Sunday, December 7, 2008

Return to the Test Site

High Desert Test Sites was the original impetus for me to go to the High Desert around Joshua tree and remains a touchstone for me. This year's program as planned for November, rather than the Spring, to coincide with the California Biennial and the opening of the Wonder Valley Institute for Contemporary Art.

I jetted out to Palm Springs, via DFW, and had an amusing moment of literally bumping into an acquaintance while getting to my connecting flight. The small world factor should never be underestimated. On arrival, I drove up the big hill from Morongo to Yucca Valley for a coffee rendezvous with my good friend John Luckett. It felt great to be back.

Test Sites was challenging as always in that it covered installations and events from the far reaches of Wonder Valley to the rocks of Pioneertown. By now an experienced attendee, I realized that it just couldn't all be done and choices would have to be made. Add to that my desire to catch up with friends I had met during my recent sojourn, and the challenge was pleasantly before me.

I had rented a house in North Joshua Tree that is also for sale to get a good feel for it, a happy opportunity. And I was joined by another good friend, Eduardo Braniff, who jetted in by car from his abode in LA. A happy reunion.

The first night, Friday, presented the opening of the Wonder Valley Institute of Contemporary Art. WVICA is a new effort, headed by Chris Veit, aimed at bringing an new form of venue for supporting artists in the area and beyond. Eduardo, John and I regrouped for dinner by the pool at the 29 Palms Inn, an experience that is always oddly sophisticated and laid back at the same time. A duo entertained with keyboards and vocals and the food was delicious.

Housed in Chris Veit's former cabin, WVICA was still somewhat under construction - proving itself to be a good art project in of itself. The evening was a wonderful mix of art installation, music played on an outdoor stage and mingling with faces new and old under a chilly starry sky. This was the community feeling I treasure touching when I come to the region. And then the jetlag hit.

Saturday morning was an opportunity for Eduardo and I to catch up over coffee in the CA sunshine that poured over the house at Windy Gap. We then met John L over at the Test Sites HQ for a bit of mingling and to get hold of the official catalog. Designed by David Dodge, the catalog is a collectible as we as an indispensable guide to the sometimes esoteric clues that Test Sites provides.

Having determined that we would take in a performance late in the afternoon, we had time for sampling the delicious fare at a new bakery in Joshua Tree opened by my friends Clea and John. Delicious. We demolished a pumpkin loaf while lolling in the courtyard behind the True World Gallery, where we caught with the gallerists amongst others. Lunch followed (!!), an impromptu affair on the sidewalk outside of Ricochet, the local gourmet venue.

Then off to the Mojave Sands, an arty motel that is another project dwelling in the tradition of long-term completion. We were there for the Art Swap Meet, a sort of fair affair that afforded glimpses of a variety of work by young artists from the area and from LA. Our trio had a lot of fun breezing through and critiquing away.

We made a quick trip the Joshua Tree Inn, immortalized on the cover of the U2 album, to see a piece by Ann Magnusson. It was a recreation of the scene at the room in which Graham Parsons committed suicide. With the afternoon sun streaming in, and music on the old fashioned radio, it was remarkably cheery.

From the Inn, we continued on to the dry bed of Coyote Lake for a mysterious performance. Mysterious in that one was asked to drive out on the lake bed "until you see a cluster of cars". And mysterious in the way a man named Ry spent 20 minutes or so vacuuming dirt that he threw from a large lame bag onto a carpet while dressed in a purple dress and sported a lions mask. Yes, that sort of mysterious.

The on the the Palms. Ahh, The Palms. Many have tried to describe it (myself included), none has succeeded. Hundreds of people. Grilled chicken, tofu and salad being served directly from the kitchen. And, on stage, the Spirit Sisters. Ahh, the Spirit Sisters. Singing, playing, performing etc. And the great surprise was a rendezvous with Sandy and Anja, two good friends from my sojourn, recently returned from Europe and dreaming of living in Aruba.

The night was still middle aged when we left the Palms, heading back to the True World gallery for a fun, late opening.And then, a quick after party at a wonderfully strange new house. Entirely black and open to the elements, this was a wonderful design project that left one wondering just how it might feel to actually overnight there. Brrrrrr.

Sunday morning dawned bright again. I had a quick jaunt with Eduardo to see a house for sale. The property was a disaster but we did come upon the spectacle of a futuristic house built for an artist named Bev Doolittle. The house is straight out of a Bond flick and is rumored to have been used for a recent Star Trek scene. Wow.

We then made track for Andrea Zittel's property where there were a few works installed on the adjacent land. We strolled up, deep in conversation, to find the first piece an odd mix of carnival and sustainable design. The artist was sitting outside at a table with a fake torso strewn in front of him on a table. He continually pumped "blood" through a wound in the "flesh". Near him was the entrance to a simple structure within which there was mirrored box containing lights that created the illusion of a long tunnel running deep into the desert floor. Yet more mystery.

