Doug Aitken’s lovely curio opens with some essential number-crunching: 24 days. 4000 miles. 10 ‘Happenings’ 62 one-minute films. These micro-films play out against a rail journey that takes the viewer from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and most of the segments feature folks that qualify under the umbrella term ‘artist’. Some are famous: Thurston Moore, Beck, Patti Smith; others might be described as conceptual or outsider artists: see Olafur Eliasson’s Kinetic Drawing Machine, which sends a ball of ink over a piece of paper in synch with the train’s movements or Elmer Long discussing his bottle trees: “I don’t know if you’d call it art. I just thought of it as freedom.”
The director’s own light sculpture dances along the side of the train as it passes by canyons, snow-scapes, horizons monochromed by bleached sunsets, and many, many neon signs. We have reached “the saturation point of sign occupied space”, notes William Eggleston.
There are achingly soulful sounds from The Black Monks of Mississippi, some lovely raucous metal stylings from White Mystery and a freewheeling musical list of past destinations from reggae stars The Congos, who namecheck Ireland twice.
Time and again, contributors discuss time and space and the possibilities of reinvention offered by rail travel. More often, they speak in pet preoccupations: “I’m extremely suspicious of people who are normal,” says crime writer Gary Indiana. “I think that they’re lying.”
Other sections focus on responses to art: crowds swaying at concerts and people milling around conceptual spaces. Where does this fit with conceptual artist Laurence Weiner’s observations about the role of rail travel in the Russian revolution? It doesn’t. Nor should it. It’s the journey, not the destination, right? And if you don’t like the film you’re watching, never fear: as with the landscape conveyed through Aitken’s beautiful compositions and clever montages and match-cuts: something else will come along in a minute.