THE FIFTEENTH ANNIVERSARY of High Desert Test Sites in Joshua Tree, California, brought a rare mix of nostalgia and joy. The peripatetic events and venues organized annually in and around our small, sunny town, nestled in a Seussian forest of Yucca brevifolia at a median three-thousand-foot elevation, brings locals and travelers together to challenge, per the HDTS mission statement, “all to expand their definition of art to take on new areas of relevancy.”
Here, we reset by escaping our urban feedback loops, and redefine and revise Land art that once primarily destroyed wilderness areas in mock-heroic man versus nature narratives. Thanks to Andrea Zittel and a handful of others who have dedicated themselves to revising utopian ethics by establishing, as Zittel says, “testing grounds for experimental designs in living,” HDTS has become the event to enjoy high-quality desert performances and installations that invite experience before they vanish like beautiful, perfect mirages.
When Zittel launched HDTS in 2002, these cartographic weekends consisted of annotated temporary artworks lodged in the outer edges of neighboring off-the-grid areas like Pioneertown and Wonder Valley. People would rough-ride around, avoiding sand traps en route to the art, building their own adventures by getting lost enough to maintain fun. Often we hardly saw one another, carloads of people passing on dusty routes. Artworks were homespun, the stoner after parties were wild and wooly, and some events recurred for years, like Ooga Booga’s takeover of Sky Village Swap Meet in Yucca Valley.
But in the past decade, HDTS has evolved into a sophisticated apparatus with somewhat larger budgets for commissions and small luxuries, garnering impressive rosters of participants. Instead of a Pokemon-esque treasure hunt across hundreds of miles, this year, esteemed curators Sohrab Mohebbi and Aram Moshayedi joined Zittel and her studio team—Tatiana Vahan, Elena Yu, and Vanesa Zendejas—to focus on a mellow weekend of fewer, looser events and activities so people could linger and visit. At first I was skeptical of this new, more civilized method, given my love of hectic DIY stuff. But the ineffable spirit remains: Disorientation still ushered us into uncertainty, the key component that introduces our best, marvelous Mojave vortex, as some New Agers call it, situated dynamically on several fault lines, including the mighty, notorious San Andreas.
This year’s escapade launched with a packed pizza party at Zittel’s gorgeous indoor/outdoor studio at AZ West. I stopped by for hellos and a slice, then hightailed it to Pappy and Harriet’s, our beloved saloon, to see Cass McCombs and Farmer Dave’s the Skiffle Players, because a weekend of art needs a blast of live music. Saturday was full, starting at Sky Village Swap Meet for an Ooga Booga–inspired booth by Glenn Murray & Co.’s Lydia Glenn, who ran the Highland Park “mercantile” (aka artist-run) Chin’s Push for some years as an “experiment in valuation” (aka a shop), where she sold art objects by artists alongside those by “kids, moms, and anyone,” as she put it.
Next was a stop at Ry Rocklen’s Trophy Modern house for a Rite of Fall performance by his partner, Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs. The house, filled with furnishings built from trophies, was conceived in 2012, when Rocklen adopted a crop of “lost and abandoned trophies” from a thrift store and began constructing furniture like “shish kabobs,” he explained as we waited on the porch for the event to begin in our eighty-five-degree paradise. Fifty people crammed into the living room to witness Pennypacker Riggs and her cast of women. They were dressed as caryatids and singing atonally, and she launched into songs while wearing a suburban-lady housecoat and a mud-mask doubling as death mask, then stripped to a “nude” leotard, then to a skeleton-painted bodysuit. I felt threaded onto a human shish kebab, roasting in a rapt, steamy room. At the end they distributed pomegranates: a total ritual success. From there, some headed east to the Glasshouse Art Gallery with Edie Fake, which was followed by Oliver Payne’s chill-out session. I went home for a snack, then repaired to the Palms, a remote bar in Wonder Valley, for a nightcap of music and readings on the topic of “non-community.” Linda Sibio’s performance, for which she wore a dress adorned with painted portraits of her friends, was standout. Outside, the Orionids meteor shower was in full swing.
The next day began with a bustling breakfast at Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center hosted by local chefs Sarah Witt and Bob Dornberger. They struggled to keep up with our appetites, but given their love of food experimentation—the previous day, their Hole Foods Pit Stop saw roasted pineapples and meats skewered on dangling chains and spikes, on what looked like an s/m swing set—we grazed and made conversation, as any Sunday morning community center breakfast out here goes. The fire station next door was newly remodeled by community center members, including Stephanie Smith and Jay Babcock, for the exhibition “An Ephemeral History of High Desert Test Sites: 2002–2015.”
This wonderful new space, available for rent and future fun, housed cubby-like displays highlighting artworks from past years, underscoring HDTS’s impact. Wade Guyton’s big black X leaning against the fire station wall missed its mark, but David Shrigley’s flag waving “Please Don’t Kill Us” seemed timelier than ever. The Test Sites wrapped up on the most beautiful parcel of land, a one-hundred-acre chunk that HDTS has been using for years, thanks to its generous landowner, outside Pipes Canyon Preserve and way up God’s Way Love, a dirt road.
Forty of us nestled amid the boulders and juniper with sweeping vistas of Black Butte and Flattop Mesa for architect Neil Doshi’s table reading of his autobiographical play about building a house from scratch on a neighboring land patch inhabited by an “intentional community.” Six actor-artists told a humorous tale that chronicled DIY-building’s snafus and learning curves, something we’re all too familiar with out here.
“A lot of people say they build with their hands, but they just told an architect where to put rooms,” longtime HDTS participant Dan Anderson declared, in his role as the “naive builder,” opting for the slow, hard slab-by-slab to achieve a house “with no straight lines.” It was the perfect send-off, capturing the essence of life on the mesas. But let’s face it: As we also acknowledged, we’re not too tough. In this wilderness theater, we loved our mimosas and popcorn passed around in the shade, and we may not have survived without our wide-brimmed straw sunhats.