Sites for Sore Eyes (and Ears)

Artists of all kinds engage and entertain at High Desert Test Sites

Secret Restaurant, by Bob Dornberger and Jim Piatt.

Photography by Elena Ray

“I tend to fantasize about the long-term potential of any project I take on,” says High Desert Test Sites founder Andrea Zittel, “so I guess I’ve always envisioned it as a long-term project. When we started HDTS in 2002, I was thinking a lot about the idea of an ‘intimate audience.’ Rather than make art to be shipped to other parts of the world, I was interested in presenting it in the context in which it was made. A-Z West [in Joshua Tree] is my own ongoing project incorporating some of these ideals; but I also wanted to create a forum for other artists who were motivated by similar principles of making work that literally lives in the world.”

Eleven years later, HDTS has expanded into a 10-day festival across thousands of miles of open desert and two-lane highway, from its headquarters in Joshua Tree (where permanent sites welcome visitors and host activities) and east through Arizona to Albuquerque, N.M., encompassing about 60 independent projects, some event-based and others unguided interactions. The works carry varying degrees of messaging and intensity of experience, employing a range of mediums, materials, and styles. HDTS is a gateway into conceptual culture for people who don’t know or care about art per se, because these projects don’t have to be “art”; they can be chaotic or silly, they can get you lost, they can be serious and even political; they can excavate local history or augment it with yours; and you can meditate or you can celebrate the myriad ways in which the journey is its own reward.

HDTS 2013, which unfolded during two weekends in October, featured music, film, spoken-word, sculpture, hospitality, photography, mapmaking, camping, material recycling, and architectural engineering. The test sites included a temporary sound and light installation with a sing-along; a quasi-mechanized sculptural “performance” using pinwheels, fireworks, and open sky; ritual tea ceremonies; yarn-bombing; highway-sign comedy; overnight field investigations into UFO phenomena; “an attempt to gratify Mesmer’s theories of magnetic influence by attaching participants to rocks”; a “mountaintop sound work performed by a set of custom-built, autonomous instruments that resound over vast stretches of land at 10,600 feet”; and an outdoor multimedia musical comedy in Arcosanti, Ariz.

Giant Rock hosted two projects. Sighting parlayed film from the realm of a prerecorded event and into a experiential performance, elevating the landscape to a narrative focus. And Bettina Hubby’s great googly eyes and glow-in-the-dark cocktail party at Giant Rock are gestures that remind the artist “of the way that humans deal with their own smallness and transience on this planet, by personifying something grand, building on it, buying it, or by shrinking it in your mind and trying to own it.”

Some of the semipermanent works include Pink Post Office Projects, an upstyled 100-acre junkyard founded in 2007 by designer couple Margot and Philip Ittleson at an abandoned Donald Wexler-designed property on Amboy Road in Wonder Valley. As the geographer-at-large of a parallel world, Eames Demetrios maintains a jackrabbit homesteader cabin, which hosted a HDTS event. Noah Purifoy’s open-air museum is a global destination for a certain kind of offbeat art lover.

“I always envisioned HDTS as having something of a cult following,” Zittel says, whose own exhibitions, in galleries and museums, have earned international acclaim. “But we attract a fairly broad mix when it comes to our audience. I have a lot of faith that contemporary art can be relevant and interesting to any audience. It is an exciting challenge to find works that function both for the initiated and for those with no preconceived notion of what art is. We have a small community that is steadily growing and becoming more complex and diverse.”

Participants seem to come to HDTS organically. Some already live in the desert; some are transplants exploring aspects of the desert in their work; and others are artists who live elsewhere, but feel an affinity with the High Desert community or landscape. The 2013 event was the first time the organization had an open call, resulting in more than 300 applications. “Usually, the right artists find us or we find them,” Zittel says. “It can be a kind of serendipity. And I think those kinds of moments are what HDTS is all about.”  

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