Earlier this month a so-called public art extravaganza featuring a changing cast of “artists, musicians and creative pioneers” made its way across the country by rail. Station to Station, as it was called, was a project by multi-media artist Doug Aitken and made possible by Levi’s, whose corporate sponsorship has quietly supported an astonishing number of recent public art projects. The list of “participants” in Station to Station was an impressive array of creative personalities — too many to list here — including Patti Smith, Ernesto Neto, James Turrell, Alice Waters, Theaster Gates, Olafur Eliasson, and Nam June Paik, among many others. The train started in New York with stops in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Kansas City, Santa Fe, Winslow, Barstow, and Los Angeles, before it came to a stop in Oakland last Saturday, September 28, 2013. While the marketing folks (as quoted in the New York Times) at Levi’s might consider this experiment a success based on the envy of other brands, this singular criterion means nothing in contemporary art or to the people who actually care about it. Herewith are some of the things I hated most about Station to Station, culled from a long list.

The train itself was to be a moving kinetic light sculpture, additionally the “programming” was designed to bring together widely known creative figures with local legends from each municipality drawing from art, music, food, literature and film. Oakland was promised performances by Dan Deacon, Lia Ices, No Age, Savages and several other musicians, along with art by Kenneth Anger, Urs Fischer, Liz Glynn, Evan Holm, Carsten Höller and Ernesto Neto — all staged in and around Oakland’s historic landmark train station designed circa 1912 in the Beaux Arts style by renowned architect Jarvis Hunt. “Moving images” by Yayoi Kusama, Raymond Pettibon, and Ryan Trecartin, among others, were to be featured along with “printed matter” by a host of incredible artists, including Karen Kiliminik, Catherine Opie and Ed Ruscha. In the weeks leading up to the event, all of the venues nation-wide were listed as “sold out” online; tickets were around $30 a pop.

Upon arrival, it was painstakingly obvious that Levi’s scouted a site and then showed up en masse to claim their stake without much, if any, consideration for the people who actually live in West Oakland. One woman leaned out her second-story window at Bea’s Hotel across from the station and heckled people as they arrived. “Hey, white boy with the sweater on your back! You look like a f–king [car horn]!” The hostility was palpable as revelers arrived in droves, many looking like hipster jackasses toting Kombucha and coconut water, after having clogged the narrow streets with their cars.

A long line of largely privileged white people stretched for blocks beyond the entrance, snaking past bewildered neighbors on the sidewalk. If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, there were tour buses of folks (collectors? museum trustees? looky-loos?) being shuttled in on enormous buses for Levi’s uniquely appalling brand of “slum tourism.” Watching people arrive, I was reminded of how the art fairs rumble into the most disadvantaged areas of Miami every December to roll out red carpets for a few days before leaving the roads more worn than before and huge piles of post-commerce garbage in their wake.

Station to Station, in Oakland at least, appeared guilty of the same party foul and the lack of transparency around Levi’s motives somehow makes them more vile than the art fairs. The art fairs are candid in what they want to do: they are there to sell. But what is Levi’s investment in the arts about exactly? Why the sudden interest in public art and entertainment? The answers became clearer as the night wore on, but the initial scene in Oakland was a snapshot of everything that is wrong in the Bay Area right now: big money comes in and, for entertainment, co-opts the creative class while it displaces longstanding communities.

After walking several blocks past the event to get in line, only to then shuffle back over the same broken ground to make my way to the entrance, I was shunted through security. A smiling young man affixed a sticker to my lapel and hastily greeted me. “Here is tonight’s hashtag!,” he announced cheerily, before making me into a walking, talking advertisement for Levi’s social media feed. It was creepy and I stuck my sticker on his denim-clad back as I walked away. (Before getting her sticker, professional photographer Deborah Svoboda, on site to take images for KQED Arts with thousands of dollars worth of professional equipment, was joyously told “You look like an Instagrammer!”)

Just beyond the entrance, a sign was posted high in the air, deliberately situated to avoid catching anyone’s attention. It read: “CROWD NOTICE RELEASE. PLEASE BE AWARE THAT, BY ENTERING THIS AREA, YOU CONSENT TO YOUR VOICE AND LIKENESS BEING USED WITHOUT COMPENSATION IN FILMS AND TAPES FOR EXPLOITATION IN ANY AND ALL MEDIA, WHETHER NOW KNOWN OR HEREAFTER DEVISED, AND YOU RELEASE STATION TO STATION LLC, AND ITS SUCCESSORS, ASSIGNS, AND LICENSEES FROM ANY LIABILITY ON ACCOUNT OF SUCH USAGE. IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO BE SUBJECT TO THE FOREGOING, DO NOT ENTER THIS AREA.” This sign solidified my dawning realization of Levi’s motivations with the project, which had nothing to do with aligning with the avant-garde or supporting art. It was a way to create marketing materials in perpetuity. The event, from station to station, as it were, was designed to capture as much documentation of the creative class at play as possible and to use it in “lifestyle” campaigns to promote Levi’s. Whether or not participants were wearing the brand mattered little because so many people wear denim by default and it all looks the same at a distance, doesn’t it? So, having paid for the privilege of being exploited, I was ready to leave, but stayed with the hope that the art would somehow make it worthwhile.


