Thursday, 25 June 2015

Train of thought: "Station to Station"

For the next month, London's Barbican is playing host to the umbrella event Station to Station, a latter-day happening described by its prime mover, the artist and filmmaker Doug Aitken, as "a journey through modern creativity". By way of an advance party - and an attempt to pull slightly sharper focus on that buzzily vague item of phrasemaking - we have this documentary sampler of the event's US incarnation, tracking 24 days on a train travelling from East Coast to West in 62 dispatches of one minute or less: UK viewers might be reminded of BBC2's Video Nation series, given a new, hipster twist.

As a real-world event, Aitken's inclusive, all-encompassing project - folding in contributions from the worlds of art, music, architecture, photography, dance and literature, not to mention cinema - invited its initial audience to hop on and off, and travel as far with these ideas, as they wanted. The question with the film is whether such a bitty, piecemeal approach coalesces into anything substantial; whether you'd be better off booking for one event at the Barbican, rather than rapidly channel-hopping through all 344, as we often seem to be doing here.

The snatches of artistic self-justification we hear would, for one, almost certainly be better expressed at greater length within the context of a site-specific Q&A, and Aitken's tactic works against his musical star turns (Thurston Moore, Cat Power, Giorgio Moroder, Patti Smith), who can only play sixty seconds of just one of the twenty-odd songs they'd doubtless power through at any live gig. Jackson Browne has the right idea, using his minute to squeeze in a reminiscence of his life on the other side of the tracks; Ariel Pink, observed unpicking a dream while wearing a Bela Tarr T-shirt (nichest merchandise item ever), may be representative. 

Elsewhere, Aitken provides a useful platform for such up-and-comers as the band Bloodbirds, who go all shy when asked to explain themselves; he also catches a lovely moment with reggae veterans The Congos, amusing themselves in fashioning vocal harmonies from the names of places they've visited. This is where you feel the conceit pays off, in demonstrating simple ideas coming together or gathering momentum: in the development of a piece of video art (by Aitken himself) in which a cattle auctioneer caught rehearsing his spiel becomes a resonant keepsake of the territory the train passed through, or in the study of Olifur Eliasson's "Drawing Machine", in which a paint-covered ball was left to create "kinetic canvasses" dependent on the train's movement.

Minute by minute, we're getting a sense of the tremendous, diverse creative energy this project unlocked - energy enough perhaps to power a train all the way across America on its own. What's most stirring, particularly in the context of the defeatism proliferating on social media among the British left in the wake of the recent General Election result, is the very American can-do optimism evident among performers and audience alike; Aitken shows us young people putting themselves out there and getting on with things, moving inexorably forward and in the process opening up new horizons for themselves and the culture.

Whether or not that idea can be sustained in the shadow of the City of London remains to be seen, but in place of moping or handwringing, these sixty-odd shorts collectively venture a modest yet appreciable proposal: if you don't like the enforced immobilisation of society, and if the limitations being placed upon the majority of us do mean we're all going to wind up playing hobo sooner or later, then let's ride the rails for a bit, and see where the journey takes us. Metropolitan London audiences are at a particular advantage in this respect: to board this train, they won't have to travel beyond Zone 1.

Station to Station opens at London's Barbican and ICA cinemas from tomorrow.         

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