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HDTS 2013
LГ©a Donnan, Desert Applique. Courtesy of Leah Weinstein.

High Desert Test Sites

HDTS 2013

OCTOBER 12, 2013В -В OCTOBER 19, 2013

http://www.highdeserttestsites.com

High Desert Test Sites hits the road for a full week of experimental art and exploration, from Joshua Tree to Albuquerque!В 

HDTS 2013, the ninth program in a series of free ranging and ever evolving contemporary art events, expands our range and depth to take in everything from Joshua Tree, California to Albuquerque, New Mexico.В  Roughly 60 new projects will take place over an entire week, during which artists and audience alike will traverse over 700 miles of desert roads to check out the new work and explore the hidden gems and diverse desert communities along this spectacular stretch of the Southwest.

Project sites include: Amboy Crater, Arcosanti, Area 66 (Yucca), Art Queen (Joshua Tree), Bluewater Lake State Park, El Malpais National Monument, El Rancho Hotel (Gallup), Giant Rock (Landers), Hill Top Motel (Kingman), Magdalena Ridge Observatory (Socorro), Mill Restaurant (Crown King), Montessa Park (Albuquerque), Palms Restaurant and Saloon (Wonder Valley), Petrified Forest National Park, Octopus Car Wash (Albuquerque), Pink Post Office Projects (Wonder Valley), Tamarind Institute (Albuquerque), Warehouse 1-10 (Magdalena), in addition to our regularВ HDTS sites.

The week’s festivities include a Saturday night opening dinner (first-come-first-served) atВ The PalmsВ in Wonder Valley October 12, with musical performances by The Sibleys and The Renderers. В 

A zine-style publication, designed by Brad Hudson Thomas, with original texts by James Trainor and Eden Solas, will accompany the event.

High Desert Test Sites. A Diary

Now in its 9th year, this years’ High Desert Test Sites event is the most ambitious to date, covering a vast expanse of land with nearly 60 projects in various high desert settings between Joshua Tree, California + Albuquerque, New Mexico. Founded in 2002 by Andrea Zittel, Andy Stillpass, John Connelly, Shaun Caley Regen, and Lisa Anne Auerbach, this event was named in part after the nearby nuclear test sites in Nevada – evoking the potential power and danger of art in the wild desert landscape.

 

Starting on October 12th, 2013 in Joshua Tree, I join a caravan of travellers that set out to explore site specificity, performance, utopian and dystopian settings, political propositions, local histories, UFO sightings, and the carcass of a dead horse. Blurring the lines between art and life, this unique event takes place almost entirely outside of traditional art venues, incorporating the road trip as an intrinsic part of the experience. Because of the event’s traveling nature, we can’t ignore our reliance on the automobile and the way it shapes our experience of the landscape. The tour sets us up to be outside of our normal daily lives, traveling through places many of us have never even heard of before (including surprising gems like Crown King, Arizona). Unexpected encounters along the way create interesting crossroads between contemporary art and the larger context of the American southwest. Does the art experience lie in the encounters with the art, or in the journey itself?

 

SATURDAY OCT 12th

My HDTS journey begins on Saturday afternoon at the Palms Restaurant in Wonder Valley. First stop is Corrina Peipon & Lucy Raven’sВ Wonder Valley Way StationВ for hot chili and cold beer. Travelers gather here in the shade of the tent to chat about works they’ve seen. From here I visit Jesse Sugarmann’sВ We Build Excitement, a pseudo Pontiac dealership displaying 4 Pontiacs (including a sexy white Firebird) propped up on tall steel poles at dramatic angles as if in mid-collision. Chatting with Sugarmann, he mentions his interest in the “accident as monument/ monument as accident,” and I’m reminded that monuments commemorate tragedies. The precariousness of these propped up vehicles echoes the instability of the American-owned Pontiac car company, which closed its doors in 2009. Wonder Valley seems an apt setting for Sugarmann’s “accident” sculptures, with bits of glass and rusty shot-up metal cans scattered throughout the desert landscape.

 

Lars Fisk,В Self Storage.

Moving on to Lars Fisk’sВ Self Storage, I encounter a Westfalia van cloaked in a faux exterior consisting of a scaffolding structure on the front and driver’s side of the van. The scaffolding supports a large banner that, when drawn, depicts the image of a self-storage unit. It looks pretty realistic from a distance, although the van’s tires peek out from beneath the banner’s edge. Fisk’s sculpture-transportation-shelter seems to be a succinct antidote to our consumerist culture, using minimal means to speak about excess.