Many who attended were excited to see Oakland’s historic train depot in person. For a lot of people this condemned historic landmark is compelling for its architectural beauty, its lost history, and its more radical iteration now as a magnet for graffiti. But it was shockingly unconsidered as a site for contemporary art. There were no site-specific works that engaged the building or drew on its history. The main station hall was employed as a big viewing area to watch barely audible Doug Aitken’s interviews with “participating” artists. This offered another egregious revelation: much of the roster of “participatants,” so compelling on the website, was essentially a playlist of prerecorded video interviews. Promising, or alluding to promising, the involvement of amazing artists and then offering up videos that just as easily could be watched online was a lame bait and switch.

A poster-cum-artwork wheat pasted onto the entrance of the historic station read “You are on Indian land. Show some respect.” The sheer irony that the organizers might have placed this work there while overtly disregarding the history of the site itself and the surrounding community was mindboggling. So too was this example of how politically potent work could be co-opted by commerce for the sake of making a “cool” statement. It was the most provocative work of the evening, though I was never sure if it was part of the show or there prior.


Somehow I thought we would see real large-scale commissions in the station, on par with Aitken’s architectural video installations or a giant Ernesto Neto taking over the whole space. It was a waste of such rarified space. All I could think of when I saw the station’s interior were the many artists who could have done so much more with the building. When I expressed my disgust over this lack of thought about the site, a colleague said, “Well, the projects have to be simple so that they can be shown from one stop to the next.” But that isn’t an organizational principle of public art — one size fits everywhere — and there was nothing that said that it had to be considered that way at all. The millions spent on this giant ad campaign could have enabled some artists to make real work and the whole endeavor might have retained some integrity. To add further insult to injury, the New York Times reported that none of the participating artists were paid.


All night I heard people asking, “Where is the art?” What little art on display was presented in a cluster of four pop-up yurts that looked as time-worn as circus tents. I stood in line for forty minutes to see Urs Fischer’s all-white installation, now dingy from travel, featuring a white carpet, a white bed, mirrored walls, a disco ball and a fog machine. The line of people on the other side of the door made it feel tawdry and awkward. There was also an unlabeled photo exhibit of five or six mysterious images in a breezeway next the station’s main room, but their textural quality was no match for the patina of the walls on which they hung. They looked small and insignificant, as did all of the art, what little there was, on display.

There was no didactic information to speak of: no signs denoting the names of artists or artworks, or a schedule of screenings or performances. Lines for everything from the installations to the scant two food trucks were dismally long. I constantly overheard people saying “What are we in line for?”

The “print media” alluded to in the press materials essentially amounted to a pop-up bookstore selling monographs by each of the “participants” — and not actually distributing artist-designed posters or postcards as one might have hoped. What kind of billing is this? A list of artists whose books are for sale is not a list of “participants;” it is a list of merchandise. This slippery use of language denotes a lot of time spent thinking about how to excite people without delivering anything of substance. The constant hype to sell to the viewer while exploiting the viewer was so transparent as to be cliché. I saw boxes of event posters behind a desk, but they weren’t out for the taking. By the time I saw them, I would rather have been handed a rattle snake.


Most galling, there was no sign of the Doug Aitkin train that had been touted in the marketing materials as a public art video installation in motion. The train promised a huge spectacle — and we came for spectacle. It’s a historic station and this whole epic derail is called “Station to Station,” for crying out loud. And yet still, the train was nowhere near the historic station on the night of the event. It was parked at Amtrak across town.

After informally polling Facebook friends across the country about other stops, I have yet to encounter anyone who actually saw the train as it was portrayed in the hyped-up marketing, and the consensus has been that the public events were underwhelming all along the way. It should have been infuriating that there was no train, but people were too dazed to reconcile what they thought they were getting with what they got.


I could go on, but I won’t, about the “makers” who were corralled in an open air sweatshop, I mean tent, toiling over handmade wares beneath naked light bulbs swinging overhead, or about the strangeness of Levi’s vague branding of the event as a fundraiser for SFMOMA (the event was in Oakland — so why not benefit an Oakland arts organization?) or the strange videos on the music stage that altered between “road trip” scenery and what looked like Christian Marclay footage, blurring the line between ads and actual art — or what looked like art because someone ripped off an artist to make animated backdrops. The music performances might have been redemptive — I heard from many that they were “OK” — but having come with the expectation of seeing great work, I barely noticed the music, which was clearly planned to be more ambient than a real concert. Any louder and it would have interfered with capturing audio for the marketing materials of the future.

