High and Dry

The 15th anniversary of Joshua Tree's annual art event: High Desert Test Sites 

The best-known photograph of the architectural theorist Reyner Banham shows him cycling merrily across the Mojave Desert. It couldn’t be any other time than the late 1970s. Perched on a tiny bike and dressed like a rookie cowboy, he is having fun with the image of the eccentric Englishman on tour – besotted explorer, bearded wanderer. Reflecting on his trip across what he called the ‘America Deserta’, the California enthusiast later declared himself to have been ‘culturally naked and ill-prepared’.

Rolling in to Joshua Tree with neither hat nor sunblock one scorched October afternoon, I knew how he felt. What I did have were picaresque directions, which spoke of fibreglass dinosaurs and a bail bond office. Though it wasn’t my first trip to the area, I felt very much the interloper. The landscape, punctuated by homesteader cabins, is both alien and naggingly familiar. As Banham suggested, this might just be the archetypal American desert, its image exported around the world by way of the mid-century cowboy movies once filmed in nearby Pioneertown.

Artists began moving out to the High Desert three decades ago, which is when Noah Purifoy pitched up, spending his final years assembling his ten-acre junk-dada sculpture park. Andrea Zittel relocated there in 2000, initially establishing a cabin on a five-acre patch of land, christened A–Z West. Since then, she has added a project or property every year or so: a gradually expanding archipelago for investigative living. Today, it encompasses a campground and studio, sleeping pods and growing areas – a ‘large interconnected organism’, Zittel calls it. Her survivalist-inflected proposals for escape vehicles have a special charge right now, when withdrawal is so tempting, perhaps even more so than when this organism first began to grow.

I was one of the hundred or so people congregating for the 15th anniversary of High Desert Test Sites (HDTS), the non-profit that Zittel established and still helps to run. Since 2002, HDTS has organized a quasi-annual series of projects that roam around the area, bringing together local and international artists and collaborators. A lot of what gets made is momentary, one-time-only stuff, though even those pieces with a bit more heft have a hard time enduring the elements. One recurrent tale is of works getting stolen or simply vanishing. Perhaps this is why, from afar, I’d always struggled to decipher what exactly HDTS was. It feels like something that might be destined to inhabit the imagination or memory.

The 2017 edition was corralled by Los Angeles-based curators Sohrab Mohebbi and Aram Moshayedi, and took place over the course of a lazily paced weekend. At its heart was ‘An Ephemeral History of High Desert Test Sites’, an exhibition of artefacts, facsimiles, posters and costumes retrieved from previous editions and participants. There was Aleksandra Mir, pretending to be a Joshua Tree, and gold-leafed boulders by Jim Drain, alongside Mungo Thomson’s animations of deserted deserts: doctored Road Runner cartoons with the characters removed.

Elsewhere were stories of a makeshift haystack cinema, with generators hidden in a sage bush; a pirate radio station; a unicycle shop. Together, this was a chronicle of both a community – ramshackle and occasional, sprawling and embedded – and a place where works have temporarily existed. 

2017’s projects shared this vein of easy-going absurdism. My day began in the artist Ry Rocklen’s bungalow, which he’s kitted out with furniture assembled entirely from plastic trophies. The musician Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs floated around the house singing a harvest-time elegy backed by a Greek chorus of Doric column-clad women. The day drifted by, via plant meditation sessions and regret­table fast-food breaks, to the early evening, when we gathered next to a sandy track called Ironage Road. Conceived by artist Oliver Payne, the rules of the game for Chill Out are simple and tongue-in-cheek strict: play the entirety of The KLF’s eponymous 1990 album at sunset. No late entry, no re-entry, no talking, no photo­graphy, no phones. Chill Out has happened in a handful of places over the last decade, but this one felt like a homecoming. Though once described as an ‘obtuse piss-take’, the album is the British duo’s most sincere moment. Journey-like and capacious, it is a shifting 45 minutes of ambient music and Elvis samples, tracing an alleged train ride from Texas to Louisiana. As the sky turned chemical pink, we sat listening on blankets in small clusters. Latecomers were quietly turned away by the politest of security guards. A grand­iose touch The KLF would appreciate: we were in a place called Wonder Valley.

Banham might have felt at home there. As he once wrote: ‘Ultimately, desert is a concept of, and about, people’ – in that the word’s original meaning was ‘unpopulated’. Anticipating nothingness, in the America Deserta he found, instead, something full of layers and life.

Main image: An Ephemeral History of High Desert Test Sites: 2002–2015, 2017, Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center, Joshua Tree, California. Courtesy: Aram Moshayedi; photograph: Sarah Lyon.

Issue 192

First published in Issue 192

January - February 2018

Most Read

The Chinese dissident artist has justified posing with politician Alice Weidel, who has branded immigrants ‘illiterate’
‘I could be the President of the United States, and still half the people in the room would question my authority’
From Linder at the Women’s Library to rare paintings by Serge Charchoune, the exhibitions to see outside of the main...
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
Ahead of the 52nd edition of Art Cologne, your guide to the best shows to see in the city
‘I'm interested in the voice as author, as witness, as conduit, as ventriloquist’ – the artist speaks...
In further news: a report shows significant class divide in the arts; and Helen Cammock wins Max Mara art prize
A genre more associated with painting, an interest in the environment grounds a number of recent artists’ films 
A new report suggests that women, people from working-class backgrounds and BAME workers all face significant...
The divisive director out after less than six months by mutual consent
In further news: Gillian Ayres (1930-2018); Met appoints Max Hollein as director; Cannes announces official selection
With miart in town, the best art to see across the city – from ghostly apparitions to the many performances across the...
From Grave of the Fireflies to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the visionary director grounded fantasy with...
In further news: art dealer and Warhol friend killed in Trump Tower fire; UK arts organizations’s gender pay gap...
Emin threatened ‘to punch her lights out’, she claimed in a recent interview
As the Man Booker Prize debates whether to nix US writers, the ‘homogenized future’ some novelists fear for British...
‘Very often, the answer to why not would be: because you’re a girl’ – for this series, writer Fran Lebowitz speaks...
The artist is also planning a glass fountain of herself spouting her own blood
‘The difficulties are those which remain invisible’: for a new series, writer and curator Andrianna Campbell speaks...
With ‘David Bowie Is’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Glenn Adamson on the evolution of the music video – a genre Bowie...
Under a metahistorical guise, the filmmaking duo enact hidden tyrannies of the contemporary age
The area’s development boom isn’t just in luxury property – the art scene is determined to keep its place too
In further news: Laura Owens’s 356 Mission space closes; John Baldessari guest-stars in The Simpsons
With his fourth plinth commission unveiled in London, the artist talks archaeological magic tricks and ...
When dealing with abuse in the art industry, is it possible to separate the noun ‘work’ from the verb?

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018