Among several other interesting works here at The Palms Restaurant where the HDTS kick-off party is about to take place is Jim Drain’sВ Pelican Radio. This video work depicts a group of captive brown pelicans in gorgeous, slow-motion detail. The pelicans seem out of place in this remote desert setting, yet this prehistoric bird strangely echoes the primordial feeling that the desert landscape evokes. The house band rocks into the evening as I connect with interesting art enthusiasts from near and far.

 

SUNDAY OCT 13th

Sunday begins with a delicious pancake brunch at the Art Queen Gallery and World Famous Crochet Museum in Joshua Tree. Shari Elf’s humorous, quirky folk artworks and Randy Polumbo’s coral reef-like dildo sculptures add a playful tone to the day. Also in Joshua Tree is LГ©a Donnan’sВ Desert Applique, an installation consisting of wooden tent frames covered with brightly colored crocheted blankets. Visually striking against the sandy, bouldered landscape, Donnan’s eclectic tent village links craft culture with the homesteading history of the region.

 

Next we visit Debbie Long’sВ Naima, located on the edge of a dry lake bed, just outside of Joshua Tree. “Just a couple people at a time,” Long instructs us, as we wait outside of the decrepit trailer in the midday sun. When it’s our turn to enter, my friend Lily and I take off our shoes and step inside. The interior of the trailer is a white cube with clumps of softly colored glass punctuating the otherwise crisp, formal space. White beanbags suggest that we sit and stay awhile. The glass cluster-forms, in soft rose and purple hues, serve as tiny windows letting daylight into the white space. No longer a trailer in the desert, it feels like we’re hovering in a liminal space. Chatting with Long afterwards, she mentions her interest in creating forms that cause one to question what one is seeing, blurring the lines between the familiar and the unfamiliar.Quoting French poet Paul Valery,В 

Debbie Long,В Naima.

Long tells us: “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” Long’s work coaxes one into seeing beyond immediate appearances in order to experience space in a different way, laying an appropriate foundation for the journey ahead.

 

В MONDAY OCT 14th

Today we embark on the week-long HDTS tour from Joshua Tree to Albuquerque. The convoy includes people from all over the U.S., some from Canada (including myself), and a few from abroad- all driving together, mostly in pairs. I’m traveling with a new friend, Lily, a young gal from the Boston area whom I’ve just met through HDTS and am happy to share the journey with. We are driving in my trusty Honda CRV. Our first stop is Bob Dornberger & Jim Piatt’sВ Secret RestaurantВ in Wonder Valley. About a half-mile walk from the road through a sparsely brushed desert landscape in what literally feels like the middle of nowhere, we encounter a 4′ x 4′ metal structure half-buried in the sand. Inside we see Bob in a tiny but efficient kitchen, turning out delicious scrambled eggs with avocado and double smoked Russian bacon, followed by acorn shortbread topped with prickly pear jelly and pomegranate seeds. Drawing a link between extreme food culture and the extreme desert environment, this hidden gem is well attended.

 

Bob Dornberger and Jim Piatt,В Secret Restaurant.

Continuing on our way we pass Bennett Williamson’sВ Next Punchline 30 Miles, a pair of billboards about 5 miles apart on Kelbaker Road, east of Amboy. “A real stinker”, Bennett says, of the Laffy Taffy joke he chose for the billboards. The lame joke punctuates the surrounding mountain desert landscape with humor, anticipation, and letdown. I’m reminded of the potential distance between the anticipated and the actual, as we embark on this journey into the unknown.

Arriving in Kingman we encounter Alex Kenefick & Julianna Parr’sВ DocuMART TM. This ingenious work provides fake ID services, creating various illicit identification documents for visitors on the spot. One can choose from a menu of ID options, including a Certification of Fallibility, or a Certification of Personhood. I choose Matriculation and marry myself, changing my name officially to Fancy Pants Yamaha. I receive a shiny plastic ring and a Polaroid shot of me beaming, holding a plastic flower bouquet and my new sparkly stamped document. The paperwork and questionnaires are extensive and hilarious. Kenefick and Parr’s commitment to their work is readily apparent in the details. They go all out – postcards, pens, buttons, signage – overt advertising for a sham operation. Darker undertones are suggested, raising questions about the absurdity of becoming a legal entity through stamps and lamination. Clever and on point, this artist team pulls off an amazing spoof on the (il)legitimacy of (un)official government documents. I fall asleep smiling in a wonderfully cheap and dirty motel in Kingman.

