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Station to station

Since staging A Synthesized Universe, an intergalactic, multi-sensory experience with custom animations and high-tech lighting effects in Gisborne last year, Anthonie Tonnon has returned to Earth.

His new show Rail Land brings him to the end of the line on the easternmost edge of the planet — Gisborne Railway Station — and will take the artist and his audience on a train ride to the Muriwai venue. Here, at Te Whare Maumahara (the house of reminiscence), he will perform his most recent immersive experience, Rail Land.

“I have these two strong poles — one is terrestrial, the other is in outer space,” he says.

Where A Synthesized Universe was a virtual experience that brought in visual effects such as projection mapping, video art and music, Rail Land is, says Tonnon, a journey of the mind, through song and story about New Zealand's on and off again love affair with its passenger railway system.

“In its purest form Rail Land should start in the city and go to a beautiful venue so it's a real journey. Rail is public transport in its purest form. A dedicated steel road for moving people.”

There are two main platforms, so to speak, to Rail Land, but they run in parallel, like railway tracks, yes, and converge in infinity. Part of the experience is a retrospective view that involves music, visuals and narrative that focuses on the age of the train and railcar and even public transport as a whole. The other is the range of songs — some familiar, some new. Others are Rail Land focused.

“Rail Land gave me the opportunity to try new songs I've been working on through the year,” says Tonnon.

“Those songs are linked by synthesised soundscapes.”

Tonnon's performance weaves in stories about the public transport in New Zealand. On the walls of the hall are enlarged posters based on those that played a big part in the New Zealand railway story.

“I found New Zealand Railway had full-time artists,” says Tonnon.

“They could work at New Zealand Rail just making posters. I love the ones with timetables on them. You can see how good the service was.”

On track

To travel lightly, Tonnon's instruments are compact. They include a New Zealand-designed, state-of-the-art, all-in-one, portable synthesiser-sampler known as the Deluge, a small midi controller from which Tonnon can wirelessly operate LED lighting effects, and a 1968 semi-hollow electric guitar.

We're a long way from the sooty Woodie Guthrie romance of railroad car-hopping.

In a break with his own rule, in which he stays focused on the show and does not mix with the audience, Tonnon will join passengers on the train from Gisborne Railway Station to the Muriwai house of reminiscence.

“I take that journey with them. There's something powerful about this communal journey. Rail Land is about the rail and the hall at the other end.”

There might be whistles and bells on the train — because it's a train — but other than that it is a train ride, pure and simple. There will be no music, piped or live, but passengers are welcome to do what passengers do — put on the iPod or Walkman, chat or watch the scenery and airport runway roll past.

“It's a communal journey,” says Tonnon.

“The rumble of the train means people don't feel awkward with the silence but by the time you get to the venue people are chatting. They have already done something together. It's a quiet fulfilment”

The Rail Land concept came about while researching for a music video based on the Dunedin rail system.

“On a whim I decided to make the video about the old railway stations I'd seen,” says Tonnon,

Lost civilisation

He discovered Dunedin, his home town, had a full, suburban railway system that closed in 1982. Auckland's suburban railway system had also faced closure but rebuilt its railway network. And even though, as a schoolboy, his bus passed Green Island, Tonnon found during his research, that a Green Island railway station once existed.

Stumbling across a long concrete ramp flanked by high walls that led to the former Green Island Railway Station's platform and a station building, Tonnon felt like he'd discovered a piece of a lost civilisation.

“It was like falling into a psychedelic whirlpool. That was the moment for me,” he says.

“After the video I had thought it was done but I still had that lens.”

He didn't want to lose that lens and felt the urge to create something positive and hypothetical from his research, he says. Travelling by train to various venues he noticed community halls were often close to the railway line. When he came up with the concept for Rail Land he was determined to give a specific time for departure — a nod to the exact timetables that are part of the show — and rolls out a red carpet for passengers/show-goers to embark in the one carriage.

“I had come to the maddest idea of all. If I could convince 150 people to pay an extra $30 we could make a train exist for one night.”

The poster a friend created for Rail Land does not feature a train or tracks. Rather, it depicts figures moving through a summer twilight landcape in a meditative way, says Tonnon. But Rail Land is not entirely about nostalgia.

“The past wasn't perfect,” he says.

“I don't want to make out it was better than it was. And I still use my futuristic technology.”

Rail Land, by Anthonie Tonnon, Sunday, November 1. Depart by train as part of the immersive experience from Gisborne Railway Station at 3pm for the show at Te Whare Maumahara, Muriwai. Tickets $60 from www.eventfinda.co.nz

Presented by Arts On Tour New Zealand InCahoots with Gisborne City Vintage Railway and Te Whare Maumahara.

ALL ABOARD: Last in Gisborne to stage A Synthesized Universe, Anthonie Tonnon returns with Rail Land, an immersive experience that is at once conceptual, visual, theatrical, concerty and involves a train and a hall.Picture supplied