STATION TO STATION: ST. PAUL
STATION TO STATION: CHICAGO
There is no journey that grips the imagination of the American people more profoundly that the trip from east to west. For three weeks in September, traveling in the same direction the tracks were laid, is a train carrying a band of artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers and social media mavens. For one week, VMAN went along for the ride.
There’s a custom recording studio inside the Wisconsin Valley railcar, replete with musical instruments, mixing consoles and the latest Moog technology. When musicians walk through this car for the first time it’s all gaped mouths and humbled hands. In the St. Croix Valley, a converted 1949 car is a video editing suite known as the Content Cave, where a crew works non-stop, cutting as the train cruises. Documentation and digital output is an integral part of Doug Aitken’s vision for Station to Station: A Nomadic Happening.
Posted on the entrance to every car us a crowd release notice, although filming takes place on the balconies in between as well. There are HD camcorders, DSLRs and iPhones everywhere—but inside Mohave, the Levi’s sponsored car, are four instruments from another era: there’s a steampunk-looking typewriter from the turn of the century, a 8mm camcorder from 1953 finished in Morocco leather, a medium format camera with a retractable lens and a Gibson guitar from the fifties. Posters from the current Levi’s campaign hang on the walls, proclaiming “The Future is Leaving,” but these relics from the past are along for the ride. In keeping with the spirit of Station to Station however, these devices have been modernized and equipped with Wi-Fi. Each can upload content straight to social media without the use of screens, straddling the divide between digital and analogue.
“We wanted to create this experience of using a physical object to communicate in digital space,” said Mark Kleback, the creative technologist responsible for these Frankenstein electronics whose output can be tracked by searching the hashtag #MakeOurMark on Instagram and Twitter.
“All of the devices post to social media,” added Kleback. “We wanted the artists on the train to be able to post to their own accounts, so we have these wristbands with RFID [Radio-frequency identification] tags in them. You can go up to any device and scan it and it will log you into your account. For example, you can type on the typewriter and it will post to a general Twitter account or you can scan your bracelet and it will log you into your own personal account.”
Stuck between stations, VMAN sat down with Kleback in a pair of butterfly chairs onboard the Mohave to learn more about each device.
Can you start by telling us about the design of the typewriter?
Mark Kleback It’s a 1901 Underwood No. 5. We took apart the keys and inserted a circuit board that can allow them to be like computer keys. These tubes on the front to count down the characters from 140 so you know how many characters you have left. To do that we ordered these nixie tubes from Russia. They’re really high voltage so it was kind of precarious working with them. They look like the tubes inside a guitar amplifier with numbers inside them. The aesthetic is really cool, it has this old technology meets new technology vibe, and it’s my favorite looking piece out of the four.
The cameras were both converted from film to digital, can you talk about the technology integrated into each one?
MK The two cameras are a still camera and a video camera, they both post to Instagram. We used a small computer called a Raspberry Pi and a proprietary camera to do the photos and video, it’s like a 10 megapixel camera. The still camera is a 1939 Graflex and it has a retractable lens. The 1953 Bolex B8 has two digits on the side that count down from 15 because Instagram video only allows for 15 second uploads. We also use the actually mechanical trigger in the Bolex to take the video, which is cool. We didn’t want screens, we wanted everything to be very physical. There’s lights telling you when you’re recording—or when you’re not recording, or when you’re logged in, when you’re not logged in—but you’re recording through the viewfinder like an old camera and it will post either to our general account or to the user account. That’s when you see, at the end, when it’s already posted.
Those two are wireless. They are the only two that are modular, they can go off the train and they travel with mobile hotspots so there’s always internet to upload to Instagram wherever they go. For the video and still camera, we built our own Instagram filters. You can select them with a physical slider on the cameras, so if someone wants to shoot in black and white or overexpose there are options for that.
How was the guitar fashioned to wirelessly record to SoundCloud?
MK The guitar’s the most complex in that it’s running a Mac mini in the background. We have a guitar pedal with a stomp switch on it and that records onto the Mac mini. It gets posted from there. The guitar is a 1953 Gibson ES-125 hollow-body, which is also from the fifties. On the guitar itself we didn’t want to hack into the body at all because it’s a really nice guitar, so the RFID scan is simply attached to the bridge and it wirelessly transmits the user to the Mac Mini with Bluetooth. We wanted people to be able to pick up the guitar, scan in and be able to record a piece of music that would get posted to SoundCloud.
All travel and expenses paid by Levi’s.