As there are no laws about truth in advertising — wait, are there? — everyone in attendance will be complicit in the perceived “success” of this dud. Station to Station promised great artists and great art — a train tricked out with video screens dashing across the country — and instead we got some third rate Burning Man rip-off abbreviated rock show with smoke and mirrors, no art, no train, and everything but our DNA stripped at the door. Based on Levi’s self-satisfaction, more brands will follow suit in making contemporary art into a carnival road show; that train has apparently already left the station. Welcome to the modern frontier — privacy is a thing of the past, corporations control culture, and there is no art to be seen.

All photos by Deborah Svoboda.

Epic Fail: Levi’s ‘Station to Station’ Derails in Oakland 2 April,2014Christian L. Frock

  • Nadja

    You hit a lot of nails in this article! I’m glad I didn’t even hear about this event, not that I would’ve been tempted to go…

  • melinda

    I went and as a person of color in Oakland, I thought I would’ve seen more folks like me. I mostly went to see Alice Waters (which I didn’t… was she even there) and to see inside the 16th St. Station. Seeing Twin Shadow perform in there was the best part of the evening, but as you said the station’s space was underutilized and the event overall was underwhelming.

    Based on the video they had for Oakland on the Station to Station site (it mostly just features shots of San Francisco), I figured that it was mostly a party for hipsters, but the Levi sponsorship wasn’t so apparent until I walked in. Also I couldn’t believe they were sticking hash tag stickers on people as they were walking in. I immediately took mine off and saw other people pretty appalled by it.

    I wish they would have brought in more Oakland into the project and not just make the 16th St Station a venue for the “hip and creative” San Francisco art scene.

    • Jerry

      Why did you feel compelled to point out that you’re a person of color?

      Pointing that out continues to promote racism.

      • Tab

        Oh god Jerry really? Basically Melinda’s saying she expected more diversity since Oakland is DIVERSE. Don’t knit pick, her “pointing that out” does not promote racism.

      • Robertjm

        Not at all. Reading through the top half of the article, the author points out the “hipster white-ness” of the crowd.

        Additionally, that are of Oakland is predominantly African-American. Until society, as a whole, is color-blind, then her comment was perfectly legit.

        • Den Hickey

          Society should never be colorblind. We should always see our race. It simply shouldn’t matter. People won’t ever stop SEEING baldness, but hopefully eventually baldness will simply no longer matter. The idea of race being invisible is really only appealing to people whose race is already the default.

      • Favianna Rodriguez

        You need to stop telling people how to identify. Racism exists because of white supremacy.

      • Den Hickey

        No, pretending that race should be invisible continues to promote racism, as it is a way for white people who feel all icky about issues of race to “solve the problem” for themselves without ever really addressing the problem. like… ya know… people of color being few and far between in pretty much all media, for one.

  • Karen Eliot

    I agree with your article, but I am not sympathetic.
    You seem to labour under the illusion that art actually matters or has some power beyond its range as a wholly owned subsidiary of the entertainment / industrial complex. Art lost its credibility in the 1980s thanks to an endless string of talentless hacks (viz: Schnabel, Salle, Koons, etc etc etc) endlessly and shamelessly promoted by the likes of the Mary Boon Gallery and countless other museums and galleries. After that, it just didn’t matter, and it hasn’t mattered since. If these people were artists they would never have gotten in bed with Levi’s to begin with, and any kind of normative argument on “Survival” is simply an illegitimate excuse for cowardice.
    Forget about art. Really. It’s crap. A mid-stream pop song like “Royals” by Lorde has more integrity than the lot of those high-art losers collecting cheques from sweatshop blue jeans, and that’s a pretty damn sad state of affairs that only serves to underline the total intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of contemporary society.

    • Anuradha Vikram

      Your sad commentary suggests that the forces of co-option have indeed been effective – on you. The reason art has no impact has nothing to do with market artists or market forces which have existed since the Rococo if not before. It has to do with people like yourself claiming that manufactured pop music is more “real” than manufactured populist art and feeling like a truth-teller or a free-thinker for doing so. Art is being co-opted precisely because it remains a space of culture where dissent can be found. Don’t help squash that with your bad attitude.

  • Robert

    It should be pointed out that this was written in the San Francisco arts journal SFAQ before the New York Times article, which failed to mention this as a continuation of Levi’s related ad-campaigns.