Even more mysterious was the other work, a piece on surveillance, that we simply couldn't locate. Perhaps it didn't exist...I had met the artist the evening before at The Palms. She had agreed that the desert was a wonderful place as well as a good place to be when biological warfare broke out as the pathogens couldn't survive long in a dry environment. She apparently had lots of booze back at her hotel in case a party broke out. Better safe than sorry.

Noon rolled round and it was time for a performance at the Joshua Tree Community Center. I mistakenly drove us over to the Joshua Tree Playhouse where some hilarity ensued in trying to find the performance and then extricate ourselves from the space once we had engaged with some local community theater group. Onward arty soldiers. We made it to the community center in time for a performance directed by someone I had met two Test Sites ago. Nice to have become a regular.

After a quick sandwich at the local Vons, Eduardo and I headed over to John Luckett's to see an installation of his from the recent Morongo valley open studios. We were treated to an intriguing work which explored the possible histories of a pair of twins living, loving and drinking in LA in the 50s and 60s. Period furniture, scrapbooks of photos, scrawled notes and threatening correspondence from an insurance company all added up to a strong sense of nostalgia and wistfulness. Thanks John.

Eduardo then departed for LA while John and I went on to my finals stop - a visit to Garth's place. Publicized as an opportunity to get advice on any topic from a sage, this was he highlight of the weekend for me. Garth has lived on his 60 acres of beautiful land outside of Pioneertown for over 25 years. I had heard of him before yet nothing prepared me for the creativity and productiveness of his effort. The man himself lives in a concrete tepee and I found him installed there telling stories from his life in this lace. Apparently the tepee was originally of hide but the constant movement of rats across the floor, and a desire for a bit more shelter, led him to create the current iteration. While space was tight, the tepee was warmed by a stove and seemed very homey.

Surrounding Garth's tepee was an amazing array of living arrangements. An outdoor living room, kitchen and dining area were all spacious and would feel luxurious in warmer weather. The grounds had stunning touches of landscaping and sculpture, including a koi pond, a bridge, a dipping pool ; there is also a functional sweat lodge. Garth lives here, tending horses, drumming and entertaining whomever drops by. I'm looking forward to visiting again.

I wrapped up the weekend at Pappy and Harriets, a Sunday evening tradition of food and dancing that I had gotten into during my stay in the Spring. More friedns to see, great ribs to eat and a wonderful feeling of being integrated into a place and community.

Thanks again to the organizers and volunteers who make Test Sites possible.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

And The Man Burned

It's been a while since I got to these pages...been ensconced in NY life and my new role as MD of the NY studio for JDK. That said, I'm lucky enough to have been able to get away for another full week at Burning Man in Black Rock City, NV.

This year, I went with three virgins (Alan aka Bajan, Michael aka Dusty and Rick aka Mr. Happy as they were known on the Playa). We had done a lot of pre-planning, shipped stuff ahead in the container, traveled out to Reno early to get acclimated and completed the shopping on the Sunday. However, nothing can prepare you for The Man and the desert environment he lives in. No sooner had we hit the entrance turnoff, right on plan at 2pm on Monday, than a massive dust storm hit. The gates were closed and we were left to hang on the dirt road with thousands of fellow burners for 5 hours until dusk brought some relief from nature's trickery. Of course, people were generally good natured, we met some new neighbors and greeters came out to reassure us with maps and programs for the week ahead.

We hit camp at 7pm, too late for a full build yet in time to pitch tents and fire up our first dinner of burgers on the camp grill. We camped in Hushville this year - an area designated to be generator and amplified sound free. I was intent on this approach after last year's site near Opulent Temple left me sleepless and zoned out for most of the week. We pulled into the area, anxious to find a prime piece of land within the camp, and I was immediately greeted by the sight of a "Roman centurion" striding toward me to challenge my Hushvillian credentials. I hopped out of the SUV, ready to make some demands, when he broke into a grin of recognition and gave me a big hug. It was Critter, partner of an artist from Sacramento with whom I had shared my print teacher in Twenty Nine Palms. Life was smiling yet again.

Tuesday morning we built the camp in glorious sunshine and low wind. Kitchen shower and lounge were all designated and staked out with rebar. After lunch, Alan and I got clean at the Human Carcass Wash and we all went for some coffee at Center camp.