 

TUESDAY OCT 15th

Today is my birthday and we have a nice greasy breakfast at the Rainbow CafГ© in Kingman. On our way out of town we visit Maya Gurantz’sВ Doomsday CrГЁchesВ installation in which doll parts, rocking horses, and a golden lamb suggest childhood innocence with darker undertones. Awkward in the surrounding landscape, Gurantz’s installation hints at a potential dystopia through an apocalyptic aesthetic. Next we embark on the long but spectacular drive from Kingman to Crown King. On the way we pass Saskia Jorda & Victor Sidy’sВ HotshotsВ installation, which, through a series of framed viewpoint structures, traces the May 2012 fire as it consumed over 16,000 acres of national forest. With the last viewpoint structure in the tiny mountain town of Crown King, Jorda and Sidy’s installation commemorates the local firefighting crew that miraculously saved this historic mining town.

 

At the Crown King Saloon this evening, Olav Westphalen begins his performanceВ Even Steven. Starting with some slightly awkward stand-up comedy, Westphalen shifts into a poignant and poetic performance as he dances clumsily alongside a beautiful contemporary dancer. Slowly encumbering her with straps, gumboots, and a bucket of rocks, Westphalen attempts to bring her down to his level.В Even Steven. To end his performance Westphalen suggests that we all leave here tonight with the same amount of cash on us. His socialist/communist proposition gets a mixed reaction from the audience at the Wild West Saloon, digging deep into the heart of the quest for a personal utopia that echoes throughout this High Desert region. Following Westphalen’s performance is Crown King Karaoke, with both locals and travellers taking part. Birthday shots and group hugs follow.

 

WEDNESDAY OCT 16th

We start the day with Katie Bachler’s Movement Activity (part of Bachler’sВ Ways To Be in the DesertВ work) in front of the Crown King Saloon. We leap, jump, strut, and create site-specific body gestures with the surrounding landscape. We might be a spectacle for the Crown King locals, but this collective movement exercise provides space to explore my physical presence in the landscape – a refreshing shift in perspective, from viewer to mover. After that we attempt to go for a hike but can’t find the trail and end up bush-whacking instead.

We then travel to Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri’s utopian architectural experiment, located north of Phoenix. A student of Frank Lloyd Wright, Soleri developed a theory he called Arcology, based on a blend of architecture and ecology. Construction of Arcosanti began in 1970 (Soleri recently passed away in April 2013). Criticizing America’s love affair with the automobile, Soleri intended to create a condensed urban environment that called for little or no vehicular travel. Using compact design, frugality in materials, and sci-fi looking architectural shapes, this partly constructed vision is designed for 5000, but is home to only 100. Our tour guide is quick to point out that no religious or ideological framework is imposed on the inhabitants – it’s simply about the architectural structure. That might explain why the place feels like a carcass rather than a living entity – something seems to be missing. A fascinating and ambitious experiment nonetheless, Arcosanti reminds me again of the distance between the actual and the ideal, echoing the classic failed utopia.

 

We watch four interesting evening performances at Arcosanti tonight, including Matias Cantzler’sPlenty of Shit – a short film depicting dogs shitting that is powered by biogas from actual dog crap. The contrast between the tight, closed loop system, and the poopy mess that generates it seems fitting. We also see Katie Shook’sВ StratifyВ performance, which depicts a psychedelic journey in the desert, and Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai’s video titled:В 2556, a beautiful, raw, mesmerizing film, exploring the notion of the artist as truth seeker.

Everyone sleeps at Arcosanti tonight. Some pitch tents, others have booked rooms, still others, like us, sleep in our vehicles. It’s cold and cramped.

 

THURSDAY OCT 17th

From Arcosanti we travel through Sedona to Gallup, New Mexico, where we spend the night at the famous El Rancho Hotel. Renowned for it’s glory days from the 1930’s through to the 70’s, the El Rancho hosted movie stars shooting western films nearby. Famous guests include John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Doris Day, Lucille Ball, and Ronald Reagan. Pilar Conde’sВ Captured in the WestВ project takes place here, where she asks participants to choose where they would like to have their portrait taken. I choose to have my photo in front of the flashy blinking El Rancho sign outside of the hotel. Conde takes two Polaroid shots – “twins” – one for me, and one for her. When the image slowly comes into view, a singular moment in time is revealed, and I wonder how this moment parallels the past. I’m reminded of the romantic view of American culture that was propagated through the classic western film, and I sense Conde’s effort to trace layers of the past onto contemporary times. We fall asleep next to our whiskey swillin’ roommates – two artists/ dancers from Portland – feeling the allure of this wild western caravan.

