High (Desert) Art: House of the Moon, Part IV

little theater by sandwichgirl.jpg
"Adrien's Little Theater" by assemblage artist Noah Purifoy." | Photo : sandwichgirl

Last week we noted the "deserts within the desert": the divides of race and class that persist on a landscape carved out of of American colonial history. By the early years of the new millennium, Joshua Tree was on the verge of being branded the art colony it is today--not that me or my bohemian crew had any idea of what was to come or the role we'd played in pioneering it. In this week's installment, the arrival of a renowned artist to the scene reveals the fault lines all the more intensely (and ironically).

Our boho crew kept growing. I could tell by the attendance at my friend performance artist Elia Arce's birthday parties. She liked celebrating them at campsites in the Monument, and each year more people showed up. In the desert it's always hot in September, on her birthday. You do not need a jacket or a sweater, even in the wee hours; it is eighty degrees at three a.m.

We would gather in the late afternoon, carloads of new desert denizens and people from the city. Being an immigrant from Costa Rica, Elia's events were much more mixed than the typical desert art scene. But they were still hippie bacchanals, including drum circles (the beat always reached for the tribal). Lots of pot and wine and beer, never hard liquor. A fire in the pit. Never hamburgers or hot dogs, but a lot of fish; Ted Quinn would bring his homemade hummus (very chunky), and Adriene Jenik would bring her signature mango salsa.

I remember drinking, really drinking. When I arrived in the desert I was still sweating cocaine from Mexico City, but without a connection in the Morongo Basin I drank the desire for coke away, invoking the dictum of "un clavo saca otro clavo," one nail drives out another. Which means that I would have been as loud at these bashes as everybody else. Above the collective chatter would come Elia's laugh, a cackle, an unselfconscious bravura performance. Ted would sing. Elia would sing. I would, too. It didn't matter if I was on or off-key. We glowed in the firelight, and the shadows of our bodies danced on the yellow boulders. There was sand in the salmon. A breeze would kick up now and then, but never a wind. The dogs were with us, off their leashes against park rules: Ted and Elia's Negra, a black-and-brown mutt, frolicked with my Akita mix Bear. Together the dogs would go from person to person, imitating the social dance of the human party. People pitched tents and stayed overnight; since the house I rented was close by, I would weave home with Ofelia and we'd make sloppy love as coyotes howled and Bear howled with them.


I would write at night at my perch before the window frame, speculating. I could tell where Highway 62 was--there was a galaxy of light along it. And I could pretty much pinpoint Ted and Elia's house, because it was at the base of a big pinto hill (at the corner, as Ted loved to say, of Sunset and Vine, the names of the dirt roads that intersect in the wash in front of their house). At night the hill was an area of darkness surrounded by twinkling lights, a black hole at the center of a constellation of stars.

I could tell where the daytime horizon line was because of a beacon rhythmically blinking on a Marine base mountaintop. The grunts would be readying an assault, flares shooting up over the dunes, revealing the simulated enemy's position. Below the dunes, a smattering of lights from the houses in North Joshua Tree. There were intermittent bursts of light, different from the house lights, whiter, brighter, waxing and waning--the headlights of vehicles headed down the dirt roads toward Highway 62.

This place wasn't as popular with the artists and investors who eventually came, being too close to the base, and too arid. Desert rats wanted to be out there, but you could also be too far out (some residences were ten miles or more up washboard dirt roads). North Joshua Tree had a reputation for being a good place to set up a meth lab. There was the occasional razor-wire compound and massive American flag, a little too authentic.

Story continues below

After us came more artists, some of them very well known. They came because we had come. There is a critical moment in the cycle of gentrification, when what had been informal networking, word of mouth, becomes media buzz, which in the digital age exists in constant dialogue with virtual social networking. Buzz in the one is amplified by the other. And thus the perfect storm of America's latest round in the boom-and-bust cycle: a technological revolution, real estate speculation, a burgeoning service economy luring ever more migrants and, driving it all, imaginaries that manipulate our desire.

The booms of the Old West functioned precisely the same way. The railroads opened the frontier, which drew artists and speculators and migrants of all social stations. The economic swells of the desert West of the last generation have lured an increasingly brown cohort, Mexican and Central American immigrants attracted to new boomtowns with jobs in construction, hotels, restaurants, landscaping, child care.

At the turn of the new century Joshua Tree was on the verge of a boom. Once again everyone was speculating, gambling that the westering way was the future, the better life. And nothing signaled this more strongly than the arrival of an artist from New York.

Andrea Zittel made her career back East and had achieved enough critical and commercial success to adopt a bicoastal existence. To her studio in New York and house in Los Angeles she decided to add a house in Joshua Tree, one with plenty of acreage for her experiments in functional art, which consisted of various sorts of pods that served as living, working, and sleeping spaces.

Her place was south of the highway, backed up against pinto hills, the boulders strewn about creating a perfect "otherworldly" tableau. (The Mojave has served as the location for innumerable sci-fi productions.) "It was the last edge," she told me when I visited, describing what had attracted her. "When I came here, no one was here." (There were of course many people here, at the last edge, when she arrived: Tammy and Al, Fred and Ted and Elia, the Marines running up and down the dunes.)

The summoned for her memories of her grandparents, who'd ranched in the badlands of Imperial County, which occupies the southeastern corner of California, along the Mexican border. That land was flat and yellow and hot, and she imagined her grandparents' lives on it as hard but beautiful.