  • Dollyrkr

    Yeah, personally I think the only “privileged” vibe I get here is the author’s. You’re getting to see No Age, Savages & Dan Deacon in a unique space for $30 – I couldn’t afford to Savages here in LA last week at a boring venue because it was $30 for just Savages – not a dozen bands or more including them! That sounds like a fun party for $30. I love No Age to bits, and it would be cool to see them with the art in the background… which I think is what it sounds like the concept was, it was a festival, it was touring bands – you have it backward if you thought a festival named after a song for crying out loud is about the visual art. Go to an art opening if you want art, they’re free for crying out loud, and get over that the only way to put together a festival where you can see a bunch of bands play with food trucks at a unique venue is with corporate involvement… or just don’t go to festivals. I’m so sick of people whining about festivals being sponsored. You try putting on a festival without sponsorship. Go learn how much that shit costs. What a whiny rant. I’m 40 years old and I’ve been to a million shows and I swear I’m so over all the kids today complaining that their little festival wasn’t up to par or “privileged” people were dressed funny and drinking coconut water, omg! Shut up and enjoy your awesome life and quit whining.

    • LR

      The author is exploring advertising’s relationship with the art world. You have a different perspective about whether it might or might not have been a good time for you, but that doesn’t really add to a fruitful discussion about ideas.

    • guber

      looks like they got to you too, for crying out loud!!!!!

      • Dollyrkr

        Oh please. Go ask Henry Rollins how he feels about this article.

        • Henry

          Shut up.

          • Dollyrkr

            Yeah that’s the exact opposite thing Henry would say. Thanks for playing.

          • Nadya

            Best response ever. “Go ask Henry Rollins how he feels about this article.”
            Are you for real, or are you an ingeniously designed meme? I’m guessing you’re for real, so:

            Look, confused light skinned lady (I’m presuming that’s actually your photo), I’m so f****ing tired of hearing white hipsters talk about being poor. You have no idea what poor means when you are ALSO BLACK. I only know it second hand, cause I ain’t black. Yeah, I’ve got student loans. I live in SF. I had to work my way through college. NOT THE SAME THING. And frankly, you may be completely destitute, but I hear white hipsters bitch about being poor when they make $12/hr plus tips and have no kids and no loans. I’m tired of it.

            Also, to another of your points: It’s not about “encroaching on an area that’s not supposed to have white people.” It’s about the fact that people in the Bay right now are being torn from their homes so that whites can live there, and using art projects and shit in neighborhoods like this is part of the way that is achieved.

            “discussions about privilege, yawn.” Best goddamn description of entitled bs hipster privilege I ever read. Thanks.

            Sincerely, another light skinned girl.

          • SoyFeliz

            Seriously? Your statement reeks of sad ignorance. I’m tired of hearing people using race to define their “status.” If you feel limited by your race or your financial status, you will always remain just that—limited. I hope you can remember to open your mind in love and not see so many lines. I found it pretty rude how you spoke to this lady. “White hipsters”….I don’t even know what this is and don’t ever want to. I feel it’s sad when you start to group people people, you can no longer see things for what they are.

    • CWY

      Your criticisms have more to do with:

      1. the chip on your shoulder than the actual article or event;

      2. your assumption that S2S was primarily a music festival, when it is billed as an art event (you simply cite the title as your rationale, but the S2S subtitle is “A Public Art Project made possible by Levi’s”; also, the author cites multi-media artist Doug Aitken, and a NYT article called “The Art is coming to town”);

      3. your allegations of whining and ranting, a case of a pot calling the kettle black (in re: the author as well as other festival-going “kids today”).

      On-topic responses to the event or article are welcome, but venting your disappointment and anger over off-topic “kids today” and with inflammatory name-calling (“condescending dick”) amounts to trolling.

    • Steve Rhodes

      Strange, I and about 900,000 other people went to a free 3 day music festival in Golden Gate Park with no sponsorship.

      Also, while you may have focused on the music, most people viewed Station to Station as an art event (sorry, we didn’t know if was after a song) focusing on a artist Doug Aiken who had done a pretty amazing piece projected on the Hirschhorn, and it benefited an art museum, not a music organization.

      If I hadn’t been out of town, I might have gone. Sounds like I didn’t miss anything (except a chance to go inside the station which I’ve only seen from the outside and it seems the graffiti is better art than was inside)

      • shanky

        actually, the festival you are mentioning is privately funded by the Warren Hellman estate for the love of local san francisco and music. He was a good man. I should know, I recorded the stages for his family archive. do your research you damn transplant. Us natives know our history.

        • Amanda

          A private citizen paying to host a public event, as Hellman did originally, is not the same as sponsoring an event. Setting up funding so that after you pass away the event you started can continue is also not sponsorship. What sponsoring used to mean (giving money to make something happen) has been turned into a way for companies to get marketing on the backs of non-profits, cultural institutions, and smaller businesses. It sounds like you are thinking of what sponsorship used to mean–supporting a cause, rather than co-opting an event as a marketing moment for your brand.