That evening we went out for our first real walk on the Playa. It's amazing to see how much is built this early in the week. Most of the art pieces were complete, art cars were zipping about and the Esplanade was full of lively activity from the Roller Rink to the Whiskey Bar. Of course, people were resplendent in their costumes and glowery. I watched my friends' wonderment which is the virgin experience of a first night out at Burning Man. We sent several hours at an art piece called Shiva Vista. Spectacular enough with its ring of flamethrowers and stage of fire dancers, that evening was elevated further as a kickass art car came by attempting to take the musical program hostage. Blissful music and roaring licks of fire ensued until the two efforts found a point of collaboration and everyone danced to the beauty that arose.

Wednesday morning dawned as beautiful as the day before. Rick had organized an art tour for us and we gathered at The Artery. An art car, The Kazbus, picked us up and we sailed forth with a wonderfully dotty docent to preview the art and get the lay of the land. The tour is a great way to orient oneself and mark sites for a return visit.

Later in the afternoon, I introduced my mates to The Deep End. This was one my highlights of last year which only surpassed itself this time round. The Deep End is an amazing dance area that gets going from 1-8pm. The music is wonderful, the crowd friendly and the experience verges on religious. The sad news was that this was the last year of Deep End - one of those famous retirements that I can only hope will prove to be as wrong as the others usually are. The sheer energy and generosity of spirit that Deep End provided is something everyone should experience and participate in.

The evening we cycled out on the Playa to see two projects: Mutopia and Babylon. The first was another amazing organo/techno/flame affair. The second, a ten storey tower, built in days, featuring night time projections of burner mashups. While waiting to have my photo taken for the said visual mashup, I overheard the following conversation: Woman to man on line dressed in fur costume and dreadlocks: "Are you a tiger?" Man: "Yes". Woman: "Have you eaten today?". Man: "Yes". Woman: "Delicious". One can only imagine what might have ensued had he been hungry.

The one challenge this year was the sand. With no real snow runoff and little summer rain, the Playa was not its usual hard, cracked self. A whorl of small dunes were waiting at every turn to trap bicycle wheels and turn a sprint into a portage. Another one of Nature's jokes this year.

Thursday featured the WNBR. Pretty much a full day cycling from camp to camp with hundreds of fellow burners. In the buff. Much sunscreen was used and a lot of banter shared. The day ended at...The Deep End. Then another evening on the Playa.

Friday morning, I volunteered at the Center Camp coffee bar. This was another of my highlight experiences. Meeting hundreds of burners, dolling out advice and abuse (which are both free as a side order) and receiving lovely gifts and even a share of the tips. Giving back at Burning Man is a total buzz. The afternoon was back at Deep End and the night a trip to the Playa.

Each night I managed to get a decent amount of sleep. Hushville helped. As did the new layout which had things spread further apart than in past years. Yes, waking refreshed for a day of fun at Burning Man is possible.

Saturday morning, I woke at 5.15, dug myself out of my sleeping bag and headed out for the dawn photo opp I had promised myself. Taking photos at Burning Man is a challenge both in terms of being sensitive to others' privacy as well as coming up against choosing to be inside or outside the experience. Most of the time, I chose to be in it. This was my one chance to step outside and snap a record. The pics are here. The experience was wonderful - I started at Center camp, took in some of the highlight art pieces and caught sunrise at the Temple. I ended up at Opulent Temple, obeyed the beckon of a lovely fellow burner and ended my jaunt with an hour of early morning dancing.

During breakfast back at our camp, the wind started to pick up. We 'rebar'ed the tents, packed away loose items and then let the massive dust storm just engulf us. What does one do during such a storm? Deep End of course! The afternoon was magical. Thousands of folks dancing in goggles and masks, recognizing that this was the last set ever. Perhaps. I was joined by Randy and Shari, my good friends from Joshua Tree who had come with their art project, The Grotto of Manifest Destiny. Despite Randy's sprained ankle and Shari's dislike of techno music, we found a shared rhythm and had toms of fun. They took off, I found Rick and Alan, and we continued to enjoy this party complete with fresh hot dogs (mustard and ketchup supplied) handed to us by a man in a sausage hat.

That evening was the Burn itself, something I feel is a bit akin to New Years in Times Square. We watched the man explode in a ball of fire from the safety of Randy and Shari's grotto and then I headed back to camp for some sleep. Sunday, we cleaned up what we could after the dust had gotten everywhere. I volunteered at the coffee bar again. That evening we went out for the Temple burn - a contemplative counterpoint to Saturday's bacchanal. We got there early, froze in a sudden cold wind and watched the Temple burn ever so slowly. It was a really rather well made thing. The timespan allowed us to witness each stage of fiery destruction from red to blue flame, charred glow to disintegration. A fitting metaphor.

As we turned to head back to camp, another howling dust storm ensued and the whole group who had gathered walked slowly back across the Playa in a mass of muted confusion. This is the disintegration of community. Later, some rain began to fall and rumors that we would be stuck in the mud for days began to circulate. The curtain was coming down fast.

