinking about the experience of viewing art, and watching movies, and listening to music, and how it all seemed the same: confined within the walls of a museum, gallery, concert venue, or movie theater. "Things created within art or music or film or architecture, they're often restrained by the system that surrounds them," Aitken says.

So he came up with Station to Station: A Nomadic Happening. It's what he calls a "liquid art platform," a constantly moving and evolving venue with no set parameters for experiencing the art. It sounds abstract, but, put simply, it's art on wheels. On September 6 a train will depart Washington, D.C., and over a three-week span it will make its way to Oakland, California. Filled with artists, musicians, chefs, and seemingly everyone in between, the circus of players will collaborate on site-specific performances at each of the nine stops along the way. The shows will take place at the train stations and other locations, and a few will even happen on the train. Other times, Aitken says, they'll stop spontaneously and perform for anyone who might just happen to be present.

Aitken’s “SONG1,” which projected images of people singing “I Only Have Eyes for You” onto the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., had passersby experiencing art in an unconventional way. Matt McClain/Washington Post/Getty

Aitken, 45, is a tall, blue-eyed Californian. He greets me at the smooth wood gate of his Venice home, a modern house with light bleeding in from every direction through open windows. It is, in true Aitken fashion, not just a house to be lived in but one to be experienced as well. It's a "sonic house," and as we enter, Aitken turns on a sound system rigged to his staircase. Each step triggers a different musical note so that when you run up the stairs, the house reverberates like the pipes of a church organ. Aitken's signature wooden tables, which he has made himself, are equally acoustic: outfitted with xylophone sticks and a knife, one can actually play his dining-room table.

Much of how we experience culture today, Aitken says, goes like this: "There's this vessel, and it's going to be like this, and you're going to get in the parking lot at 9:30, and afterwards you leave your paid parking spot and drive home." Station to Station, on the other hand, is "something that's much more liberated." In the vein of the "happenings" of the 1960s, Aitken hopes to stoke audiences into interacting with and participating in the project. For all the painstaking planning and PR efforts that go into the project, there's the terrifying—and thrilling—idea that everything could go extremely differently than planned. But that's exactly what a happening is all about.

One dimension of curating the unexpected was to get artists themselves to rethink their own mediums for the format of Station to Station. So when Aitken approached Ed Ruscha for the project, the famed Los Angeles–based pop artist said, "I would like not to do a drawing or painting ... I'd love to make an edible artwork." Ruscha has conceived a cactus omelet that will be made and served to attendees in Winslow, Arizona.

wilkinson aitken
During the train ride, artists and crew will record footage that will be posted to “Station to Station’s” website. Alayna Van Dervort

"You're seeing someone who could have so easily worked within a certain set of mediums he's familiar with, but actually saw the potential here to do something completely different," Aitken says. Similarly, Berlin-based installation artist Olafur Eliasson has conceived a "drawing machine" that will harness the train's kinetic energy to create images by the end of the cross-country journey. Swiss-born contemporary artist Urs Fischer and experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger have designed yurts that will house temporary exhibits along the way.

The mobility of Station to Station has a democratizing effect, too. Though the train begins and ends in big cities, it also passes through and brings art to small towns like Barstow, California, and Winslow. And the traveling nature of the project challenges notions that cultural capitals like New York and Los Angeles have a monopoly on art and culture. There are also the big names Aitken has recruited to contribute in some form to the odyssey: chef Alice Waters has planned the menu for the train journey, and there are scheduled performances from musicians Cat Power and Beck.

"You've got people of this stature willing to go into these small arenas and just have conversations," says Len Peltier, global creative director of Levi's clothing, which is sponsoring the project. "The high-low of it is exactly what I think is so exciting." Tickets are $25 at every stop, and all proceeds will be distributed to museums across the country.

Sitting in Minneapolis at the moment, awaiting final touches, the train evokes a hybrid of a 19th-century steam-engine train and a futuristic hyperloop-like vessel. It's retrofitted with LED lights that change color as the train speeds up or slows down. Inside, artists and crew will not just eat and sleep; they'll also record music, conversations, and performances, and, in an editing car, cut footage that will end up on Station to Station's website.

That's how Station to Station will be different from, and inherently more suited for the Information Age than, the artistic happenings of the last century. Each performance and improvised artwork will exist firmly in a single place and moment in time, but unlike happenings that fade into art history, the ideas and output from Station to Station will be recorded, edited, and then posted to its website, as well as uploaded to YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, or Vine. Aitken hopes it will serve as a jumping-off point for future conversations—and that, in some way, the project will have longevity.

"Can we make something that's greater than a moment in time," Aitken asks, "that can be valuable 10 years from now, that someone can reach back to and find this encounter of a person, at this moment in time, expressing themselves verbally or discovering something new?"

Aitken pauses, then smiles.

"Or eating a cactus omelet."