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Flamenco dancers

Station to Station’s Fantasy Train Kept ‘A-Rollin

Station to Station, a cross-country excursion of handpicked creatives billed as a “nomadic happening” on a fantasy train, concluded its three-week tour in late September, stopping in New Mexico on September 18th. The brainchild of L.A. artist Doug Aitken, the project retrofitted a train of nine vintage cars that cruised east to west as if pioneering the western expansion.

The train began rolling in Brooklyn. Its scheduled stops were Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, Lamy/Santa Fe, Winslow, Barstow, Los Angeles, and Oakland/San Francisco. Much-anticipated, the Santa Fe event had been scheduled for Lamy before the venue was switched to the Santa Fe Railyard. (The train itself stayed in Albuquerque, 60 miles to the south). While the project’s tagline boasts, “For a brief moment, the most interesting place in the country will be a moving target” (sounds cool, right?), the tour’s press department later said by email that the train was never open to the public, and not featured at every stop. Still, considering the event’s marketing, the train’s no-show in Santa Fe was a huge disappointment.

The locomotive trundled along with a hodgepodge of groovy talents including writers, musicians, visual artists, performers, and chefs aboard. They cooked, doodled, napped, and played spontaneous music that was captured by a recording studio. (Check out how much fun they had.)

Ornery ex-critic Dave Hickey, who resides now in Santa Fe, was said to be there. So were Ernesto Neto, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Alice Waters. Ed Ruscha made a cameo in Winslow, Arizona with his Cactus Omelette. Light artist Olafur Eliasson crafted a “kinetic drawing machine” for the “Wisconsin Valley” train car. The “Mohave” train car, decked out in Navajo decor, hosted happy hour every day and carried a hacked “vintage” typewriter that actually sent tweets.

The major media that reliably covered the adventure reported Aitken’s p.o.v. that audiences anywhere would be revealed as lovers of “avant-garde work.” But Santa Fe’s already vanguard-y crowd seemed to sniff out the “phony” smell. After all, most of that fun was taking place out of reach of the audience, who in the case of West Oakland (according to KQED) were actually bused in, truly without consideration for the local residents.

Only a spare audience in Santa Fe showed up, anyhow, because of a curious embargo on the $25-ticket sales that saw the buzzfest stay half-empty with attendees standing around a trainless Railyard filled instead with small yurts. Two Levi’s workshops with hipsters sewing denim scraps by hand seemed thoughtful until I realized that Levi’s was sponsoring the event. And what was with the armed security guards patrolling with muzzled German shepherds wearing vests that said “do not pet”?

The Urs Fischer yurt was a personal favorite; white powdery smoke filled a dome centered on a big white bed surrounded by mirrors. Eleanor Friedberger sang acoustic guitar to a tiny audience that included her dad, but Kenneth Anger’s film screenings in a red yurt fell flat. Loungers in Ernesto Neto’s orange environment were admonished not to pull on the fabric that had been “hand sewn.”

Yurt entry was free; at 7 p.m. the paid program began inside the Farmers’ Market Pavilion. The traveling artists, as New York Times’s Melena Ryzik described their appearance in Barstow, were “svelte young people in good pants and expensively shaggy haircuts, along with one guy in Google Glass.” Google Glass could be spotted roaming around the Pavilion like Inspector Gadget.

Highlights of the performances included a whip cracker and flamenco dancers jokingly wearing white t-shirts and . . . Levi’s. THEESatisfaction gave the best musical performance while Cat Power, the headliner for Santa Fe, was anticlimactic; she didn’t have her band with her and some people said she had forgotten the lyrics.

SITE Santa Fe is one of the nine museums benefitting from Station to Station’s proceeds; Irene Hofmann, SITE’s chief curator, notes that funds from ticket sales across the country “are being matched with additional donations”; the nine participating institutions will split them evenly. KQED noted however that only $19,000 had been raised. Funding new local artist projects is supposed to be the outcome — which seems retroactive given that the artists on this train ride were not, themselves, paid.

In light of the stated mission to “connect artists, musicians and creative pioneers with diverse communities, pushing art and culture outside of institutional constraints” (italics mine), a lot of these snafus suddenly look a lot more significant. Shouldn’t the local public not only attend, but actually benefit? And is SITE Santa Fe, which is the international arts producer in Santa Fe, really the logical partner to distribute a community fund (with the caveat that SITE does administer the community-funded annual SPREAD crowdsourced pocketbook)?

The train’s joyride, as seen in digital pixels, looked way better than the “analog” happening on September 18th, which felt like the set for a Levi’s commercial in which even being on the premises compelled the audience to effectively confer their permission to have their likeness used for Station to Station’s promotional purposes. Station to Station’s global PR machine documented a million-dollar subsidized trip for art hipsters. I’d say that gives a new meaning to just passing through.

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