On Doug Aitken's Art Train, You Agree to Be Filmed, And Happy Hour Starts at 5:01

The Station to Station train in Los Angeles
The Station to Station train in Los Angeles
Ye Rin Mok

"I'm not cutting, just getting a photo," said a tall man in a white button-down shirt with iPhone poised, sliding between me and my view of No Age last Thursday night. The duo was playing at Union Station, in the courtyard, leaning over a drum set and sound boards and looking lost in the process, like they weren't that aware of the circle of people crowded around them.

They sounded good, but also looked good, very photogenic in their trance-like state, and Randy Randall with his hair falling over his face in a caution-to-wind way. So it seemed normal that so many people would take advantage of such a picture-perfect moment, and as the iPhone-wielding man slid out of my line of sight, a trio of guys with black and white Station to Station badges around their necks and heavy-duty still and video cameras maneuvered past and squatted down at the brink of the circle. My instinct was to watch them more closely than the band, because it was like being backstage on a set: I knew that a well-produced version of the No Age performance would appear online at some point not too far off, but I'd not get access to this part of the production process again.

Station to Station is L.A.-based artist Doug Aitken's project, or his idea. It involves rented vintage train cars, artists from a range of fields riding while working and "happenings" in cities between the East and West Coast -- like the one No Age was part of at Union. It also involves Levi's sponsorship, which means Levi's has its own car on the train and every t-shirt, poster and temporary label on train cars says "Station to Station: a public art project made possible by Levi's."

Artists aren't paid but they're fed, usually by chef Leif Hedendal and sometimes by attending the 5:01 happy hour in the Levi's car, and housed. "Nothing's as good as this," as Chris Camp, the whip cracker performer who's collaborated with Aitken before, put it. "This is so relaxed. There's always free beverages."

Union Station in Los Angeles.
Union Station in Los Angeles.
Ye Rin Mok

The train left New York City on September 6, with musicians Ariel Pink and Yoshima on board, and technically ended its tour in Oakland this past weekend, with a performance in which composer-musician Dan Deacon said, "See you in the future!" (Levi's has been using "the future is leaving" as a tagline throughout the project). But the products, specifically the "STS original films" will still be appearing on Vimeo and the project's website for a while.

If you followed news of the train -- and the fact that new members of the press got on at each stop and staff members blogged regularly means there was enough to follow -- you may have sensed the difficulty in talking about the project. It's inarguably cool to the right kind of person. If you like art rock and care about what Ed Ruscha thinks and eats (the L.A. pop artist, who photographed every building on the Sunset strip in the 1960s, contributed cactus omelets to the event in Winslow, AZ), and want to live in a world in which competent creative people collaborate and then converge on your city all at once, you'll probably want the project to succeed. If you're a person's whose idea of heaven is being surrounding by competent creative people, all relatively laid back but definitely on deadline, being on the train would be your heaven (it's where I want to go when I die).

But there's this bigger issue that has to do with the proposals it's making about how culture can look, sound and feel: What kind of future is this train heading toward, and is it the best kind?

"The funny thing for me is it's not about what I want," said Aitken last Wednesday. The operation had just left Barstow, where it had staged a happening in a desert drive-in theater the night before, and he was sitting in the Cedar Rapids, a smoking car that once belonged to Frank Sinatra and now belongs to a non-profit in the Twin Cities, on one of the swivel seats that artist-designer Jorge Pardo upholstered in blue and yellow.

Station to Station had been "born out of a sense of necessity," he explained. "We look at out culture now and it's sitting in these containers -- musicians making a song with a certain duration. We're here now with a responsibility to make something that proposes a sort of template."

The train, its movement, the fluidity it fosters between the people on it, and the way that fluidity ideally gels somewhat during events, is that attempted template. "My role here, if someone's having a moment, I want to be there," said Aitken, who had members of his team working in a production car that's right beside a recording studio car, producing smooth, almost dreamy shorts based on events and also on people and occurrences on the train. There's one of Ariel Pink, who declared himself the train's mascot and stayed on for longer than planned, napping and another of him passing between cars. There's also one of Ariel Pink playing with Thurston Moore and John Maloney, where it really does seem like they've taken over the car. They were channeling the movement of the train, Aitken felt. He'd been sitting on the floor as they played, perhaps behind a camera.

Four years ago, when Regen Projects, the gallery that represents Aitken, still had its space on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, Aitken projected this video called Migration on the gallery's white exterior at night. It showed animals in hotel rooms, tearing up bedding so that stuffing cascaded, and was slow and seamless, but totally different than its surroundings. And so if you stopped on the corner and watched, you felt like you were bucking the commercial commotion of the night life around you.

On Doug Aitken's Art Train, You Agree to Be Filmed, And Happy Hour Starts at 5:01
Ye Rin Mok

Maybe it's the insularity the train fostered that made it hard to feel like it was bucking something. Even the events were self-contained pop-up environments, with the art yurts -- tents in which featured artists set up installations or screened videos -- fitting in too well next to the Levi's yurts ("I stood in line, and then realized I was in line for a jeans store," said one guest at the Union Station happening last week).

Though there were the exceptions: at Union Station, seeing Chris Camp crack his whips with people following behind him, and hearing Liz Glynn, wrapped in gray felt, talk about dark matter to guests who often didn't even know they were in her yurt until they turned a corner and encountered her, was great because it wasn't familiar.

So maybe the answer is what it always is: We need more voices, more templates. If there's only one well-oiled train to the future that's full of MacBook Pros and fantastic jeans, of course we're in trouble.

See also:

What Happens When You Read Poetry on the L.A. Metro?

5 L.A. Spots That Inspired the Silver Lake Movie Afternoon Delight

Catherine Wagley on Twitter:

Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Twitter:

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