    • Tessa

      I agree — the author sounds like a bitter malcontent. I was at the Oakland event and thought it was pretty amazing. The performers, the installations, the site itself were all awe inspiring. The author was clearly looking to be disappointed; anyone who was the least bit open would have found plenty to enjoy. Doug Aitken is a genius, the artists all worked for free, and yes, there was corporate sponsorship. That’s the tickets were only $25 (not $30; how sloppy is your journalism if you can’t even be bothered to be accurate about this?) Next time, stay home.

  • Lauren

    The “Indian Land” poster looks like a repro of a Sam Durant light box. Which, of course, was itself a repro of an original public notice/protest sign.

    • water

      that was a Sam Durant piece turned in to a poster

  • punktoad

    The big problem in Oakland was the expectations not being met. Art was promised, not just music. If it wasn’t for the Crystal Turntables piece I would have been totally disappointed. I heard one person say, “this is the stupidest thing I ever went to.”

    Luckily we went to the Eat Real event in Jack London on Friday and then waited for the Station to Station train to arrive. It was fun and impressive. but the only people there just to see the S2S train were “train guys” not “art guys.” Everyone else was waiting for the Coast Starlight.

    Certainly First Fridays, Crucible events and Burning Man are much more impressive public art happenings. S2S didn’t even recycle and we spent more time in line trying to get food than art. However, they did invite people from the neighborhood for free. And the $25 tickets were reasonable. Burning Man and Crucible events aren’t sponsored but the tickets can get quite pricy.

    Bottom line, outside of the train and with the sponsor $s Oakland could have done better on its own. Hopefully, people learned something from this.

  • suzy

    I was disappointed as well. Where was the train? That’s all we could ask, we were baffled as well. Disappointed and felt completely jipped.

    • Aaron

      I saw S2S in Pittsburgh, and it was a similar experience. I enjoyed the music, was underwhelmed by the art and left shaking my head at the many missed opportunities to make something really interesting.

      Our venue, however, did let you see the train… The train was a beautiful old train (I think it was a Hiawatha built in the ’30s) but the LED displays on the side were vastly underwhelming. Unlike the massive screens on the rendering they were a few rows of blinky lights. We weren’t allowed in the train, which seemed like a missed opportunity.

  • James Reitano

    This author reminds me why I moved out of the Bay Area.

  • Larry Swain

    “This [singular] criteria?” No. “This criterion.”

    • Larry, you are truly what I love about KQED audiences. Thanks for pointing out the typo. It has been fixed. Keep it up!

  • isthisrob


    art and music done right, this fall. Lower Haight. Nov 15-17.

  • Jim Lasko

    I went in Chicago. It was, as is well described above, an epic fail. On every level. Most sad to me was the way that the marketing capitalized on an important social movement about reclaiming public space with art. By not delivering on that promise in any way — not creating site specific work or local relationships; not creating art of interest or skill, but instead marketing opportunities for a corporate interest; by promising so big and delivering so little — they have undermined the movement itself.

  • Jesse Russell

    There wasn’t a train, because the rail line doesn’t connect to the station anymore. That seems like a bit of a glaring oversight.

    I literally live next door to the train station and I do need to quarrel with this statement “after having clogged the narrow streets with their cars.” I didn’t see that at all. Even right at the entrance of the parking lot I never saw a bottleneck.

    That said, all of my neighbors were confused as to what was being set up in the lot. As far as I could tell there was zero outreach to the community in advance of this event.

    The station is surrounded by old factories and warehouses that are now being used by local artists to create astounding work. American Steel Works is three blocks away. The Crucible is only one mile away. How did they overlook incorporating any of that into this event?

    Making it a fundraiser for SFMOMA is a bit absurd when we have an art museum right here in Oakland.

    • Nashish

      I was there and experienced the massive “clog” in front of the main entrance. The line went over 4 city blocks and we waited well over 1/2 hr to get in. It was all happening as the sun was setting, whatever time that was, around 7:30. You must have seen it before or after the hour long clog.

  • Dave

    Well, I’m not sorry I missed this one. And it seems from the comments that the article is mostly on the mark.

    It seems like there should be some followup on the fact that this benefited an SF museum–and a rich and established museum, at that–rather than an Oakland museum, or even possibly First Friday. Confirms the impression that the “avant garde” in San Francisco are really all quite comfortable in their success, and Oakland is where in the Bay Area things are really happening. Affirms the cluelessness of whoever at Levi’s put this together. Did they even venture into Oakland to look at the site? “Hipsters in an Art Deco train station with stressed patina on the masonry?? Sold! (What? The train doesn’t go there?)”

