Station to Station, Oakland


Station to Station, Oakland

By Matt Sussman October 22, 2013

Is there anything to add to the critical drubbing that Station to Station has already, rightly received?1 The cross-country public art project—conceived by multimedia artist Doug Aitken and entirely underwritten by Levi’s—couldn’t have been a more egregious example of relatively unlimited (read: corporate) resources dumped into what was ultimately a squandered opportunity.

The project’s final stop, at West Oakland’s beautiful and long-abandoned Sixteenth Street Station on Saturday, September 28, 2013, was many things: an anemic variation on festival-style concert programming packed into a hurried four-hour window; an immersive advertisement for Levi’s in which attendees unwittingly became brand ambassadors via their posts about the event on social media; an opportunity to wait endlessly in lines. What it wasn’t—despite the choice of location and attempts to keep ticket prices low and admission free to neighborhood residents—was an occasion for site-specific or public art in any meaningful capacity.2

Despite an extensive and impressive list of artistic “collaborators,” actual art was hard to come by at Station to Station. If the commissioned posters by the likes of Ryan Trecartin and Catherine Opie felt as flimsy as the paper they were printed on, turning Jarvis Hunt’s 1912 station hall into an acoustically muddy venue for video projections and live acts was no less a disappointing use of an impressive architectural space that has played a major role in West Oakland’s history.3 The four modest nomadic installations, which were housed in yurt-like structures and accessed only via inordinately long lines, were also underwhelming. Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) was the lone exception that seemed well suited to the setting.

Moments of surprise were few and far between amidst all the carefully choreographed spontaneity (the banks of lighting equipment and wandering camera crews belied the door attendee’s assurances that a schedule wasn’t necessary since the evening was supposed to “just unfold all around you”). Champion whipmaster Chris Camp broke the sound barrier with his two bullwhips, and experimental synth-pop musician Dan Deacon worked his audience into a frenzied dance-off—both managing to catalyze the somewhat lost and aimless crowds by introducing a whiff of danger, or perhaps even chaos, into the mix.

But what can be done with such potential when experienced in the context of a spectacle wholly engineered by its sponsors to maximize on contemporary art’s cultural capital? While disappointing, it is ultimately unsurprising that Station to Station was a proposition made in bad faith. Corporate largesse has a tendency to spoil the work of better-intentioned artists, no matter how appealing or hip the packaging.


Station to Station was on view at Sixteenth Street Station in Oakland on September 28, 2013.


  1. See Christian L. Frock, “Epic Fail: Levi's 'Station to Station' Derails in Oakland,” in KQED Arts, Accessed October 6, 2013; and Melena Ryzik, "Like a Rolling Revue, the Art Is Coming to Town: Station to Station, Avant-Garde Art Show, Nears End of Tour," in The New York Times, Accessed October 6, 2013.
  2. The icing on the cake was that a portion of the evening’s ticket sales actually went to benefit one of the Bay Area’s largest and most well-funded institutions, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
  3. See,_Oakland,_California.

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