In 2013, a visual artist named Doug Aitken embarked on one hell of a rail trip. He took a train, transformed it into a “kinetic light sculpture” by mounting LED screens on its sides, and then invited a stunning collection of artists from all walks of life and disciplines to hop on and off as the train journeyed from New York to San Francisco, stopping occasionally to perform a series of “Happenings” along the 24-day, 4,000-mile ride. Aitken also filmed everything that happened — and Happened — along the way.
Given the raw material that such an adventure provides, Aitken could have easily assembled a straightforward documentary out of his footage, and it could have been fascinating. But what he actually did is even more intriguing. Breaking the footage down into 62 minute-long short films, Aitken doesn’t just document what happened on the trip, he continues it, turning Station to Station into a project almost as ambitious as the train itself.
The shorts are a diverse lot, featuring everything from dance and musical performances to visual art creation, memoir, rhythmic whipping, and auction chanting and captured both on the train and in rail towns along the way. One minute you’re watching a snippet of a performance by the likes of Thurston Moore, Mavis Staples, Cat Power, or Beck, and the next you’re watching a high school marching band take over a parking garage. The minute after that, quite literally, you’re back on the train, watching the American landscape race past the feet of a pair of flamenco dancers.
The transition from film to film is sometimes jarring, sometimes illuminating, and sometimes frustrating, but it’s always interesting. Watching all 62 of them consecutively provides an experience every bit as exciting, thought-provoking, and ultimately ephemeral as an LED-laden train full of artists passing in the night.