Zittel rehabbed her house, a former homestead shack, into a miniature modernist paradise that she described as "bourgeois Palm Springs desert." She bought panels of birch for the ceiling. Big windows looked out over the Morongo Basin, at North Joshua Tree and the base. But in this view, which was so vast, the landscape swallowed most of the human narrative; except for the occasional detonation on the base, the mini-mushroom cloud.

After her, who came after us, came the deluge, a great tornado of speculation: vacation rentals (five hundred dollars a night), investors scouring the desert for homestead shacks to flip, new money buying second or third homes, telecommuters, dot- commers wanting to go off the grid, A-listers catching the buzz and sending their people to scout for that gem-in-the-rough. Then came the galleries and eateries, including a "tea cakes" place with scrumptious scones that I, with my sweet tooth, indulged whenever I could.

Zittel quickly came to miss the old days, when, she said, it was still "like the Wild West," and the pioneers like herself rubbed elbows with the locals. She remembered the soap operas of their lives. "Someone was always getting sick," she said, "someone's house was burning down, someone got in a car wreck."

They still did. Older and poorer, the locals shopped at Stater Bros. and Food 4 Less, and the health care in the desert was negligible. Houses burned down because people smoked in bed or there was a short in the old wiring, and because it was so terrifically dry in the desert. People got in car wrecks because Highway 62 was mostly a two-lane road without a median and seniors had vision problems or someone got drunk or someone was tweaking.

I was sitting on her couch and Zittel was facing me, framed by the window, which showed a tamarisk tree to the right of her, a palo verde to the left. Her face and body were long and thin, and she wore a sleek dress in her signature simple look. She'd once designed a similar dress and had made art out of it by wearing it every day for six months. But that was long ago, when she hosted weekly cocktail parties at her studio in Brooklyn--in Williamsburg, another place that was repioneered by students and artists and became a scene.

At the beginning of Zittel's time here, her ideal was to participate in the local community. In it were ATV riders, meth heads, people who owned guns and us, the pre-Zittel artists, whose class position--our income, what we could afford to pay in the rental or real estate market--was largely indistinguishable from the locals. But Zittel thought she could be a good neighbor, even though her actual neighbor, Marty, was "creepy." She described him as having brown teeth, stalking around his property shooting at snakes with a pistol; he often asked her for a ride into town to buy cigarettes.

She decided to rent a commercial space in neighboring Yucca Valley, thinking of starting up a gallery. Yucca Valley is a much larger town, with few of Joshua Tree's hipsters or hippies or its art colony vibe--in fact, it was just the opposite, with big box stores like Walmart and Home Depot, chain restaurants, and many conservative churches. Zittel said she "adored" the people she lived among and hired some local kids to work in her gallery venture. Zittel paid the kids well, she said, more than they would have made anywhere else in town. In return, she claims, one of the kids stole from her. And the others never showed any motivation, never got art up on the walls. She'd check up on them and, she told me, "there'd be beer cans on the floor."

She had come imagining a life akin to how her grandparents had lived in Imperial, a place so inhospitable that people had to get along to survive. But there was no getting along. She had tried to give something to the locals, but in the end felt used by them. She fired them and abandoned the gallery venture.

Now she concentrated on creating a new space for herself and her friends. Zittel conceived a sporadic art festival that she called High Desert Test Sites, with "sites" across the Morongo Basin, starting out modestly in 2002 with colleagues opening up their studios or creating ephemera in the open desert. As word spread, the event grew to draw artists and audiences from across the country and internationally.

The new scene was a pomo-haute version of an Old Western boom, and it placed my o.g. boho cohort in something of an existential bind. Of course we railed against the new arrivals, but in the process we revealed our own tenuous relationship to the place and its people. By asserting ourselves as authentic subjects, we were betraying the locals who'd preceded us, who'd opened their doors and lives to us.

As Zittel showed me around her property, ambivalent voices sounded off in my head. I was jealous: I wanted to own this parcel and its amenity of spectacular landscape. And I wanted to convict the artist for her crimes--for erasing people from that landscape, the working-class people whom I too "adored." (Or patronized?)

We walked slowly through the hot breath of a summer afternoon. Zittel was still trying to figure out how to adjust her art to the desert. She couldn't work much with wood-- the elements destroyed it too quickly. Even metal warped in this heat. While she'd been working on some "homestead units," little boxes that in theory could be a person's actual living quarters, a big wind picked one up and tossed it like a toy.

"The desert fucks with your head," she said.

On cue, there was an explosion on the Marine base. First the sound, like a massive boulder dropped on sand, far away. Then the earth and windows shuddering. A coil of oily smoke rose over one of the dunes in the distance.

I thought of grabbing the pair of binoculars I kept in the car, but I knew that even with them, I wouldn't see the Marines scattering along the open sand, looking for cover where there was none.


Read the previous installments of this Artbound exclusive series:

1. House of the Moon

2. Sex, Drugs, and Drying Out in the Desert: House of the Moon, Part II.

3. Local Colors: House of the Moon, Part III

4. High (Desert) Art: House of the Moon, Part IV.


Visit Rubén Martínez' website for more information about the author.


Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West. Available August 7, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Rubén Martínez. Published by Metropolitan Books, a division of Henry Holt & Company, LLC. By permission of Susan Berghoz Literary Services, New York City and Lamy, NM. All rights reserved: no further duplication, distribution, display or sale without permission.


Dig this story? Sign up for our newsletter to get unique arts & culture stories and videos from across Southern California in your inbox. Also, follow Artbound on FacebookTwitter, and Youtube.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading

Full Episodes