Tuesday, November 11, 2008

High Desert Test Sites

Anu and I spent the weekend in the Mojave Desert at the High Desert Test Sites event, an arts weekend in the greater 29 Palms - Joshua Tree - Pioneertown not-exactly-metro area. It's a pretty fascinating region of the state, both in terms of the alien landscape and the odd cultural mix of military families, hermits, hippies, and reformed hipsters. Not surprisingly, the best food in the region is Mexican, and if you venture out there I recommend stopping at pretty much any mom and pop Mexican joint for all your meals.

Tromping around in the desert was enjoyable (rent a car if you go out there, because dirt roads abound, and your car will surely be the worse for wear), but the art presented by this art weekend mostly ranged from nonexistent to unsuccessful. There were, however, two actually successful installations.

The "Time Traveling Hooker," a character created by Ann Magnuson to bring life to multiple site-specific installation and video works, was far and away the best work directly connected to the HDTS event. Installed in room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn, where rocker Graham Parsons died, it is a musing about life and death, and a person's place in the world, embodied in the life and death of this particular celebrity. But I felt it wasn't really about Parsons, but rather about reflecting on what in life would bring someone to an isolated, lonely place like Joshua Tree, and how incredibly unglamorous it is to die alone in such a bleak, desperate surrounding as that room.

The Noah Purifoy Foundation, though not actually directly connected to HTDS, was also interesting. A collection of "naive" art junk sculpture, this permanent site is worth visiting if you travel to the Joshua Tree area. The work is not quite the pinnacle of found object sculpture, but a lot of it is interesting, and the architectural scale pieces are particularly compelling in how you can interact with them. Also, this installation definitely feels appropriate amongst the farm equipment, seatainers, and other homesteader detritus throughout the region.

Most of the rest of the work was forgettable, or no longer present when we arrived, except for two pieces which fit into my category of "if they were better, they could have been good." Marnie Weber and the Spirit Girls were a campy, theatrical performance art band which suffered primarily from Weber's uneven vocals and often pointless lyrics. Had she stuck with her Will-Shatter-esqe vocals, the schtick would have worked perfectly, but attempts to sing wandered into Nico territory, and beyond. The instrumentalists, however, were all quite talented and some of the compositions were imaginative and energetic.

The other near miss was Yoshua Okon's "White Russians," in which attendees were invited into the home of local residents to drink White Russians and subsequently be accosted by a melodramatic performance of stereotypical redneck behavior. It was culturally insensitive, and the deliberately uncomfortable atmosphere of the performance was overshadowed by the inherently uncomfortable social situation. Had the piece focused on a cultural meeting between the local so-called "rednecks" and the art crowd, facilitated by the artist as cultural conduit, it may have been quite interesting. I was certainly up for chatting with the locals and exchanging cultural perspectives, but the situation was not designed to facilitate this, and the staged "fight" that broke-up what social interaction did emerge was a failure as agit-prop (but certainly a success as an irritant). I didn't learn anything about challenging cultural stereotypes, prejudice, or bridging the city-country / red-blue divide. Rather, it reinforced things I already knew: pompously self-assured artists often wind up being culturally insensitive in the very way they claim to be critiquing, and people shrieking is annoying in an annoying way, not a provocative way.

While I wasn't impressed with most of the art, I did enjoy the mid-desert scavenger hunt aspect of having to drive around all sorts of unusual (to me) desert environments, spread across quite a large area, to find the installations and performances. That aspect alone made HDTS worth at least one trip, and to be fair, almost all of the art (that was still there when we got there) was sufficiently amusing to add to the experience rather than detract from it.