He is best known as a video artist, but Doug Aitken has a thing for "happenings."
He brought street musicians and famous singers together for a "pop rally" at New York's Museum of Modern Art. He turned a barge in Greece into a floating theater for videos and live performance. He planted undercover percussionists in a Seattle crowd as a way to bring a city block to life.
Now Aitken plans to take the idea on the road, sending a group of artists and musicians on an Amtrak train from New York to California, with 10 stops for art and performances — including in L.A. — along the way. He calls the project, planned for September, "Station to Station: A Nomadic Happening."
"We live in a world where art exists in galleries and museums, and musicians have to play the same venues over and over," said the artist, 45, in his studio in Venice, Calif. "This is a way for artists to stretch creatively."
Artists who have agreed so far to participate: Kenneth Anger, Olaf Breuning, Peter Coffin, Urs Fischer, Meschac Gaba, Liz Glynn, Christian Jankowski, Carsten Holler, Aaron Koblin, Ernesto Neto, Jack Pierson, Stephen Shore, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Lawrence Weiner.
Musicians include Fiery Furnaces, Nite Jewel, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Deacon, No Age, Ariel Pink and Beck — who is talking about performing with a gospel choir.
Chefs Alice Waters and Leif Hedendal are working on the food.
"I don't want to create a fixed, predictable program of activity," Aitken said. "To me a happening is more about empowering the audience and performers, more about collective energy. I'm imagining a kaleidoscope of different mediums and voices."
The train will serve as the artists' studio, complete with recording equipment on one car. Most of the 10 train stations chosen along the route, set up with stages and artists' yurts, will host public events. One exception is Barstow, where instead of staging the event at the train station, Aitken plans to use a drive-in movie theater on Highway 58 as the main site.
The musical events will be ticketed but most other parts will be free.
A couple of artists, such as Glynn and Ariel Pink, have expressed their interest in joining for the entire ride. Others will come and go.
Then there's the sculptural potential of the nine-car train itself, which Aitken is outfitting with banks of LED lights visible from the outside. He calls it a "moving beacon," noting that the programmable lights will change color and tempo to respond to such variables as weather and the train's speed.
Molly Logan, the project's executive producer, calls it a "kinetic sculpture." Part of her job is developing the project's website and "digital infrastructure," streaming video feeds and content to partners like Wired and Instagram to share the experience with people who can't attend the events.
"A huge part of the project will live online, only digitally," she said, describing video portraits of artists (some major, others unknown) already in progress as well as a range of content to be produced on the train.
"This whole thing will be successful if someone sitting in Tokyo can go online and experience a happening in another city," she said, "and it's not a voyeuristic second prize but a real experience."
In the past most of Aitken's happenings have served as events celebrating his own large-scale video installations. His MoMA "pop rally" was organized for the debut of "Sleepwalkers," a rhythmic video piece that tapped into the energy of a city waking, walking and sleeping and was screened on the museum building itself. His Seattle happening, this year, marked the unveiling of his video commission for the facade of the Seattle Art Museum.
This time the happening is the main event, and he has mobilized his team to work on it. Assistants work out of his Venice Beach studio, which looks like a boutique post-production firm apart from his art on the walls — Vegas-style, mirrored signage spelling out ART and NOW, and an acrylic sign for SEX.
Back rooms are set up with large-screen Macs for editing video. A clip of trains speeding into the distance across a prairie landscape plays on one screen.
Were trains a childhood obsession? "Not really," Aitken said. "It's almost more like form followed function. I was fascinated with this idea of having a nomadic platform that could change location constantly. Later I began looking at how trains created arteries through North America — passageways used so much less now because we have interstates."
He said he never considered travel by car or truck. (Trucks were the vehicle of choice for painter Eric Fischl's much discussed but never realized vision of a migrating, cross-country arts exhibition. In his new memoir Fischl says the project stalled for lack of funding.)
Aitken, who said he didn't know much about Fischl's plans, explained he'd been thinking about his project for about four years, in between gallery shows and museum commissions, but only this year lined up financial backing. Levi's signed on as the lead sponsor, though he promised the train would not contain a denim store or booth.
"You will not see logos all over the trains, this is no big branded thing," said Len Peltier, vice president of creative direction for Levi's. As creative director at Virgin Records, Peltier once hired Aitken to design an Iggy Pop album cover.
Peltier said his interest is in developing relationships with artists as a way to reach a younger generation.
Seven museums along the route, from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to LACMA here, have also been named as partners of the project. They are beneficiaries, not sponsors. Aitken has offered to split all proceeds from ticket sales with them.
"Every stop should be really cheap for the public, but whatever money we do make we will be giving back," he said. "I keep thinking about how little art is in public school these days. I want to support these places that are trying to be our cultural beacons."
Aitken flew to the Walker last weekend to scout artists in Minneapolis, filming interviews with figures in the art and music scenes there. Olga Viso, director of the Walker (which itself mixes visual and performing arts), said she liked the project's multidisciplinary focus and was struck by his "spirit of generosity."
"He's not coming in to these towns and producing something for himself, but trying to figure out and celebrate what is unique about the creative community here," Viso said. "He's talking about taking artists from Minneapolis to other platforms. It's creating a lot of momentum already."