Wearing a modish flight-attendant uniform, Art in General programs manager Sofia Hernández Chong Cuy distributed packaged toiletries, an “airport map,” and vouchers for food, coffee, and shuttle rides to a group of seven arts patrons, curators, and writers packed inside the chartered plane headed for Las Vegasby way of Montello, a small town in northeast Nevada. “This is a travel kit, compliments of AIG airlines, because the layover might be rather extended,” Hernández warned. Once on the ground last weekend at the closest working airfield, Wendover Air Force Base, participants in AIG’s travel program headed to the site of a weekend “layover” at the International Airport Montello, the latest project by the artist collective eteam, German-born and Queens-based artists Franziska Lamprecht and Hajoe Moderegger. Funded by Art in General’s 2006 commissions program (and developed in part during a residency at the Center for Land Use Interpretation), IAM’s fictional terminals, transit lounges, and runway occupy a ten-acre plot, purchased on eBay for less than five hundred dollars, and an abandoned airstripbut it doesn’t end there. Working in cooperation with the residents of nearby Montello, the “airport” includes the entire town, its convenience store temporarily housing a gift shop of hand-decorated IAM merchandise, its two bars (the Saddle Sore and the Cowboy) servicing stranded travelers, and its wind-battered plateaus, outfitted with a few folding chairs, doubling as less-than-cozy airport lounges. “This whole trip to Vegas was created around the layover,” Hernández admitted; its participants would complete a cultural tour of the state in the coming days, including visits to the Las Vegas Museum of Art, the Neon Boneyard (where Vegas’s landmark signs go to die), the Liberace Museum (in a converted strip mall), and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. “I want to see the International Airport Montello in relation to land art in the area,” Hernández clarified. “Not in the context of relational aesthetics.”
On deplaning at Wendover Field (the base once housed the Enola Gay), we were met by the eteam, in German military jackets and caps; Brooklyn-based artist Jason Dean, in a jumpsuit, as “IAM Layover Support”; and a bevy of filmmakers wielding cameras and booms making a documentary with development money from the Sundance Channel. “Everyone has defined their roles,” explained Hernández, referring not only to the artists involved but to Montello’s residents as well. “I decided to be the stewardess.” Loading us into a van, “shuttle driver” Anthony Marcellini (AIG’s curatorial assistant) drove us through the penny-slot casinos and golf courses of Wendover, UT, and into the open desertcrossing the state line into Nevada en route to “another terminal”our first stop in Montello. After parking in front of a twelve-wheeler hung with a red wooden cross (Montello’s mobile chapel), we were greeted by the town leaders. “Welcome to Montello, population sixty-six. Sorry, sixty-seven. We had a baby born last week,” announced chaplain Henry J. Casolini.
Shuttle service was, for the most part, off-road, taking us to the Sky View Dinner Club, operated out of a trailer home by former casino-lighting technician Nevada Red (whose rhinestone-studded belt buckle also boasted an LED display) and Darla (Skyview’s chef), and to the overgrown airstrip, marked only by an “International Airport Montello” sign. Surveying the dinner club, circumscribed by rocks around a cinder-block fire pit, Red contemplated the benefits of living off the grid: “I pay fourteen dollars in taxes a year for ten acres.” When we made a stop in town before heading on to the airstrip to await our connection, “airport manager” Dr. Ron Abbott informed us that the rapidly degenerating weather would entail yet another delay. (Easy to believe with a dust storm blotting out the surrounding mountains and pummeling us with fine grit.)
Killing time in town, we met with local musician Ron Tello, who had pasted up a “Transit Lounge” sign outside his home, which was hung with Marlon Brando and Rocky Horror Picture Show posters, photocopied pictures of his gun collection, and dangling strips of flypaper heavy with quarry. Lamprecht introduced him as “building the largest drum set in Nevada.” Curator Elizabeth Thomas observed, “Because of the kit and the flies, he reminds me of Dave Lombardo from Slayer in the Matthew Barney film.”
As we toured Montello’s desolate downtown, video artist Kristin Lucas, driving a Volkswagen sporting an antenna constructed from a fishing net and a colander, unexpectedly pulled up and, distributing hand-stenciled bingo cards, began to broadcast numbers (intercepted, she claimed, from alien radio signals). When we finally arrived at the airstrip, Modregger handed out distinctively saffron flags, and, amid coy whispers of “The Gates,” we filed down both sides of the runway in an attempt to direct our missing plane. Explaining the ephemeral nature of the installationand of IAM in generalModeregger spoke of a desire “to create something emerging temporarilythat is what a town is. There is nothing here, but in a way there is everything here.” High winds forced us back to the Cowboy Bar, where resident Jodie Mueller had organized “the first annual Taste of Montello,” for which she sought out visitors to act as judges. We sampled down-home dishes from meat loaf to meringue; first prize went to a cake shaped like a jet liner and frosted with the initials ”IAM." The grill was fired up outside, and the whole town descended on the bar as Hernández alerted us that we had to leave immediately or we would miss our flight. We piled back into the van as a man on horseback cantered down the road and trotted through the bar’s front door. As the euphoria of Montello’s AIG-funded party-of-the-year wore off, cinematic memories of ghost-town isolation and eccentric characters took its place. “It was like Grey Gardens,” Bronx Museum director Holly Block put it. Collector George Mills was quick to qualify: “But the zombie version.”