In 2013, multimedia artist Doug Aitken undertook a massive public art project called “Station to Station." He procured a train and outfitted it with LED lights that would respond to the environment as it traveled 4,000 miles across the U.S.
Along the way, Aitken staged 10 “happenings” in small towns and big cities. Artists of all types, including musicians Thurston Moore, Patti Smith and Beck, and artists such as Ed Ruscha traveled on the train or met up with Aitken to take part at the "happenings."
Aitken and his crew filmed everything, including in-depth conversations with the artists and musicians on the nature of creativity, but he didn't have a clear idea of what to do with the footage.
After considering a more traditional documentary, he settled on something that's more of a collage portrait than a narrative film. The result is the new non-fiction movie, “Station to Station,” comprised of 62 one-minute films.
I’m curious about the moment it occurred to you that you wanted to do this and you decided to do it on a train. Why a train?
I had never really thought of the project at the beginning of using a train... I wanted to make something that was collaborative, that was nomadic, and that kind of challenged the idea of place. I think what happens for all of us is that the place that we live in — the place that we occupy — becomes comfortable. And whatever we make there, whatever we create there, we sort of fall into certain systems. And I was interested in this idea of opening that up and disrupting it, and putting someone into a new space that they’ve never been [in] before. You know, that feeling you get when your eyes are opened and everything around you is electric.
Your film is not a linear documentary of the cross-country trip. Instead it’s 62 one-minute films that capture moments along the way — and those are not presented chronologically either. Was that your plan from the outset?
We initially started making a film that was somewhat like a documentary. and after a couple months I thought it was a completely stale format. It was kind of dishonest to the project and this idea of one story with one narration just felt completely corrupt. When you think of film you think of time. I thought, Why don’t we make a film based on time and why don’t we make every minute a separate film? So, it becomes almost like this acceleration from place to place, person to person. So we ended up doing it. It took us about 14 months of editing and I saw it in a lot of ways as [creating] a film that was about a modern landscape, and this modern landscape is like a kaleidoscope almost of different voices and encounters — music and things being made. That sense of landscape is this narrative thread that brings it all together.
Just in case I want to do this, how do I go about getting a train?
We actually found this kind of train prodigy. It was this amazing guy who was in his mid-20s who was [from] maybe a three- or four-generation train family. He was absolutely obsessed and put together certain train cars. He knows owners of different cars throughout the states.
What happened along this journey that you didn’t expect? What were the moments of surprise or panic or illumination?
Well, I’m really a believer in being in situations that feel new and awkward and different. And I love that feeling of being in motion — that sense you find when you’re traveling. For myself, the project was fascinating in the sense that, if you live in Los Angeles, you often see America as New York and Los Angeles, and then there’s some sort of vague space in between. In this project, really spending a huge amount of time in other areas and really looking at what’s going on there, to me, it was really eye-opening.