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Station To Station Train Brings Nomadic Performance Art To Winslow

Priscilla Frank

More than 100 trains pass through the town of Winslow every day. Most are hauling freight to the West Coast and don't stop. But recently, one very unusual train DID stop in Winslow...the Station to Station train. It's a moving, public art show that's traveling across the U.S., the brainchild of artist Doug Aitken - best known for his large, outdoor film installations. And, as Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris reports, the stop in Winslow was a combination of art, imagination and mystery.

About 200 guests have gathered on the law at La Posada, an historic Amtrak station turned upscale hotel and art gallery. There are only 3 things they know about tonight's event: Dinner is at 5:30, the train arrives at 6:30, and at some point, singer/songwriter Jackson Browne will perform. Other than that, Station to Station is a big mystery.

Credit Gillian Ferris/KNAU
Guests dine on cactus omlettes.

"It's a huge mystery," says guest Julie Sullivan. "Even when you go on the website it's a mystery." Sullivan is a graphic artist from Flagstaff. She says the element of mystery has only added intrigue to the evening. "What's going to happen? And who are these people? And how did they get here? And what are they doing in Winslow?", Sullivan laughs.

When the train finally pulls in, dozens of people disembark and start setting up giant projection screens and colorful yurts that house various art installations. People put on strange costumes. A DJ spins records. What's happening here is, literally, a "happening" - a term in the art world for creative performances that develop as they occur.

Credit Gillian Ferris/KNAU
A Station to Station crew member puts up a giant visual media screen.

Molly Logan is the executive producer of Station to Station. She says creator Dout Aitken pulled her into the project 4 years ago. "We were sitting in a cafe' in New York," Logan says. "And he said, 'I've got this idea'. And he pulled out a napkin and sketched it out and he said, 'do you want to do it?' And I said, 'yeah'. And then I walked out of the cafe' and thought, I have no idea how to send a train across the country.

Credit Gillian Ferris/KNAU
Seated performers wear yarn wigs...not entirely sure what this was about.

But, Logan shared Aitken's vision of creating unusual venues for artists to showcase their work in real time. So, she put together a creative team and went to work locating and refurbishing 9 historic train cars. Next, was enlisting artists. Some were legendary, like Jackson Browne and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Others were more up and coming like Mike Krieger, a co-founder of Instagram.

Logan says the Station to Station project had a basic outline, but over the last 3 weeks, the artistic collaboration on board has been purely organic. "A lot of the artists who've been traveling and doing things," Logan says, "they've said, 'this is the most amazing experience of my professional career'. It'll be interesting to see what residue is left, if you see things come to fruition that were incubated in this space."

Credit Gillian Ferris/KNAU
The "Frank Sinatra 360 Chill Car"

The space - in this case the train - is without a doubt artistically inspiring. "This is the Cedar Rapids car," says Station to Station writer Matt Haber. "It dates back to 1948 and according to lore, this was Frank Sinatra's favorite train car."

Haber is giving tours of the train to guests. He talks about the history of each car and about what's been happening artistically as the train moves westward across the country. Haber's personal favorite is the recording car, where original music - and art - happen daily.

"This is actually one of the coolest things we have here. This is Olafur Eliasson's kinetic art machine," says Haber. "And you see that it's sort of on springs and as the train bounces and rolls, a ball that's been dipped in dye bounces with it and traces the lines of the country as we bounce along the tracks."

Credit Gillian Ferris/KNAU
The Station to Station recording car.

The recording car is also music curator Henri Tiefenthaler's favorite place. The creative verve on the train has inspired her own work as a singer and DJ. She says, "I recorded a bunch of train sounds and made a beat out of them and then made a dance track." Tiefenthaler says, "the train has been a huge inspiration. There's so much talent on here I couldn't just sit by and watch.

Neither can tonight's guests. They roam around the hotel grounds, through artists' yurts. They dance for hours as performer after performer takes the small stage. It's likely that many here in Winslow have never seen anything like the Station to Station project. And because of the nomadic, ever-changing nature of this artistic "happening", it's just as likely that they never will again.