On board with Cosmic Underground

Elina Hämäläinen 28.11.2012

Cosmic Underground
“Regressando das Estrelas” (Returning from the stars)
An artistic train at the Santa Apolónia train station
Lisbon, Portugal, 3.-4.11. 2012 / 20.00-24.00

It is a misty November night in Lisbon and I’m waiting for a train at Santa Apolónia station. However, the destination of my journey stands still somewhat unknown. Soon it will be pouring down with rain but before that I’m going to hop into cosmic train that has just reached Lisbon from the other side of Europe.

Artistic project reaches out to everyday place

Cosmic Underground is a mobile artistic project that connects Eastern and Western Europe via the railway tracks and symbolically links together the two recent European culture capitals Tallinn (2011) and Guimarães (2012). Moreover, Cosmic Underground is a multidisciplinary train where different artistic installations take place. I got to see Cosmic Underground in Lisbon before the project was about to get to its final destination, this year’s cultural capital Guimarães in the northern region of Portugal. Before Lisbon, the cosmic train had travelled for two months and tracked other cities in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

The cosmic train exhibits eight different installations in nostalgic cargo carriages. The installations vary from musical performances to sound and light installations and more monumental works. Around 30 artists from Poland, Portugal, Estonia and Lithuania participate in this project, which is organized by Platon Fundation (Poland) in collaboration with Valgus Festival (Estonia), Make Art (Lithuania) and Museum of Bernardo (Portugal). The concept and the direction of the project is by Polish Jan Swierkowski who is a founder and director of institute B61, a symbiotic performance group consisting of artists and scientists.

In a local Portuguese press release Cosmic Underground was depicted as a psychedelic train. The definition is quite incisive. On board of this psychedelic train emotions vary from claustrophobic feelings to mutual joy and excitement. On one moment you get squeezed into old cargo carriage with the other spectators and lights shut down, the rhythmic sounds of respiration and gasps of air fulfil the space. This powerful installation Invisibility of Deportation by Latvian artist Elina Cerpa provokes feelings of bewilderment in the darkness of the cargo carriage.

Moving to another carriage on neon lighted platform, the mood changes quickly from anxiety to party mood. The hip-hop sounds and exhilarating electronic beats of Polish collective SOFA convert the carriage space to underground club. With brightly beating strobe lights and shouts “Party people put your hands up in the air!” you feel like dancing along with the song Chaos ADHD. Many of the installations as the one of SOFA work within more interactive and engaging idea. But mostly the works of Cosmic Underground just draw you into the cosmic mood with the help of lights and music. Contrary to any exhausted train passenger’s expectations, this train doesn’t move physically anywhere from the station – it is only you who gets to move between the different carriages, installations and most importantly, emotions.

Santa Apolónia train station on the night of Cosmic Underground. Photo by Elina Hämäläinen

Each performance and installation relate more or less to the storyline of The Lost Hour. On board the passengers are guided by scientists who present Cosmic Underground as a cosmic laboratory, which examines the cause of the lost hour; every year because of the seasonal time changes we lose one hour of time. The scientists want to understand what happens to this lost hour and most importantly would it be catchable. This story confuses a bit the overall feeling of the happening. Especially on this night when too many spectators had appeared, it was hard to follow and hear the storyline at the outdoor platform. Nevertheless, Cosmic Underground opens up to be a place where stories and visions of the scientific experiments of catching the lost time are being framed.

Being at this very location where time is very regulated, where clocks, timetables, arriving and departing times criss-cross and where the definition of acoustic confusion is tangible, the perplexity of time and space becomes significant. Besides the story of the scientific intentions of catching the lost hour, more interesting and evident becomes the situation where the audience is withdrawn. The site-specific nature of this artistic project arouses and the one-hour-experience with Cosmic Underground makes the presence of Santa Apolónia train station more explicit. The psychedelic train journey makes you forget the normal functionalities of the station and for a while this specific place looks and feels totally different.

Santa Apolónia train station on a normal Sunday night. Photo by Elina Hämäläinen

Intruding everyday places

Expressions of going and passing by, transiting and commuting define mainly the function of any train station. Likewise, the train station of Santa Apolónia in Lisbon is a transportation hub where movement inward and outward the city extends. For me this station also plays a special part in my everyday life in Lisbon. Daily I get a glimpse of this continuous passers-by movement there. After having walked down the steep sidewalks of Lisbon’s oldest neighbourhood Alfama, and finally reaching the station on the bank of river Tagus, I catch there the metro to downtown, Baixa.

What happens when places that are so deeply defined by our everyday life are interfered by artistic projects like Cosmic Underground? Train stations are kind of territorialised spaces for purposes of commuting, arriving and leaving. The artistic train of Cosmic Underground takes you away from these processes and instead of running after time – scheduled meetings and leaving trains – you give some of your time away at this very location. This whole process, I think, reconceptualises the place.

Train stations are places where we are thrown together. Everyone is on their way to different destinations and for different reasons. Modern urban spaces, like the early spatial sociologists George Simmel and Walter Benjamin argue, provoke in their multiplicity the need for psychological distance, inner boundaries and reserve. Art happenings like the one of Cosmic Underground can work as a way of loosening some of the distances that we tend to build up in urban environments – artistic processes can neutralize the singular status of everyday places and set up a ground for more intimate and personal relations with that very location. Simply put, to have some unexpected experiences at that place.

I feel that many times more spontaneous and engaging projects are needed to be there to distract and pause our everyday lives. And definitely at more unexpected locations. Art forms that can intrude and even distract our normal urban everyday environment are important: they can offer us more tangible experiences of the place and, at their best, possibilities for new departures.

Elina Hämäläinen is an art history student who lives in Lisbon.

More infromation about the artists and installations of Cosmic Underground project can be found here.