 

FRIDAY OCT 18th

From Gallup we head out to El Malpais National Park near Grants, New Mexico to see Michael Iauch’s grittyВ Cover SongsВ performance. Standing above a rocky cavernous opening formed of porous black lava, Iauch tells stories from his hitchhiking journey from North Carolina to California, on his way to the HDTS event. Iauch paces back and forth precariously above the precipice as he recounts his experiences. For this work Iauch chose lines from popular cover songs and painted them onto blankets, which he then wore hitchhiking. Embodying these existential phrases as he hitched rides, Iauch attempted to explore the essence of the song with the random stranger who picked him up (assuming they responded to the phrase he wore). Through his performance, Iauch tells the stories of the people he encountered on his travels, sharing the awkward, vulnerable and touching experiences from his trip. With exquisite realness, Iauch’s performance reveals the risk and vulnerability inherent in his journey. Approaching the road trip from a different perspective, Iauch’s work adds an important element to the HDTS dialogue, echoing the notion of the art experience as a journey – a risky one at that.

 

Tonight we camp out at Courtney Prokopas & Kera Mackenzie’s property in Belen. The duo bought this barren, one-acre parcel for $1 off ebay in 2011. Their installation,В Wonder Machine, is a large zoetrope depicting the image of a glass of water set against the desert background. Also here is Joseph Herring’sВ High Desert Mink HoleВ performance, which involves beautiful large Yucca weevil masks, megaphones, hanky-panky, and a lot of giggling.

 

SATURDAY OCT 19th

From Belen we travel to Los Lunas to see the Vecinos Artist Collective’sВ Burial Groundsinstallation. Set in the outskirts where locals dump their trash, this artist collective creates temporary assemblages with scattered debris. The first work we encounter is a decaying horse carcass entirely encircled by glass bottles that trace its outer edges. Wafts of this putrid decaying beast make me gag as I get close for a photo, yet I find it compelling anyway. Creating an artwork from this raw and repugnant carcass is a powerful gesture, exploring the line between repulsiveness and beauty. It leaves me to wonder about the beauty found in shadows.

 

After this, we head to the Tamarind Institute to see GWC, Investigators (Daniel J Glendening, Michael Welsh and Sean Joseph Patrick Carney) present the findings from their recent UFO campout in Turkey Springs, Arizona. Their project explores the site of the 1975 Travis Walton UFO abduction, a case which has not been conclusively proven or disproven. By camping out at the actual site where Walton’s abduction took place, this trio attempts to investigate the memory of the site itself, their own belief/ disbelief, and their growing fears of being abducted themselves. One thing for sure they’ve gleaned from their experience (through talking with locals), is that Walton sounds like a perfectly regular guy who seems to have no motive for fabricating such a wild tale of alien abduction. If their goal was to become believers, they may have succeeded.

Our HDTS adventure winds down here in Albuquerque. From here we head on the long journey back to Joshua Tree. Reflecting on the journey, I feel satisfied from the week full of interesting art, people, conversations, surprises, and new perspectives. I’m in awe of the great effort that so many people put forward to make this event happen. I feel changed somehow. I see how art can be so much more than a gallery event, it can create genuine conversations between people and places, acting as punctuation between vast landscapes. While I was not able to see or spend enough time with every artwork, many of the ones that I did get to spend time with opened new windows, some big, some small, into different ways of seeing the world.

 

I encountered a lot of myself on this journey (whom I married along the way!), as the usual distractions weren’t present. Many hours driving, staring at the dotted white line, chatting with Lily, talking about the art, thinking about what drives artists to produce work – all of this leads me to consider how crazy it seems for all of us to gather here in the middle of nowhere to hear these stories, witness these gestures, or watch this short film fueled by dog shit. But it seems important somehow, necessary; Necessary because we are creating new pathways and finding new ways to view the world. Inspired by the Wild West, the mythical West, the land of (relative) freedom and spaciousness, we follow a trail of breadcrumbs through the desert to find ourselves in unknown places and created spaces with interesting people asking thoughtful questions about art. Why are things like nomadism and the journey so relevant to art-making today? If art is meant to expand our understanding of life, to create new ways of perceiving ourselves and the world, then this HDTS event succeeded in that. I know because I’m looking at the sky differently now (is that a UFO?)


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