Monday dawned bright and frigid. We packed up, headed out relatively effortlessly and were ensconced in our hotel by 4pm. A tasty seafood dinner. Early to bed. Two flights. Home. Until next year.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

NY Pride

Pride Week 2008 has been a wonderful time for some new experiences for me. On Tuesday, I attended my first invitation to Mayor Bloomberg's Pride Reception at Gracie Mansion. Jason, my perennially sunny friend, had arranged the invites and the weather cooperated spectacularly. There was a large tent set up on the lawn and beyond, bars and barbecue beckoned along the rivers edge. The crowd was a wonderful mix of men and women who work for the City, work for LGBT and related non-profits or just know someone.

I met up with Jason, Suzanne, Jamie and John; bumped into some other folks I knew; listened to the Mayor, the Speaker and Isaac Mizrahi (!) speak; chatted with some non-profit folks; met the NYPD liaison for LGBT Youth; ate some barbecue and generally enjoyed the spirit of pride and community. Then it was off to the Hispanic Institute for a dose of Dia art - but that's another story.

On Thursday, I attended the GLLC Annual Fundraiser at the behest of Andy Tobias, Treasurer of the DNC. At the Waldorf, I found a couple of hundred people I didn't recognize at all. So much for not having been a contributor before. Gradually some friendly faces emerged and the it was time to sit down. The speaker roster was superb - Michelle Patterson (First Lady of NY), Michelle Obama (the next First Lady of the US), Howard Dean (Chair of the Democratic Party), Linda Ketner (Congressional Candidate for South Carolina), another guy called Barack who is the Head of Community Outreach for the DNC and, of course, Andy Tobias.

The issues discussed were a little narrow for my taste, tailored mostly to the audience. A little political pandering goes a long way. I do wonder how we'll be able to get beyond "politics as usual" as long as we keep playing politics as usual. Then again, look who our candidates are this year - change takes time. Here's a link with some good pictures of Michelle Obama speaking - notice the studded leather belt.

I came away fired for the election season ahead, clinging strongly to my wish for real change and the message that will send across the country and into the world. I also came away again proud of my community and grateful for my place in it.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

NYC Tales

So here I am, back in NYC, taking the lessons I've learned so far and putting them into the projects that lie ahead. The four weeks since my return have been hectic, starting with the final preparations for Four-Handed Lift.

Four-Handed Lift is a benefit exhibition and silent auction which I conceived as a fundraiser for the HIV Law Project where I am a Board member. We kicked off last year with a show of 54 artists at the Moti Hasson Gallery in Chelsea. This year, we featured 60 artists at the same gallery, sold 31 works and had a powerful evening for all. The evening showed the progress that comes from experience and having a great team featuring a new Development Director at the Project and three great co-curators, Almond Zigmund, KJ Baysa and Jess Frost. It also demonstrated to me the support of my community of friends who turned out to support the vent with grace, charm and a dash of style.

Since then, I have moved back into my apartment and have been finalizing interviews and negotiations for my next career move. News to follow shortly.

This last week was particularly rich in experience and community. I attended another powerful event, the annual Stonewall Community Foundation dinner held at the UN Delegates Dining Room. I was a guest of Bob Beleson who has generously sponsored the the Law Project exhibition in the past and has become a friend. The crowd of 400 was highly energized and I was surprised at how many faces I knew and the event was flawless with rich media content and two very moving awards. The skies even produced a rainbow for the event. I was proud to belong to this community and inspired to participate with the Foundation's efforts. I was also gratified to find an exhibition of Body Maps in the UN Lobby - my first exhibition was one where I introduced Body Maps from South Africa into the US.

On Friday evening I joined 10's of thousands of my fellow New Yorkers for a picnic in Prospect Park and a concert by the Metropolitan Opera. Only in NYC can this many folks gather in a small place and have the whole experience transcend its limitations.

Yesterday, I went to PS1 to see 1/2 of the Eliason exhibition which was the expected mix of surprising stimulants for the senses and insightful lenses on perception. The unexpected moment was my viewing of PF1, the summer installation that is created each year by the Young Architects Award process. The urban farm complete with plants, waterfall and pool, live and virtual animals and solar recharging station for cellphones. I can't wait to frolic on this set during an outing to Warm Up.

I finished the afternoon with a visit to Crane Street Studios, across from PS1, for their annual open studios. I visited with Marshall Harmon whom I met recently at a show of his work held in a private apartment. Marshall was a blast and the rest of my stops included the usual mix of high and not so high works and yet overall the characters were inspiring.

Next week is shaping up to be another doozy and I look forward to sharing more with you.