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.