When I arrived in Pittsburgh to join the second leg of Station to Station – the not-for-profit arts project curated by Doug Aitken and funded by Levi’s – the streets were near deserted. Most of the city’s residents were crammed into the local NFL stadium, or at home watching the Pittsburgh Steelers lose to the Tennessee Titans in their first game of the season. But a few hours later, hundreds were gathered under the arches of Pittsburgh’s Central Station to witness a night of dance, music, short film and “nomadic cultural happenings”.
Aitken is famous for his grand ideas, often involving large-scale video installations. Last year, he projected rural landscape scenes onto 12 giant screens at a train station in southern France and projected video covers of 1934 song I Only Have Eyes for You onto the exterior of Washington DC’s Hirshhorn Museum. Station to Station was another digital experiment, but this time explored how contemporary artists are making the most of the technology. It was also a look at how, through social media, participants can turn intimate, local events into global ones.
Artists taking part were transported to each station on the route by a nine-car vintage train; its exterior covered in sound-activated LED lights to create a moving piece of art. Alongside the original swivel seats and private booths, the train housed a recording space and editing suite, and on-board performances were broadcast online throughout the three-week journey.
Aitken thought up the idea a few years ago and pitched it to his friend and Levi’s creative director, Len Peltier. “I fell in love with it immediately,” Peltier says. “It’s such an exciting idea and one I thought was perfect for Levi’s.” As Peltier explained to me, ahead of the first Station to Station event in New York, the train would travel along tracks built by workers who Levi Strauss’s five pocket jeans (the world’s first) were made for. It would also follow the route Strauss took across the US to set up the business in 1873. The project became a ‘physical manifestation’ of the idea of ‘Going Forth’, which has been Levi’s marketing message since 2009.
The opportunity to take part came about a year ago, when Levi’s decided to release updated versions of key ‘icon’ products such as its 501 jeans, which turned 140 this year. “That was the catalyst,” explains Mary Alderete, Levi’s VP of global marketing. “The ‘icons’ story was all about re-working vintage for modern times and so was Station to Station – taking an old train and filling it with people doing exciting things today.”
The project kicked off on September 6, with a launch party overlooking Manhattan’s skyline. When I spoke to Peltier before the event, he wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to turn out. While Levi’s had funded the project (proceeds will go towards programming at nine US museums), Aitken was curator and creative director. “But we talked about all of the artists involved, whether they would be right and how it would all be packaged,” says Peltier. “It wasn’t a case of us sponsoring something and having no involvement.”
The Pittsburgh event began with a performance from the 2 3 Kansas City Marching Cobras, a youth marching band complete with sequinned suits and silver pom-poms. This was followed by sets from punk band No Age, Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, percussion trio YOSHIMIO and lo-fi pop band Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. In between, the crowd watched experimental short films, poked their heads into a series of yurts – including a white cocoon filled with smoke and mirrors and a squidgy orange one inspired, apparently, by the human digestive system – and watched a team of craftspeople silently stitching and embroidering jeans and jackets.
Inside the train, which left Pittsburgh for Chicago the following morning, analogue technology had been given a digital makeover: there was a vintage typewriter that sent tweets, a guitar linked to soundcloud and a 1939 camera that posted photos to Instagram. Footage from each was posted online as part of an accompanying digital campaign, Make our Mark, launched by Levi’s and AKQA. Artists and ‘makers’ onboard used the equipment to post responses to four key questions on the Make our Mark website: who are you, what moves you, what’s your dream and what’s your approach?, and internet users were also encouraged to respond. The resulting visuals are being made into a two-minute art film.
“Social interaction is a key part of this project,” Alderete told me in New York. “Three years ago, I’m not sure it would have had the same resonance. But our whole approach now is focused on content strategy – pushing our products by encouraging people to engage with them. That’s what advertising is now; letting you know something’s happening that you can join in with digitally. You make print ads and billboards because they have scale, but it’s all about encouraging people to comment, curate and create,” she explains. As a 140-year-old brand facing competition from every other US heritage retailer, Levi’s future success lies in convincing consumers that it’s still culturally relevant. This was also the aim of its Go Forth campaign, launched by Wieden + Kennedy in 2009, which aimed to recapture the more edgy image the brand had cultivated with its Launderette and Twisted 501 campaigns which ran from the 80s to the early 2000s. “When I joined Levi’s [in 2007], its US ads had become quite bland. We needed to get the spirit of the brand back,” says Peltier.
The first Go Forth ad was a black and white spot directed by Cary Fukunaga and featuring a 19th-century poem by Walt Whitman that stated: “I am the new American pioneer, looking forward, never back.” The fall/winter 2013 campaign, which was shot by Peltier and launched to coincide with Station to Station, features black-and-white shots of ‘pioneers’ wearing Levi’s clothes alongside the strap line ‘The future is leaving’.
Levi’s won’t be launching Station to Station worldwide – although an ‘outpost’ event was held in London last month – but the brand may take elements of it to other cities. Peltier and Hinson said they would also like to continue experimenting with unusual retail spaces and pop-ups. “Keeping things fresh is what’s important to us. We won’t always do things of the scale [of Station to Station]. If an idea can’t be topped, we’ll go smaller and save something big for another year. It’s all about picking the right projects – ones that have cultural significance. We put the brakes on our music programme for a while when a lot of other brands started to do it and focused on arts and crafts instead, but Station to Station was different because it’s unique,” he says. “You know you’re involved in something big when people start calling you up and asking to be a part of it,” adds Hinson.
At the end of its three-week journey, Station to Station had received mixed reviews. The New York Times’s coverage of the Barstow event claimed local artists felt aggrieved that they hadn’t been invited to take part and the local Art Guild said they hadn’t even heard of it. A writer for the Californian media outlet KQED who attended the Oakland event was even more critical, accusing Levi’s of scouting a site and showing up en masse “to claim their stake without much, if any, consideration for the people who actually live in West Oakland”.
In Pittsburgh, the reception was more welcoming. It was a small-scale event but one attended by families, students, senior citizens and staff from local galleries and museums. Perhaps collaborating with local artists at each destination – and selling more tickets – would have generated more of a buzz, but there wasn’t any noticeable hostility. Sadly, though, the train was off limits to the public, due partly to the expensive equipment on board, meaning the only glimpse they got of the most unusual and exciting part of this project was from footage posted online.
Perhaps this is the danger in being a silent creative partner. After all, this was Aitken’s project – his vision, his line-up, his desired sense of intimacy. But as Peltier says, this is what Levi’s wanted: not just any ‘corporate festival’ but something bigger, something bolder, something altogether stranger for a brand that likes to keep people guessing.