BY Travis Diehl in Opinion | 24 NOV 17

High Desert Hijinks

A wild weekend at the High Desert Test Sites festival 2017

BY Travis Diehl in Opinion | 24 NOV 17

It’s hard to know how to take the flag snapping outside the old fire station next to the Copper Mountain Community Center: black handwriting stitched to a white ground nearly as big as the firehouse wall reads ‘PLEASE DON’T KILL US’. Maybe it’s a local’s plea for the safety of their children, aimed at motorists flying over the ridged dirt lanes. Maybe it’s the pathetic wish of artists and other city slickers who have more or less invaded the high desert for a weekend of high-art hijinks. Maybe the flag’s message is difficult to parse because it wasn’t originally made for the desert, but a David Shrigley project for the doll-size Wrong Museum in Chelsea. It cracks above the sand like a fat whip.

This October, artist Andrea Zittel’s quasi-annual High Desert Test Sites festival (HDTS) turned 15. With just a handful of exceptions, the meat of HDTS 2017 was an exhibition of ‘ephemeral history’ curated by Aram Moshayedi and Sohrab Mohebbi: in the old fire station, highlights from past HDTS efforts were pinned to or hung from a plywood exhibit design reminiscent of an Andrea Zittel bedroom set. Mungo Thompson’s 2002 video The American Desert (for Chuck Jones), for which Thompson erased the animals from Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner cartoons by animator Chuck Jones, played on a small monitor. On a four-way split screen CRT television, video documentation of Yoshua Okón’s 2008 project showed the artist, his film crew, and HDTS attendees paying a visit to a local Wonder Valley family, the Akiens, who play the desert rubes to a hilt, looping through a routine that includes firearms, shouting, drinking White Russians, and kicking out their guests.

Why is it that artists, alone among all peoples, feel the need to justify their doing wacky things in desert patches by forming an institution? But this theatrical itch goes both ways. High desert locals have made tall tales an art form, and tourists from LA are some of their favourite and most willing marks.

Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs, Rite of Fall, 2017 (with costumes by Nancy Stella Soto, featuring Janai Leeb, Jess Basta, Jiha Lee and Tany Ling) and Trophy Modern Home, by Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs and Ry Rocklen, October 21, 2017, Joshua Tree, CA. Courtesy: High Desert Test Sites; photograph: Sarah Lyon 

Another Saturday afternoon. Another open-plan tract home. Composer Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs shuffles out of the bathroom in a green robe, towel wrapped around her head, a papier-mâché masque pampering her face, doing an evening routine. She stumbles to the kitchen island over the audience crammed across her floor. She puts some incense on the stove, picks up a microphone, and sings a lonely song. A quartet of women dressed as marble columns back her up in close harmony.

The modernist living room and dining room set are constructed out of trophy materials –holographic red, blue and gold tubing between faux-marble planes; big gold basketballs under bar stools. Beige tile and bone-gray carpet are the way of this house in the off-strip part of Joshua Tree, California, the desert house of Riggs and the artist Ry Rocklen. They call it their Trophy Modern Home (emphasis on trophy), where Rocklen’s signature furniture is both on display and in long-term storage.

Riggs has stripped down to a nude-gold jumpsuit painted with nipples, clefts and folds, complete with a yarn merkin. Act III: Riggs peels off her ‘skin’ to reveal a painted skeleton beneath, sings one last sweet-sad song, then pulls out a marbled frock of her own from a pile of sand. She melts into the chorus and the four petrified women parade off-stage, into the attached garage.

‘The Palms Talks’ (pictured: Linda Carmella Sibio), October 21, 2017, Twentynine Palms, CA. Courtesy: High Desert Test Sites; photograph: Sarah Lyon 

As night rode roughshod over Wonder Valley, all us lined down Amboy Road to a bar called The Palms, where draft beer cans still be had for $USD 2.50. This was ‘the Palms Talks’, a marathon reading by two-dozen artists and writers that Mohebbi called an evening of ‘ambient meaning’. He cited Semiotext(e) and Chris Kraus’s ‘Chance Event’ of 1996, as if chance could strike twice – but although there were some good speakers, and some gold lamé, no one in this room was Jean Baudrillard.

The theme or loose prompt was ‘community or non-community’. I learned that the community notice boards of Morongo Valley are infamous. And I learned that in 1921 Paul Revere Williams became the first black architect to build a building west of the Mississippi here. With the band and readers set up in the back room, passage between the drinks and the backyard was mostly blocked, and folks kept getting trapped on one side or the other of this ongoing ambience, rushing back and forth whenever the performers handed off the mic. Meanwhile, outside in the starry dark was a stage, unlit and unused.

A Dutch woman who grew up in Kenya and lives in Joshua Tree stood up to do her bit. She yelled for quiet at the folks talking in the bar. They kept talking. A local: someone who gives more than they take. Later, between talks from philosopher Cailin O’Connor and artist Bobby Jesus, a Joshua Tree artist named Linda Carmella Sibio performed in an intestinal hat with a misregistered face painted slightly above her usual eyes and mouth. Her monologue led us through time: the planets forming, moons colliding, dinosaurs freeing their carbon to build mammals, apes, the United States. In between, she tried to call her friends on speaker-phone, but couldn’t get a signal. No matter. She had enough stage presence to gravitate a little community right then and there.

Table Reading by Neil Doshi, October 22, 2017, Pioneertown, CA. Courtesy: High Desert Test Sites; photograph: Sarah Lyon 

Real estate is the common currency of the Mojave. Everybody has it, or wants it, or pays attention to it. You can’t see who owns the land, or where one plot stops and another starts, but rest assured those lines are out there, and somebody has title to every inch. Even if you’re going guerilla style for your art project, more than one HDTS artist has noted, you should know whose land you’re technically trespassing on.

Sunday afternoon, for the last official event of High Desert Test Sites 2017, Neil Doshi led a dramatic read-through of a script glossing the story of his ‘utopian building project’, featuring his own character, a so-called ‘naïve builder’. In three acts, the play reflects on an actual project Doshi undertook with then-collaborator (another ‘naïve builder’) Scott Barry, with funding from Creative Capital, to build a working design studio from scratch. They came to Joshua Tree looking for a site, and settled on a pile of boulders on land owned by one Garth (aka ‘the Landlord’), leader of a minor hippie cult in the boulder-lands north of JT proper. ‘It has to blend,’ Garth’s gentle caricature insists, ‘it has to be natural.’ The hippie’s was a double-edged generosity: he let Doshi and Barry build on his land, but wanted input in return: generosity, bounded by control. ‘You know how I feel about straight lines,’ says the landlord. What they agree on, though, is the DIY spirit; that a thing worth doing is worth doing with love.

Main image: David Shrigley, Please Don't Kill Us, 2017, flag. Courtesy: High Desert Test Sites; photograph: Andrea Zittel

Travis Diehl is online editor at X-TRA. He is a recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism.