ARTICLE NICHOLE JANKOWSKI
STATION TO STATION: OLD IS NEW
STATION TO STATION: CHICAGO
STATION TO STATION: ST. PAUL
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 be along for the ride.
It was clear skies as our train rolled past the govermnent subsidized cornfields of the midwest. You could feel the warmth in the air whipping past the moment you stepped out onto a vestibule between air-conditioned carriages. It was a week into Station to Station, a nomadic happening taking Doug Aitken and his merry band of artists, musicians, cameramen and crew on a nine-city tour across the country.
I had only been on the train since Chicago but by the time we crossed the Mississippi River on the Santa Fe Swing Span Bridge—the largest double-deck swing-span bridge in the world—traversing state lines into Iowa, I was already a woman embedded. It was my fifth day of travel but it felt like I had been with the team all month.
“It’s funny how quickly you just settle into it,” said Eleanor Friedberger, known for her work in Fiery Furnaces. She sat in a vibrant lounger covered in fabric by Jorge Pardo. “It’s very easy for me, because I travel so much anyway, to just slip into some little routine and feel comfortable in a weird place.”
The train, after all, isn’t your average Amtrak railcar. There are nine cars in total, including a recording studio, a video editing suite, executive lounge, observation car, Levi’s sponsor car, a double-decker dinning car, two sleepers and of course a baggage car. The historic carriages were restored and run by Friends of the 261, a non-profit with a mission to promote public knowledge of railroad history.
Friedberger and I were in Cedar Rapids, the observation car at the tail of the train. Every time you entered the carriage someone reminded you it was Frank Sinatra’s favorite railcar. It’s also by far the best place to nap. (Choose a seat on the northwest-facing side of the train so the slanted late afternoon sunlight warms you through the windows, swivel your seat around, put your feet up on the neighboring chair and recline.)
“It’s easy to go through a day and think, where did the day go,” noted Friedberger. Time on the train traveled in fits and starts with the shifting terrain. “It’s nice to kind of get lost.” She paused a moment to look at the receding scenery through the panoramic windows in the rear of the car. “That looks so beautiful right now,” she said. Conversations on the train often hushed when the landscape changed, eyes drifting from the person across from you to out the window. “I wasn’t expecting there to be so many people on the train, which is great. I hope I learn everyone’s name by the end of it.”
Lunch and dinner in the Super Dome was a great time to get acquainted. There was a handsome bartender, Justin Carder, and a blue-eyed gentleman by the name of Al Walker who served all our meals wearing a uniform of Levi’s jeans, a short-sleeved button-down and a vest.He knew everyone’s food restrictions and allergies.
Alice Waters, activist and owner of the award-winning restaurant Chez Panisse in San Francisco, was responsible for the food curation at all the stops but the train was Leif Hedendal’s domain. The independent chef and forager is known for his Dinner Discussion series, a monthly invite-only supper served up to artists, writers, curators, farmers and food activists in his Mission District living room. There are no set topics or speeches, just Hedendal’s hope that conversations would socially engage and inform. The dining car was the perfect platform, creative types cross-pollinating at every meal.
At each stop, Hedendal’s crew descended from the train to visit local farmers’ markets, butcher shops and bakeries. The best green beans I’ve ever had came from Minneapolis.
Because we were running on Amtrak schedules we had backtracked after the Saint Paul happening, heading to Chicago again. Besides adding another full day of train travel, I thought by including this I could write about some of the experiences we were having off the train—overnights, after all, weren’t spent in the sleepers—but this story isn’t ours. When we arrived back in Chicago the heat wave had passed but there was tension in the air. That night, 19 year-old Miguel Delgado was fatally shot in the head in front of Nick’s Beer Garden in Wicker Park, about five minutes after we had walked in. The following week the FBI would name Chicago the murder capital of America.
(I’m not going to lecture on gun control here, just offer a reminder to travelers: listen to the locals and respect their opinion, the instincts of someone who walks the streets daily will always be better than your own.)
Finally, we arrived in Kansas City, Missouri. It was a surprise stop and not included on the public schedule. Conversations I overheard on the train were that work was being done to put KC on the Station to Station website’s map and timeline only after the event. As we disembarked, even the sponsors seemed unaware of what was happening the following night. The possibility of rain threatened to shut down any performances.
Word was finally released, in partnership with the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and KCUR-FM, the local NPR affiliate, the day before the event. Timed to keep the crowd to a manageable size. Only a few dozen showed up for Sunday evening’s free show, compared to the 200 to 2,500 at other venues. The gathering was especially intimate considering the scale and budget of the project.
Grunge/psychedelic-rock band Bloodbirds, took the stage first. Aitken, unfazed by the turnout, chatted freely with attendees, wearing the same dangling nametag—‘Doug’ scrawled in black permanent marker—he’d had around his neck all week.
Conquerors, a hazy psych/garage-rock band, played to an energized audience. The LED lights on the train that was serving as a backdrop to the stage pulsated along with the music. Finally, Friedberger took the stage for a solo set. Later, she invited Tim Koh, bassist for Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, and Justin Stanley, music producer for Station, to accompany her for a few songs. The night ended without fanfare, a marching band or an auction. The crowd slouched towards their homes and the crew to their hotel a few blocks away. There was no mention of the event in The Kansas City Star or The Pitch, the city’s free alternative weekly.
All travel and expenses paid by Levi’s.
PHOTOGRAPHY Alayna Van Dervort, courtesy of LUMA Foundation