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High Desert Test Sites: Free Range Art In Joshua Tree

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This weekend marks the start of this fall's highly anticipated High Desert Test Sites -- a series of "free-ranging" art events opening October 12-13, 2013 at a variety of locations in the Morongo Basin/Joshua Tree area. Unlike past HDTS events, this year's sitings, performances, and happenings will occur across three states; California, Arizona, and New Mexico. To find out what the HDTS 2013 crew has planned, I spoke with HDTS founder, Andrea Zittel and Aurora Tang about this year's exciting line-up.


"Double Happiness -- or Nothing (a study in potentials)" | Stosh Fila/Pigpen Julie Tolentino.

Kim Stringfellow: In a nutshell and for those unfamiliar with the HDTS, please describe the mission of the program, its origin and purpose. How has the HDTS evolved over the years?

Aurora Tang: High Desert Test Sites was co-founded in Joshua Tree in 2002 by Andrea Zittel as an experimental forum for merging contemporary art and life at large outside of preexisting cultural centers. It was formed as a support system and venue for showcasing art and experimental endeavors engaging with the people and places that make up the unique Southern California high desert communities that include Joshua Tree, Pioneertown, Wonder Valley, Yucca Valley, and 29 Palms.

It started out pretty informally, as something people only heard about through word of month -- artists and friends gathering and making work in the desert. As more people caught on, audiences grew -- and in a way, so did expectations. Up until fairly recently, everything was organized by Andrea in her free time, and made possible through the good will of the artists, volunteers, and organizers. However, a lot has changed, particularly economically, since HDTS began over 10 years ago, and Andrea decided something needed to change or perhaps cease to exist. That's when she brought me on, to help the organization transition to a 501(c)(3) non-profit, a role we are still growing into.

HDTS 2013 is our ninth "big event" in a series of free ranging and ever evolving contemporary art events. This year roughly 60 independent projects will take place over an entire week in which artists and audience alike will traverse hundreds of miles of desert roads to check out new work and explore the hidden gems and diverse desert communities between Joshua Tree and Albuquerque.


KS: Andrea, perhaps you can explain the fruition of the HDTS in relation to your own practice.

AZ: In the late 1990s there was a moment when my own artwork was increasingly being curated into biennials and large international shows, and as a result I began thinking a lot about the culture in which a work was created and the context in which it was presented. There was a moment when it dawned on me that art had literally become an export commodity, and I started to wonder if it could be possible to create an alternative, a situation where work could be made and viewed in the original context for which it was conceptualized. In 2000, I purchased some land and a small house in Joshua Tree where I could experiment with these ideas within my own practice (this has now grown into the site called A-Z West). But I also felt that this was something that should become a larger dialog in art. HDTS is situated in a really unique position by functioning as an intimate, primarily artist driven program we have been able to maintain a great deal of freedom. Although our agenda is to support art that goes "into the world at large", we aren't really beholden to any of the criteria (or limitations) that go along with making "public art" -- so we have been able to spend the last eleven years exploring both different models for making art as well as for receiving it. Within my own practice as well as my personal life, I find tremendous inspiration from many of the people who we (HDTS) profile, people who live here in the desert who might not typically be considered artists, but who have rich meaningful and deeply creative life practices that are successful as both critical and philosophical gestures.

"We Build Excitement," Jesse Sugarmann, Wonder Valley, CA | Photo: Jesse Sugarmann

KS: What is different about this year's programming events compared to earlier programs?

AT: This is the first year we are taking the event on the road. HDTS itself is a big experiment. It's all about exploration -- discovering the amazing places and people that are all around us, and to an extent about pushing comfort zones and providing challenging experiences to our artists and audiences. We have been doing these big events since 2002, and some of our tried and true HDTS friends and followers have become pretty familiar with our regular project sites in the Joshua Tree area. It's also been a longtime dream to take an HDTS road trip, and another longtime dream to do a project with our friends Libby Lumpkin and Dave Hickey, who had recently moved to New Mexico. This has also been a year of shaking things up, with our recently acquired 501(c)(3) non-profit status, so we figured now was as good a time as any to take the leap and try something else new.