    If you can afford to live in San Francisco, the probability that you are making art suitable for more than decorating an investment bank’s foyer on the advice of some highly paid consultant is very, very low. To use Oakland, and this neighborhood in particular, to raise money for SFMOMA is just clueless. Levi’s should be ashamed of itself.

    There won’t be a followup, though. Same old same old. And this is where KQED’s checks come from, right.

    I would like to compliment KQED, though, for presenting a piece about art in Oakland that doesn’t contain some idiot, ignorant line like “despite the crime problem” or start off “Oakland is better known for… blah, blah, blah.

    • Nick G

      One gets the sense that they really wanted to do it in San Francisco, but only chose Oakland because of the logistics of bringing a train to SF. But then given that they chose Oakland – it seems that the modern Jack London station would have been a much more culturally appropriate venue for this, plus of course actually able to feature a train that’s supposed to be the centerpiece of the show.

      • punktoad

        Aitken claims it would have been logistically easier to end the project in LA, but after seeing the Oakland station he couldn’t resist bringing to the Bay Area.

  • Mat Gleason

    I heard a few people excited about this event in LA beforehand – not one post about it after the fact anywhere or conversation since it left. That is a record level of underwhelming.

  • Paul De Mann

    “As there are no laws about truth in advertising — wait, are there?” In Canada their are (and they applied to political ads as well) or at least were.

  • friendlier

    With any googling at all you can learn that the ‘Indian Lands’ piece is by Sam Durant. Durant is known for his left-political work, so this seems even more egregious than some of the other work being there.


  • Super

    I mentioned this to Chip Bergh but haven’t heard back from him yet. Seems Levi’s is either ignorent of the situation or as I think, everyone is telling the king how nie his suit of gold looks…

  • MisP

    FYI- the train was not viewable at the Amtrak Station either. I tried. And although I disagree with a few pieces of the reviewer’s comments, I’ll keep my own critique within a few words: overblown to be underwhelmed.

  • smmoakland

    It is sad that this passes for art criticism these days. Smart art criticism is not “I waited in line, I had a bad time, and this is an excuse to complain about how the Bay Area is being ruined by money.” Smart art criticism doesn’t substitute “here’s my fantasy of a perfect public art event” (without any acknowledgment that permits for such an event would be near-impossible) for an incisive account of what was actually there to be seen/heard, and what questions were raised by the art/event. Smart criticism checks the facts and the available information: e.g. those buses were the shuttles to/from BART; the website stated in advance that the train would not be visible. Smart art criticism does not lob naive, a-historical criticisms of “slumming,” because avant-garde art (and urban redevelopment, too) in the U.S. and Europe have been based on appropriation of poor/marginalized spaces and people since the late 1800s; this is nothing new, and it has a wonderfully complex history. Not to mention, she implies that West Oakland doesn’t deserve art events.

    Sure, the Levi’s sponsorship was gross and tone-deaf, but who cares? Ignore it! The event actually WAS mostly about the music, and if you paid attention to that, you got at least 4 seriously good concerts in the space of one evening, interspersed with some high-quality video art + boring video interviews + pretty video from the train trip, some underwhelming art installations in yurts, and some comically bad Levis marketing. Despite the annoying “here’s the hashtag” greeting and the sign saying you agree to be filmed/photographed, it didn’t feel (to me) overly produced for marketing purposes. (And i must agree with the critic, it actually felt under-produced as an event, i.e. she’s totally right that selling a bunch of art books does not constitute participation by the advertised artists.)

    Doug Aitkin could have done a better job producing a more coherent event, and/or the whole thing could have been, as in this critic’s fantasy, a more local-sensitive event with more local art, but it doesn’t seem to me that’s what Aitkin set out to do. i think he set out to take a train ride with his friends as an experiment in collaborative process, and he let Levis manage the event side of it with decidedly mixed success. The super cranky reviewer is not wrong to point out its shortcomings, but she is silly to insist it should have been something very different both logistically and morally (and to ignore the music). This critic fails to ask any questions about what it means when the art is an improvisation in motion/across space, hidden from the viewer, punctuated by public events that may or may not represent the artistic process. Or about how the nature of the conceptual “happening” has morphed due to social media. Or about how costs for such projects can be covered without compromise (they can’t). Or whether anybody in West Oakland, like the non-profit org that is trying to turn the train station into a cultural center, might actually have benefitted in financial terms. KQED: find a critic who knows what the job is.

  • Math

    The perfect topping to a lame privileged-driven corporate encroachment in a community of color, masquerading as public art charity — is a bougie review/critique griping about it and the non-people of color participating in it on a public television/radio outfit’s website. Great job, San Francisco!

  • Muñoz

    I live in LA so I didn’t get to attend this thing, but this article’s underlying tone of racism distances me from not only caring about his “lack of” event, but those that are complaining about it. Remember that racism doesn’t eradicate racism. Pura vida.

