THE BLOG
10/25/2013 06:02 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

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 between Joshua Tree and Albuquerque. Co-founded in 2002 by Andrea Zittel, this event was named after the nearby nuclear test sites in Nevada -- evoking the potential power and danger of art in the wild desert landscape. Blurring the lines between art and life, this unique event takes place outside of traditional art venues, incorporating the road trip as part of the experience. 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?
High Desert Test Sites driving map. All pictures courtesy of Leah Weinstein.
Starting on Saturday October 12th at the Palms Restaurant in Wonder Valley, we visit Jesse Sugarmann's We Build Excitement, a pseudo-Pontiac dealership displaying 4 Pontiac's (including a sexy white Firebird) propped up precariously on tall steel poles at dramatic angles as if in mid-collision. Sugarmann mentions his interest in the "accident as monument/ monument as accident," reminding me that monuments commemorate tragedies. Also here is Lars Fisk's Self Storage, a Westfalia van cloaked in a faux exterior depicting 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 a succinct antidote to our consumerist culture, using minimal means to speak about excess.
 
Jesse Sugarmann, We Build Excitement.
Lars Fisk, Self Storage.
Sunday begins with a jovial pancake brunch at the Art Queen Gallery in Joshua Tree. Next we experience Debbie Long's Naima work, which looks like a decrepit trailer in a barren landscape. Once inside, however, we find ourselves in a crisp, white cube with softly colored glass clusters serving as tiny windows letting daylight in. We linger awhile in this liminal space.
On Monday we join a caravan of travellers embarking on the week-long tour from Joshua Tree to Albuquerque. Our first stop is Bob Dornberger & Jim Piatt's Secret Restaurant in Wonder Valley. In a sparsely brushed desert landscape in the middle of nowhere, we find a 4'x4' metal structure buried in the sand. Inside we see Bob in a tiny but efficient kitchen, turning out delicious scrambled eggs with avocado and double-smoked bacon, followed by acorn shortbread topped with prickly pear jelly.
 
Bob Dornberger and Jim Piatt, Secret Restaurant.
In Kingman we encounter Alex Kenefick & Julianna Parr's DocuMART TM. This ingenious work provides a fake ID service, creating illicit identification for visitors on the spot. One can choose from a menu of documents, including a Certification of Fallibility, and a Certification of Personhood. The paperwork is extensive and hilarious. Clever and on-point, this artist team pulls off an amazing spoof on the (il)legitimacy of (un)official documents.
 
Alex Kenefick and Julianna Parr, DocuMART.
Tuesday takes us on a spectacular drive to Crown King, the tiny historic mountain town miraculously saved from a 2012 forest fire by a local firefighting crew. Tonight at the Saloon is Olav Westphalen performance Even Steven. Starting with some 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. To end his performance, Westphalen suggests we all leave here tonight with the same amount of cash on us. Even Steven.
Saskia Jorda and Victor Sidy, Hotshots.
On Wednesday we travel to Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri's utopian architectural experiment blending architecture and ecology. Using compact design, frugal materials and sci-fi architectural shapes, Soleri's partially constructed vision is designed for 5000, but home to only 100. Our tour guide points out that no ideological frameworks are imposed on the inhabitants -- it's simply about the architectural structure. It feels like a carcass rather than a living entity. A fascinating and ambitious experiment nonetheless, Arcosanti reminds me of the distance between the actual and the ideal.
Katie Shook, Stratify. Performance at Arcosanti.
On Thursday we travel to Gallup, NM, where we spend the night at the famous El Rancho Hotel, known for it's glory days hosting movie stars (including Ronald Reagan) shooting classic Westerns nearby. Pilar Conde's Captured in the West project takes place here, which involves taking Polaroid portraits of visitors, tracing the romantic past onto contemporary times.
On Friday we head to El Malpais National Park to see Michael Iauch's Cover Songs performance. Standing above a rocky precipice, Iauch tells stories from his hitchhiking journey between North Carolina and California. Iauch chose lines from popular cover songs, painted them onto blankets, then wore them hitchhiking. Pacing back and forth precariously above the jagged pit, Iauch recounts his experiences, revealing the risk and vulnerability inherent in his journey.
 
Michael Iauch, Cover Songs.
On Saturday we travel to Los Lunas to see the Vecinos Artist Collective's Burial Grounds installation. Set in the outskirts where locals dump their trash, this collective creates assemblages with scattered debris. Here we encounter the carcass of a horse encircled by glass bottles tracing its outer edges. Wafts from this putrid corpse make me gag as I get close for a photo, yet I find it compelling anyway, exploring the line between repulsiveness and beauty.
Vecinos Artist Collective, Burial Grounds.
Our last stop is the Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque, where we hear 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 that's neither been proven nor disproven. By camping out at the actual site where Walton's abduction took place, this trio attempts to investigate the sites' memory, their own (dis)belief and their growing fears of being abducted themselves.
Although I wasn't able to visit all of the works, many I did see left palpable impressions. Perhaps as impactful was the wider experience of traveling through the desert finding myself in unknown places and created spaces with interesting people asking thoughtful questions about art. If art is meant to expand our understanding of life, creating new ways of perceiving ourselves and the world, then this years' HDTS is a success. I know because I'm looking at the sky differently now (is that a UFO?)

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