"Car Wash," KB Jones, Octopus Car Wash, Albuquerque, NM | Photo: KB Jones

Since we would be heading out into new turf, we figured we'd open it up to people who probably know the region between Joshua Tree and Albuquerque better than we do. This was the first time we've held a formal open call for proposals with a selection committee, and we approached it as an experiment -- hoping the process would inspire people to embrace their curiosity and explore new terrain for their projects, or share old favorite special spots -- which did result in some truly site-specific proposals. Through the process, we were introduced us to some amazing places that were brand new to us, such as Crown King, an amazing mountain town in the middle of Arizona, accessible by a breathtaking winding road with 13 switchbacks (where there's a point you can see the tree line change from high desert to mountain), that was brought to our attention through artists Saskia Jorda and Victor Sidy's project proposal. Another brand new place for us over at HDTS was Magdalena, a curious old mining town in southern New Mexico, near the Very Large Array, Magdalena Ridge Observatory, the Alamo Navajo lands, and home to a small community of artists, including artist Michael Bisbee, whose storefront space will be transformed into an indoor water installation for HDTS 2013, and Catherine DeMaria, whose brand new converted barn/warehouse space, Warehouse 1-10, will host a new performance by artist Alisha Adams.

"Naima," Debbie Long, Coyote Dry Lake, Joshua Tree, CA | Photo: Debbie Long

KS: What are some of the highlighted projects, performances and/or happenings taking place this year?

AT: There are so many exciting projects and dedicated artists involved in this year's event! Here on our home turf, Bob Dornberger and Jim Piatt have just broken ground on "Secret Restaurant," a literally underground tiny kitchen serving up a special menu out at our Iron Age Road parcel in Wonder Valley.

On the opposite end of our driving map is Vecinos Artist Collective's Burial Grounds. Burial Grounds is located outside of Albuquerque in the community of El Cerro Mission, near lead artist Jorge De la Torre's childhood home. This rural area has become an unregulated dumping ground for all kinds of unwanted items -- old couches, flat tires, plastic toys, and even animal carcasses -- which Jorge, along with fellow artist Michael Lopez and a loose network of friends, transform into public sculptures. Being at Burial Grounds for the first time was kind of like a parallel experience to my first visit to Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Sculpture Museum here in Joshua Tree years ago -- in a way they feel like kindred sites of sorts.

"Burial Grounds," Vecinos Artist Collective (lead artist Jorge De La Torre), El Cerro Mission, NM | Photo: Vecinos Artist Collective

All along the route between Joshua Tree and Albuquerque, Julia Barbee and Matt Suplee have created unique custom-scented windshield souvenirs (inspired by the iconic car air freshener) for several sites along the HDTS 2013 driving map, to be collected by HDTS travelers and hung from their rear view mirror, creating a composite souvenir/sculpture of the trip in each vehicle. This will also help folks spot fellow HDTS travelers, functioning as a secret HDTS 2013 identifier.

"DocuMart," Julianna Parr and Alex Kenefick, Hill Top Motel, Kingman, AZ | Photo: Julianna Parr & Alex Kenefick

KS: How should one experience these projects/events? Are there any group tours or particular group events that bring people together over the course of the programming? What kind of audience to you expect for some of the more remote locations?

AT: Each day we will focus on a specific leg of the route between Joshua Tree and Albuquerque -- highlighting independent projects, performances, installations, and points of interest along the way. There will be a lot to see -- more than travelers will realistically be able to check out, so they will have to pick and choose in some instances -- but each day will be anchored by one main evening site, near or at camping/motel/overnight accommodations (to minimize folks driving around at night). One exception is Thursday October 17, when there will be an event by Pilar Conde at the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, right off I-40, and also an evening campout event led by GWC Investigators) in Turkey Springs, a very remote part of Arizona known for an unusually high number of reported UFO sitings and paranormal activity. Because the latter event is so far off the beaten path, the artists will follow their outing with a presentation of their findings at the end of the week at the Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque.

In each of these sites, especially the nighttime event sites, our artists and partnering venues are helping us spread the word and attract a local audience. For example, Chris Kallmyer will be doing a site-specific sunset performance at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory, which will also be open before and afterwards for tours and a star party. The MRO is not usually open to the public, so this is a very special treat for both locals and travelers, to check out the facility, while experiencing a one-time-only sound piece.

"This Distance Makes Us Feel Closer," Chris Kallmyer, Magdalena Ridge Observatory, Socorro County, NM | Photo: Chris Kallmyer

HDTS opens in the Joshua Tree/Morongo Basin on October 12 - 13, 2013 and continues to Arizona and New Mexico through October 19th with events at various sites throughout the week. See the full schedule of events.

Want to read more? Check out more of Artbound's most recent articles:

High Desert Research Outposts: The Joshua Tree Artist Residency Experience
Columnist Kim Stringfellow examines the plethora of artist residency programs that have sprung up in and around the Morongo Basin.

An Excursion Into LA's Mojave Hinterland at the CLUI Desert Research Station
The Desert Research Station located in Hinkley, Calif. focuses on the California desert.


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Top Image: ""A New Horizon" | Photo: Scott Oliver.

About the Author

Kim Stringfellow is an artist and educator residing in Joshua Tree, California.
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