Greetings from the Crazy Train

I am writing this from a train somewhere between Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh atop the Alleghany’s where there is no WiFi or cell reception – a place the Internet cannot reach. We have been working with the artist Doug Aitken on a project called Station to Station. It is a “nomadic happening” featuring a vintage 9-car Amtrak train/artists’ studio, wrapped in LED light, and packed with musicians, visual artists, writers, filmmakers and other creators that is travelling from coast-to-coast. We kicked-off last night with an event in New York City that featured a performance of colored smoke bombs, a step dancing youth marching band, auctioneers, a whip cracker, a ballerina dancing with roller skaters, and live music from No Age, Ariel Pink and Suicide, the storied NYC punk band. We’re stopping for performances (or “Happenings”) in cities across the country on route to San Francisco. At one stop we’re even going to have a UFO flyover (Yes, you read that right. Read it again. I said a UFO.). My friends have taken to calling the project the “Magical Mystery Train.” I just call it the best project ever.

My company’s job on Station to Station is to create the digital experience and content, and to build a digital audience, or as Doug has put it, make Station a cultural touchstone. No small task. And seemingly impossible in this day and age, with infinitely fractured audiences, and miniscule, distracted attention spans, as we’re all increasingly tethered to devices checking something – email, texts, Facebook, Twitter, you name it. Our experience of the world has been reduced to something glossy and flat you can hold in the palm of your hand.

Station to Station fights everything small and flat. It’s a multisensory, live event unfurling across the entire country over 3 weeks time. It is truly, actually disruptive, not in the corporatized marketing-speak sense of the term, but because it actually disrupts. It’s noisy, disorienting and has never before been done.

But. Without a pre-existing platform for promotion, how do you start from scratch, literally zero, and make a project that no one has ever heard of cut through? Grab attention? And how do you capture and express a fluid, energetic moment in time, and convey its textures and vitality in a medium that is ostensibly, painfully, flat? And how do you do it on an art project budget – and in real-time?

As we began to plan the digital strategy and product, we started with a Happening. Which is what, exactly? What makes for a successful Happening – especially when the only rule for a Happening is that there can be no consistent rules. Cribbed from Wikipedia:

Happenings take place anywhere, and are often multi-disciplinary, with a nonlinear narrative and the active participation of the audience. Key elements of happenings are planned, but artists sometimes retain room for improvisation. This new media art aspect to happenings eliminates the boundary between the artwork and its viewer. Henceforth, the interactions between the audience and the artwork makes the audience, in a sense, part of the art.

Sounds remarkably like the Internet – or the core elements that lead to success when building a product or business on the Internet – both Happenings and digital products are open, native, change and adapt, and are powered as much by the audience, as by their creators.

So, with these principles in mind, we set off to create an open platform to enable participation and make the audience and viewer as much a part of Station to Station as possible.

Content – The core of any experience is its content. Content defines it. Content becomes the currency that is traded and forwarded, the instigator of conversation, the catalyst for reaction. Without a doubt, Station to Station has a great richness of content – in quality, in quantity, in uniqueness – and it is the primary asset we chose to work with. We viewed the entire project, from its making through its happening as a massive engine for the creation and distribution of content, to build an initial audience and begin establishing the language of the project for the consumer.

People – We decided to rely on people to power the experience. We’ve all known for a long time now that the Internet is about the crowd. Like crowded movie theaters or sporting events, collisions of individual and collective reactions create tremendous, dynamic energy. It’s this cacophony, this energy that we wanted to come through in digital. Now, you might say, well you could just live stream the thing, and yes we could have and we debated many hours and discussed with a number of potential partners the idea of live streaming our Happenings, but in the end, even the movement and sound of video, the one-way broadcast of something so multi-dimensional, still felt like it would be flat and cold with attention only garnered for fleeting moments. (Note: Having been responsible for the live streaming of myriad concerts, television shows and events, I can attest to the dirty little secret of live-streaming: only a very small percentage of your audience tunes in to a live stream online, most viewing is on-demand. And yes, the Olympics is an exception. The exception so far.)

Native – To engage and use the crowd, creating the digital happening had to be easy. We didn’t want to teach anyone to do something new. Or have another human intervene. Instead we chose to leverage existing social media habits and platforms. At each event as people walk through the gates, we hand them a small sticker with the hashtag #TrackSTS on it, and if and only if they asked what it was for, we told them to use it when they post to Twitter and Instagram so it could appear on our website.

Open – In turn our platform (just a responsively designed website), pulls in all of the tagged posts, plus posts from specific accounts we set it to follow, in real-time and publishes them to the homepage. There are a couple of nifty things we do to adjust and update the experience. We have a “live switch” that turns the social media publishing on and off, and we can delete any objectionable material. We can also go back in to the site and clean things up and publish posts to other pages.

Last night was the first test of our theories.

Would people participate?

Would the overall effect present the energy and various textures of the event?

Would the act of social media publishing build audience, awareness and impressions?

Would we turn an audience of about 1000 into a real-time content creation farm and social media marketing army?

Would we “own the conversation”?

The result:

In four hours there were 1500+ posts originating with the hashtag #TrackSTS and published to our site with the potential reach of 12 million people on Twitter alone. Take a look.

Tonight Pittsburgh.