  • joepsquiggly

    Moan Moan Moan…If you’re just gonna dress up your petty complaints as journalism, you should just stay at home…or maybe write about something that you like. This was no fun for anybody to read and all I could think about while slugging through the article was how bitter and sad of a person you are.

  • Troy

    As a starving artist myself, this was my favorite line from the whole article: “To add further insult to injury, the New York Times reported that none of the participating artists were paid.”

  • generic name

    you went to an ad campaign and were surprised it wasn’t an art performance. really? would you like a bridge?

  • Matt Haze

    This article is overwhelmingly condescending, negative and reads like the narcissistic, sheltered ravings of a liberal arts college newspaper Op Ed piece. Weak journalism, pal. Not even amusing but just plain mean and myopic.

    • Matt Haze

      I tend to expect more from KQED.

  • Emily T

    The coach was shuttling people from BART, not aristocrats. Do your homework.



  • Favianna Rodriguez

    Excellent piece!! Fantastic work. Thank you for exposing racism, racism in the arts, and the corporate take over of culture. Brilliant!

    • Favianna Rodriguez

      I’m not surprised at how many negative comments there is here. Folks get very uncomfortable when racism or whiteness is openly discussed. Somehow people think arts is immune to that. But that’s far from the truth. However, we continue live in a country in which white supremacy is both enforced and perpetuated by the art world.

  • HelenL

    Please know that this is not public art. More like street theatre (rail theatre?) It was poorly thought out in most locations, and ignored connection to communities and commuters.

  • Beez Kneez

    “Herewith are some of the things I hated most about Station to Station, culled from a long list.” Yikes. Hipster complaining about hipsters at an event she didn’t like. It’s an art event, who do you think is going to show up? “The hostility was palpable as revelers arrived in droves, many looking like hipster jackasses toting Kombucha and coconut water…” Pretty judgmental coming from someone whose bio pic looks like this. The hostility in your article is palpable. Legitimate points are buried in a lot of sarcasm and whining. I read the article because I wanted to know what happened, but I just feel like I learned that you and your facebook friends had a crappy time and got all pissy when somebody put a sticker on you.

    I learned more from the comments by @jesserussell:disqus below. He should have written this article. At least his comments tell the story and some interesting details from the perspective of an Oakland resident.

  • Sallyxmas

    Why would an artist choose to associate with this? Solely the money being given to institutions they work with? It seems like most of the artists who have their name connected to this should be embarrassed that they sold out to this degree. Projects like this don’t come about without a contract where the terms of the project are clearly laid out…any of the artists named in this project are basically saying they support the terms of the project by being associated with it. The artists should have just as much blame as Levi’s b/c if they said NO to the terms, there would have never been such an absurd project – free range for Levi’s under the guise of an art project. And by the way – it’s not “public art” if you’re paying $30 a person to experience it.

  • debster

    I agree with you 100%. I left after one hour. My two teenagers and I had a good time laughing at how lame the event was. We had a good time anyway. I hate to admit it but the bus ride from the BART station was the best part. I’ve since spoken to people who attended and the consensus is that it was a huge waste of time and money. It had such potential. I agree, epic FAIL.

  • shameless

    i worked this event, and let me tell you ALL the press including KQED got in for FREEEEEEEE!!!! talk about privilege, also the community was informed since there were a lot of people who got in for again FREEEEEEE they had the neighborhood ticket… okay i’m done here.

    • Hi Shameless:
      About this you are wrong.
      I am the editor of KQED Arts and I paid for two tickets for myself and my mate as did Christian Frock, the writer of this piece, who bought three of her own. We were really excited about S2S and wanted to support SFMOMA as well.

      • One more point — our photographer was on the list. This is common practice since photographers often need to gain access to special locations at outdoor events.

  • AndrewSF81

    Hmm.. interesting discussion here. I enjoyed reading the comments almost as much as the article itself. A few observations/thoughts of my own…

    I would hesitate to call this “art criticism” as some people have been commenting, nor did I necessarily read it as a commentary on issues of race and gentrification. Sure those were parts of the overall story but I saw this mainly as a scathing critique of corporate sponsored cultural events and how their ulterior motives end up manifesting themselves in the execution and presentation of the event.

    I didn’t attend the event, so I can’t speak from personal experience, but I did talk to several friends who were there and they did say that while the music was pretty good the art aspect was rather underwhelming. I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to say that *all* corporate sponsorship of arts & cultural events is bad b/c I’ve been to quite a few great ones, and I’ve also been to great events that have *not* have any sponsorship (likewise I’ve been to bad events without sponsorship too).

