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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 by train 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 will be along for the ride.
 
It’s happening. Traveling along 4,146 miles of Amtrak-owned rails from New York to Oakland is visual artist Doug Aitken’s public art project, Station to Station: A Nomadic Happening. Nine carriages long, with racing stripes of LED lights along its sides, the refurbished antique railcars are transporting a rotating cast of artists, musicians, press and, within the first four days already, a few stowaways. With nine announced stops on its three-week cross-country trip, this is the art version of the 1970 Festival Express tour that took Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and The Band across Canada by train. Likewise, there is no guaranteed payback for the event’s sponsor, Levi’s, and the brand’s creative director is not discussing the budget. Ticket sales from each scheduled stopover are being donated to the partner art institutions.
 
What exactly this is depends on who you ask—part concert, art happening, discourse, brand campaign and performance piece. It’s an amalgamation. The events at each stop vary, with different musical acts, performance artists, moving images, food, art, and craft popping up along the route. Station to Station kicked off September 6 in New York with a colored smoke bomb by Swiss-born artist Olaf Breuning, musical performances by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, No Age and Suicide and a spicy curry served up by contemporary artist Rirkrit Tiravanija in a nod to his landmark piece Untitled (Free).
 
While the performance grounds are sites of collision, the train itself is acting as a cultural incubator. Two cars, outfitted separately as a recording studio and video-editing suite, are being used to capture and transmit what’s happening between happenings. And, with days devoted to travel between some destinations, that’s a lot. Tuesday night, when Thurston Moore took the stage with John Moloney as Caught On Tape, he sang a song they wrote on the train “for Kurt Cobain.”
 
This sort of unpredictability is integral to the event, which is evolving at a speed of 79 miles per hour along the track with new performances being announced along the way. Event organizers are rolling with it.
 
“You can’t practice spontaneity,” said Len Peltier, creative director of Levi’s, but he’s certainly planning for it. The day before the already sold-out event at Chicago Union Station, American rhythm and blues singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples was added to the lineup.
 
Flying into Chicago on a redeye to meet the train at its third stop, I noticed pockets of pitch black huddled outside of the glowing city center and wonder whether they were parks, industrial dead zones or foreclosed homes. According to The New York Times, 62,000 properties stood vacant last year, most of them concentrated in the South and West Sides of Chicago, a result of the housing crisis. The history of Chicago is a familiar one, shared with the other manufacturing cities in the Rust Belt. Between 1950 and 1990 the city lost 837,000 residents. Yet, in the last two decades—coinciding with the latest renovations improving passenger-handling capacity at Union Station—the city’s center began gaining population more rapidly than any other city in the country. The historic narrative of the station made it the perfect venue, since Aitken’s work often touches on the mythology of America.
 
There was an almost ceremonial start to the night’s events, with the Kansas City Marching Cobras parading through the crowd gathered in the Great Hall. Majorettes decked out in white go-go boots and sequined bodysuits tossed batons under the 115-foot the barrel-vaulted ceiling. Their set transitioned seamlessly into a performance by garage-rock band White Mystery, seemingly well-rehearsed considering the fluidity of the happenings. Miss Alex White, half of the brother and sister duo, would tell me later on the train that they were given only a five minute warning to be on stage and a direction to start playing at the band marched off the floor.
 
“While there’s a lot of serendipity, there’s a lot of people working very hard [behind-the-scenes] to make this groovy experience,” said White. Serendipity is how White Mystery got on the program. Aitken was in Chicago filming for the online stream of Station to Station when he asked his cousin, a local, who his favorite band was—and White Mystery got a call.
 
The Black Monks of Mississippi, a collective of experimental musicians influenced by gospel gave a riveting performance in Chicago. The next day, the train would cross the river of the same name on its way to Saint Paul Union Depot.
 
All travel and expenses paid by Levi’s.

EXTRA CREDITS

images courtesy station to station/levi's by paul and williams

MORE TO LOVE

CASEY JANE ELLISON TOMMY\'S NEW WAVE ALTUZARRA AT THE BALLET IN FOCUS
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