Station to Station Festival
16th Street Station, Oakland
Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013
Better than: Other festivals.
Oakland's 16th Street train station was erected in 1912 and functioned until 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake inflicted significant damage to it. Though in the midst of intensive restoration, the imposing structure now looms derelict in front of the I-880 freeway and is surrounded by a rubble-filled lot. Its exterior is normally shuttered and emblazoned with the work of street artists, but on Saturday night, the roving art and music festival Station to Station converted the historic building and surrounding grounds to a venue for performance artists, film screenings from the likes of Bruce Conner and Kenneth Anger, plus musical acts like No Age, Savages, Sun Araw, Twin Shadow, and more. It was Station to Station's "final stop," in the organization's chosen vernacular, as artists traveled by train (itself adorned with a light show that responded to the physical environment) across the country for similar events.
Music festivals rarely strive so hard to integrate various mediums and transgress the barrier between venue and performer as Station to Station did. Such events are usually for small crowds. Station to Station boasted over 2,500 attendees, a draw that necessitated sponsorship by Levi's. With that crowd, Station to Station's identity was conflicted. It postured like a maverick showcase of completely disparate artists working in all mediums, but suffered many of the bothersome festival nuisances that attendees simply hope the quality of performances will outweigh.
The organization touted the word "immersive" to describe the experiential goal of the event's interdisciplinary nature. In one way, it was: stimulation abounded everywhere, non-stop. There was either a band on the main stage outside, a performance artist outside, a band on the smaller stage inside the terminal, or a deluge of video interviews projected on various screens all over the place. Digital prints rested on graffiti-strewn walls as attendees walked from one spectacle to another. Impressively, all festivities were condensed into about four hours.
However, more to see and hear doesn't necessarily mean a more immersive experience. The most immersive experience of a lifetime might last 15 minutes in a basement with a broken PA. The event's most engaging performances, from Savages and No Age, occurred outside on the main stage and relied not on the environment or technological gimmickry, but that passe rock function -- performing good songs with conviction. As Savages and No Age used guitars and drums on a spare stage to greater effect than acts incorporating phone apps (Dan Deacon,) cloudy disco bedroom tents, or underwater-turntable installations (Evan Holm,) Station to Station's assumptions about immersion felt dubious. There's a parallel to film, where "immersive" is often used to hype 3D films, though technological advancement isn't inherently better at creating an immersive experience than traditional film elements like cinematography, screenwriting, and acting.
No Age performed a nonstop set. The LA punk experimentalists treated broken melodies to damaged noise and a clamorous trap kit. It sounded rather put-together. Then, the long arrhythmic piece built to a couple brief segments of militant back beats and monotonous shouts. Savages sounded muscular and tight. The English quartet's rhythm section, focused but comfortably poised on stage, is truly the band's anchor. Their deft placement of dry crash cymbals and thick grooves make a firm bedrock for the guitarist's atmospheric pick-slides into calculated dissonance.
The performances most integrated with the space occurred inside the terminal itself, though they only benefitted from the enormous hall indirectly. Lia Ices served husky vocals above minimal electro-pop, shuffling and sliding on a staircase-turned-stage in the mood-lit station. The natural reverb did a great service to her rich vocals and flange-reliant guitarist. Twin Shadow, who performed as a keyboard-and-guitar duo, had similar assets that benefitted from the room in the same way.
The site created a unique environment, and the organizers deserve applause for jumping through the costly and laborious hurtles required to use the space when less problematic areas were surely available. Yet the festival-industrial-complex atmosphere persevered anyways. It was easy to ignore the Levi's tents, but impossible to avoid eager young men assailing attendees about aggregating their experience on all social media ("I don't have a phone," one woman protested. "So tweet later!" he replied.) One participating artist told me that there was an editing cart on the train committed to producing web content as rapidly as possible. Though it wasn't as acute as other sponsored events, the sense of being an unwilling participant in a marketing campaign was hard to ignore.
Station to Station is an interesting reminder of what an arts community is capable of doing with blighted and forgotten spaces. I rode my bike to 16th Street on Saturday. Along the way, I passed several warehouses, lots, and squatted buildings that routinely host film, music, and visual art events, often combining the media into the sort of liminal experience that Station to Station strived for. 16th Street station itself has been the site of unpermitted generator shows. One attendee that night said what every local accustomed to underground venues was thinking: "It feels so strange to be allowed to do this."
Indeed, Station to Station's immersive, interdisciplinary aspirations are frequently bested in underground spaces nearby -- without the crowds, corporate sponsorship, and aggressive marketing of a festival environment. Considering that the evening's strongest moments during sets from Savages and No Age, maybe festivals should stick to presenting consummate live bands. But at least Station to Station was a noble attempt to break with convention.
Overheard: "I'd like to introduce you to a great technologist... is that a personalized denim jacket?" Only in the Bay Area.
Experiment: At one point, I stared intently at a tacky tag on a brown panel between two prints tacked on the station's exterior. In only a few minutes, several attendees wondered aloud whether it was an installation.