    But I think the author raises some good points here. And while I don’t think it’s fair to condemn corporate sponsors across the board, I think you have some license to be more critical when you’ve paid a decent fee for admission (I’m a lot more lax on this stuff when the event is free). It just sounds like they cut corners and skimped on a lot of the artistic elements, mislead people about what they were getting, etc. which again, I could understand if it was non-sponsored or if it was free. But it wasn’t. And from the sounds of it, it just didn’t match the experience that similar events could have delivered for the same price tag.

  • Creativity starts on the street and bubbles up to the boardroom after passing through layer upon layer of social strata and dogma, not the other way around. The other way around is false and full of fail.

  • Nashish

    I was at the event (in Oakland). This article nails the experience, better characterized as a lack of experience. The place was jam packed with people each having paid their $25 entrance fee. With the money earned on entrance fees alone, I question whether sponsorship was even needed. They pulled in a lot of money and delivered VERY little.

    There was the promise of visual art as well as visual artists and there was next to nothing. It was a “where’s the beef” kind of moment. To those who are critiquing the author’s scathing review of the event, yet you weren’t at the event, you are missing the point. This event actually did suck and it didn’t deliver what it said it would deliver. Simple as that. It’s like reaching for and expecting a tube of toothpaste and getting diaper cream…it’s upsetting when you go and try to brush your teeth. (I actually did that once, it was disgusting, like this event). There was almost zero visual art and many of the promised musicians were not not there.

  • zrgmom

    Some community people attempted to contact the folks running this event, as soon as we heard about it. I tried to request, politely, that the Oakland community be included, that local artists be involved somehow, and that local institutions might benefit. After quite a long time I got a fairly terse response, and eventually was put in contact with a local person who was doing some of the logistics. There was one meeting with some Oaklanders but as far as I can tell without much useful result. Even though I am a paid-up member of SFMOMA it felt like some odd poaching of Oakland money and an interesting site for the benefit of a big company and an SF arts institution. It also ignored the glorious history of this train station (which by the way is NOT condemned–but just not yet restored because of the huge sums of money involved). This early multi-modal station (you could transfer from streetcars to the transcontinental train or the local trains) was the arrival point in the bay area for many waves of immigrants, including Europeans, Asians, and African Americans moving here from the midwest and the south, among others. This was the terminus of the transcontinental railroad, not SF. It was also a major hub of west coast activity for the Brotherhood of Railway Porters, headed up by A. Philip Randolph and C. L. Dellums, the first black union and the genesis of much political organizing in the United States. A shame to ignore all the history.

  • Positive Solutions

    Levi’s has a stellar track record of promoting art, music and community – FAR more than most companies. To blame them for a several decade long process of the gentrification that is occurring in Oakland – because of ONE event – is singularly ridiculous.

    In case you haven’t noticed, rents in the Bay Area are nothing short of insane, so people are moving wherever they can. If you want to point blame, start with landlords who jack up the rents. Start with the lack of regulation on developers. Not that blame will fix the problem.

    Things are heating up, what we need is more compassion, outreach and realistic plans. It’s easy to criticize those who are doing work, what is THIS AUTHOR doing to make a POSITIVE difference?

  • Gina

    I’m a West Oakland resident & artist. The event planner actually did “reach out” to a few of us, on behalf, I suppose, of Levis, since I never got the impression that Doug Aitkin or SFMoMA gave a hoot about any Oakland artists or residents .

    Some of us were glad to see the train station used as a site for a big event in the hopes that others might see the possibilities of rehabilitating this fabulous building in some way.
    As an art “event” it merely confirmed my worst suspicions – Levis used the current popular glamour of contemporary art as an advertising gimmick and a handful of already well-connected artists & hipsters got to have a big travel party paid for. So much for “connecting artists and creatives”.

  • Sally

    What other public arts projects has Levi’s quietly supported?

  • Dddyaks

    A truckload was burning by the highway
    Twas a terrible sight if a person were to see it
    But theyre twerent nobody around
    -terry allen

  • Jamie

    This statement is very delayed, but I completely agree with the article. In Chicago, we actually hunted down the train after being told there was no access to it and I asked a staff member to take a picture of the inside of it on my phone for me. I had thought we would see the train lit up at night and see a projection from it and was sorely disappointed. However, there were a few notable performances during the event, one in particular by a local artist whose name escapes me. In one of the “yurts” we tried to create a “happening” and it partly began, but quickly died off. I was extremely excited about the event and thought it would be something not to miss, but was instead affronted with Levi’s advertising and something far less spectacular than I had hoped for.


Christian L. Frock

Christian L. Frock is an independent writer, curator and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work focuses on the intersection of art and public space. Invisible Venue, the curatorial enterprise founded and directed by Frock since 2005, collaborates with artists to present art in unexpected settings. Frock’s writing has been featured in art ltd, Art Practical, Art&Education, Daily Serving, FillipSan Francisco Arts MonthlySFMOMA Open Space, and NPR.org, among other publications.

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