months later: our A-Z West experience
Coming from a big family, we went through our share of station wagons. I remember most of them having seats in the “way-back” that faced out the back of the car, and I remember that was my seat of preference. I enjoyed the oddness of it, having a different perspective on our trips. It gave me the chance to make faces at drivers in the cars behind us, and my brother Nick and I would take victory when a car would change lanes because as we claimed, we “weirded them out”. We would stare off into the road behind us instead of the road ahead. Spending a week at Andrea Zittel’s “wagon station” gave a similar change of perspective.
Madelyn and I headed for this week long stay with excitement mixed with trepidation. We had both become fans of Andrea’s work and the idea of being surrounded by it was fascinating to us, but the side of us that can be a bit socially introverted was nervous about the aspect of being so closely camped next to strangers for seven days. Overall, the socialization did prove to be the most challenging aspect of the experience, but it was also fairly rewarding.
The encampment itself felt a little like camping on another planet. Cooking on a gas grill was familiar, showering in the open air was refreshing, and pooping in a bucket got to be routine. The wagon station we stayed in got to be a cozy little space capsule that worked as home base for our exploration. And spending time around Andrea and her work was eye opening.
Joshua Tree was/is an amazing kind of weird. There is an exceptional collection of sights and sites to be seen that were found, built, or at least curated by some different minded individuals. Most are part of a non-profit organization that Andrea helped to start called the High Desert Test Sites (http://www.highdeserttestsites.com/hdts). To summarize their mission statement in my own words, the High Desert Test Sites create immersive experiences meant to question the way we experience the space around us. We did not make it to every site, and I would say we experienced other things in the area that are not official sites, but still hit upon a similar goal or experience.
We spent our first evening just at the encampment. The next day, a Sunday, is when we got to check out some stuff in the area. The first place we visited is impossible to capture without also writing about its creator, that is the Crystal Cave and Bob (Carr). The Crystal Cave is a Bob-made structure that sits at the center of the Sky Village Swap Meet that Bob himself started. On our visit, and what seems to be most people’s visits, Bob is outside to greet you and tell you all about it before you enter. Bob is one of those people whose every word sounds like it should be inside of a fortune cookie or on an inspirational poster with a kitten. Upon asking him “How are you?” Bob, without missing a beat, responded “I’m too stupid to be unhappy.” He gives hugs to strangers. His Crystal Cave is specifically a one-room installation designed with a small sitting and viewing area for likely three people at a time tops. In the space, Bob has created a facsimile of a cave using spray foam, several gallons of puffy paint, and a heaping ton of objects both found by Bob and donated to him for his project. Some objects made sense as things you would find at the center of a swap meet – toys, fake gems, lots of glitter. Other objects made it feel like a gift shop exploded and Bob reaped the rewards – lots of geodes, glass figurines, tons of marbles. I guess there isn’t much of a difference in the two categories. The cave builds upwards and away from the viewing area as a fountain streams over the creation. At the very back it is mirrored. This gives the illusion that the space goes on much further and almost infinitely so. The experience is visual overload in a reaffirming sort of way and knowing that this guy Bob made it gave a sense of optimism towards old age.
Bob had another project in the works that we look forward to seeing next time we can make it to Joshua Tree. He gave us a glimpse of the progress, but it was not done. He had a much larger room for this endeavor and so far it is filled with about 6 or more large Bob-made spider webs, complete with a giant spider he made of out wood, wire, and puffy paint. He had some music playing and some color lighting arrangements, but he said he hasn’t quite perfected it all just yet. As we parted ways, I told Bob “have a good day” he responded with “there are no bad days, just misinterpretations.
The next place we saw was not an official High Desert Test Site, but it was equally unusual, even if it was in a less reaffirming way. The area I am referring to is known as Desert Christ Park. This was envisioned as a Christian-themed park, but never really got its act together. The park was created and sculpted by a former aircraft worker by the name of Antone Martin in an attempt to inspire world peace at the height of the Cold War. Due to his age, and lack of funding, the park never reached its full intentions. What is left is a handful of sculptural installations that reflect stories of the bible.
Weather and time has done its damage, but that does not stop it from being bizarrely fascinating.
We squeezed one more site in on that first Sunday, the World Famous Crochet Museum. Like the Crystal Cave the site itself is made all-the-more compelling by its owner and creator, Shari Elf. The Crochet Museum is a trailer sized space which has every square inch of its inside surface covered in crocheted creations. Shari Elf herself was literally and figuratively radiant.
