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.