The Buckingham Branch is not a mighty long road. At the speed of a lumbering boxcar, the trip from Alpha to Arvonia lasts about an hour. And for four days in April, people will be able to take the ride without traveling to central Virginia, where the short line is located. “Alpha-Arvonia,” a collaboration between photographer Colby Caldwell and the electronic-music duo Chessie, will bring the Virginia landscape to Logan Circle.
The project originated with Fusebox, says Sarah Finlay, one of that gallery’s two directors. They approached Stephen Gardner, the D.C.-based member of Chessie, which makes music that evokes the railroad experience. (Ben Bailes, the group’s other half, lives in New York.) Gardner contacted Caldwell, currently a visiting photography instructor at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. Gardner says the two have been friends since the late ’80s; Lorelei, Gardner’s ’90s art-rock band, “was named after Colby’s girlfriend at the time.”
The collaborators drew inspiration from what Finlay calls “the boxcar shape” of Fusebox’s main room. They videotaped the view from both sides of a freight run on the Buckingham Branch, a former Chesapeake & Ohio (i.e., Chessie) line where Gardner used to work. The two parallel images, sometimes showing very different terrain, will be projected on facing walls while Chessie performs live.
The video was shot in real time, save for one cut necessitated by a stop to clear crushed rock from the tracks. “We wanted it to be as it was, as much as possible,” says Gardner, but when the trip stalled “we had to turn off the cameras to save the batteries.” And though the complete delay isn’t captured on video, “it’s great to have that pause. We’re going to fully exploit it compositionally.”
Caldwell admits he’s not generally a fan of video art. “I think most of the video work that I’ve seen is really low-budget filmmaking,” he says”artists who want to be filmmakers who either don’t have the money or don’t have the gumption to take that step, so they stick it on a monitor or project it on a wall in a gallery and call it art instead of movies.” With “Alpha-Arvonia,” however, the format “just made sense. There was really no other way to convey the experience except in this particular way.”
The audience will sit on benches in the center of the room while Chessie performs at the front. As on a train, passengers will be able to observe the scenery on either side or look at the activity closer to them. “Most of the time, people look at a video work the way they look at a painting or a photograph.” Caldwell says. “This is more a surround experience, instead of the typical relationship between the viewer and the artwork.”
In an adjacent room, Caldwell will display stills derived from Super 8 footage shot on the same trip. These pieces are characteristic of his recent work, which documents how images change when individual frames are dropped into a computer. “I don’t really do any editing or morphing or combining,” he explains. “The way the colors shift when I transfer, that’s what I go with.”
In addition to these photographs, Fusebox will sell DVDs of the video, with a soundtrack recorded live on one of the four nights. Of course, buyers will need two monitors to partially reproduce the experience of the gallery presentation. “You could do a split screen,” says Gardner, “but it would make you vomit.”
Not slated for the DVD: the original audio track of the train lurching through the Virginia Piedmont. “It doesn’t sound like an Amtrak train,” Gardner notes. “Boxcars have a very different acoustic palette. These are huge metal resonators.”
The clatter, of course, is part of the inspiration for Chessie’s music. “It sounds fantastic,” he says. Mark Jenkins
“Alpha-Arvonia” runs from 8 to 11 p.m. Wednesday, April 9, through Saturday, April 12, at Fusebox, 1412 14th St. NW. Free; reservations required. For more information, call (202) 299-9220.