She had on some intense sparkly blue eye-liner and exuded energy in a way that made me jealous. We caught her in her workshop which was right next to the museum. She was gearing up for bringing some of her wares to a nearby music festival for sale. In addition to crocheting, Shari also paints, records music, and screen prints various designs onto found bits of cloth and used clothing. Madelyn spent a bunch of money here. Since joining her e-mail list, we have learned that Shari also hosts weekly craft nights, and offers classes on improve comedy. Her CD is still on regular rotation in our car.
Back at the encampment, we were getting to know the other folks staying in the other wagons. There was a group that had already been there a week that seemed to already make pretty close friends with each other. We naturally became a little closer with the people that had started the same time as us, but found friends in the earlier group as well.
Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Museum was another test site we got to experience. This spot was a mecca of found object art. In the few different places I have lived, there was always some local who seemed wizard like with their ability to transform what was garbage to most of us, and a few of them had wizard like titles they preferred to go by. In Bethlehem, PA it was Mr. Imagination (http://www.avam.org/our-visionaries/mr-imagination.shtml), in Philly there was the Great Quentini (http://www.quentini.com/), and in our current stomping grounds, Tucson, there is Mat Bevel (http://www.matbevel.com/). Noah Purifoy seemed cut from a familiar cloth, but on a bigger scale. His outdoor museum took up acres. In the hours we spent there, we realized that weeks could be spent noticing the various subtle elements that put this place together. Madelyn and I both felt a very childlike wonder in our open exploration. The works as a whole went the gamut from fun experiments with materials to profound social commentary. Also, from a sort of curatorial perspective, because the space was just open to the public, with little more than some available pamphlets near the parking lot, and because part of the museum contained part of Noah’s living space, it gave me the sense of discovery, as though we happened upon this space, like it was just left out in the desert for those willing to go find it. I really liked that aspect of it.
Near Purifoy’s museum was Krblin Jihn Kabin. This might be the most difficult space to explain, and part of me doesn’t want to explain it. Such a large part of its impact is the discovery and experience of it. I know that could be said of most anything, but I think this is a special case. I’ll say I found it fascinating, I want to see more work like it, and it, and like much of the work I have experienced on this trip, it makes me rethink to possible ways someone can experience work.
The last site I will mention is also not an official high desert test site to my knowledge, but it is something more than one person told me to check out when I was in the area, that is the Integratron. The Integratron is a structure designed and built by George van Tassel who made claims that the structure was capable of rejuvenation, anti-gravity, and time travel. Van Tassel, a prominent UFOlogist, claimed to have gotten plans for the structure from an alien. There has never been any recorded success of Van Tassel’s claims, but since his passing away, current owners have discovered its unique acoustic qualities. So you can’t use it to travel time, but you can pay some money and get a sound bath. With the building’s dome shape and lack of metal in the joining of parts, things do tend to sound incredible here. All in all, we found our experience disappointing. There was too much of a new age hippie vibe, and not nearly enough of a sci-fi/ alien technology vibe for our liking. I don’t want to hate on ideas and beliefs that work for others, but when something is kind of shoved down your throat the way it was here, it just feels way too phony. Also, way too many people snored during our sound bath, and that wasn’t pleasant to hear amplified in the Integratron.
Having not really known what to expect of this whole experience, it was all pretty surprising. Since it was at least partially an artist retreat of sorts, I am compelled to think how it may have impacted me as someone in the art world. With that I must report pleasantly my interactions with Andrea and her art. I think it is easy for anyone who comes to stay at the encampment to celebretize Andrea. I can’t speak for everyone who comes there, but I have not had too many opportunities to talk with internationally exhibited and celebrated artists, let alone spend a week on their property with nights sleeping actually inside of one of their creations. Her generosity and openness about her ideas and questions was completely refreshing. It also made me feel comfortable around her to hear her curse and get frustrated about trying to get all the parts of an idea together. From a distance, it can be easy to imagine that an artist at her level just magically makes things happen, but it’s not that easy for anyone, and I find some comfort in that. She is a real person with real questions about the way we live. In my own work, I am often thinking about how someone can experience what I make. With Andrea’s work and what I feel she is trying to do, this was the absolute best way to experience it. The whole week, I just felt so damn lucky. I rethought how I live, how I exist, and how I make art.
I am writing all of this months after our trip. With the time that has passed combined with the true uniqueness of our experience the whole thing seems like it almost didn’t happen. To hold onto the experience, I have since made some Zittel inspired shelving in my classroom and Madelyn has helped by making me a bolo tie styled after the wagon we stayed in. I hope we can make it back in the near future.