INSIDE "DESERT SITEWORKS"


(DATELINE: SUMMER SOLSTICE, 1993 – BLACK ROCK DESERT, NEVADA)
Something's happening here – urban artists are collaborating on projects realized in the desert. Forsaking convenience stores and the studio, they – we – are living and working for periods of time on a remote hotplate of silt and ash, where you can see the curvature of the Earth.

Art in the desert. The question arises, why? And, so what?

Out here, without our exoskeleton (car, gas, cooler, shelter, etc.), we'd be dead meat. Just knowing this, adds an edge. Freedom has a price. It sharpens our sense of what we can and cannot do, tests us. On the playa, mirages recede as we drive, tantalizing us. The last sunrays appear as a laser-thin line, miles long. If you're brain-dead, you won't get inspired. Otherwise ... what can we do in this place? This place where light and heat may cause objects and actions shimmer and stand out in relief, and become altered, taking on new significance, new perception, new inspiration.

Without limits, there is no tension. Without tension, is no progression. Guru Garaj Key

Making art in the Black Rock Desert requires we deal with the vast, vaguely differentiated space of the playa and environs – and define the edges or sets of limits, the context within which art can be convened. Without codes, conventions, sets of limits, there is no language, no consensual reality, no art.

Desert Siteworks Image (continued from Desert Siteworks Portfolio Page)

We’re artists in multiple disciplines, we’re performers, musicians and back seat philosophers ready to stand up and spontaneously talk. Here in the desert there is no human audience for our spectacle – we play for ourselves, or to find ourselves, or for amusement, or invention. This is about art as self-discovery, personal and interpersonal healing, and the conjuring of new life-ways, new modes of being & becoming, and sharing culture.

Desert Siteworks was an experiment in site-specific art-making held at desert oases. We came together as a “temporary desert community” (a concept I shared with my friend at the time, Larry Harvey, at Burning Man).

We were large as life, yet by today’s standards, miniscule in scale (just 20 people the first year and a small village of perhaps 100 the second and third). Yet we were art guerillas at ground zero for the early development of celebratory, earth-based, poly-disciplinary art in the Black Rock. Each year we chose a different hot spring location around the perimeter of the playa: Black Rock Spring (1992), Trego (1993) and Bordello Springs (aka Frog Pond – 1994). In siting a project, we worked with the topography – sand dunes, arroyos, hot springs, dirt roads and scrub – to establish a harmonious layout respecting the terrain and marked by ten of my Desert Navigation Locators.

Fanciful, small villages sprang up, complementing their sites. We encouraged campsite decoration and vehicle camouflage to minimize the presence of ‘standard issue" cars and trucks (there were no RVs), and to promote the individual camps as artful, as part of the art. We made architectonic sculptures, such as the Desert Yurt (camp center, living room and communal kitchen), the Woodhenge (performance and fire pit), and the Tower Pavilion, (ritual performance), which was based on a Native American swastika if visualized in bird’s eye view.

At Black Rock Spring min 1992 we erected my ‘Desert House’ for the first Desert Siteworks event. It stood symbolically astride the crossroads of the Lassen Applegate (Emigrant) Trail and the main vehicular track up from the playa, Gerlach and the outside world. Later that same year, at Larry Harvey’s request, the Desert House was raised at Burning Man (where it included a working flume by sculptor Greg Schlanger from the University of Nevada, Reno). This was the first art structure besides the Man, and it became a gathering spot (which may have pre-figured Central Camp).

Ritualized performance was a key part of Desert Siteworks. (Pepe Ozan later passed this torch on to Burning Man with his popular operas, which used his Lingams as stages.)

At Trego we experimented with a continuous, 48-hour drama based on the human life cycle from pre-birth to after death. The script was written collectively. We had four directors, each of whom took four-hour shifts and kept the piece going around the clock.

Staging consisted of a single, ceremonial Witness Chair, a portable throne for the benefit of the “Ceremonial Witness" – the Muse of Drama, who held the space and, if necessary, directed the co-evolving, human mosaic of improvised form and sound.

The entire piece was somewhat modeled on the Hero’s Journey and used archetypal systems, such as the Kabbalah and tarot, to explore life and the mind. We moved the Witness Chair wherever the improvisation took us, establishing context and sets of formal limits for the scenes about to play out.

I believe that art had its roots in shamanic healing practices millennia ago. If contemporary art often fails to address substantive issues, the desert is a powerful place to exorcise demons and to reconnect with primal experience poised between Self, Object and Other.

In this context, art is not primarily an abstraction or a market activity or entertainment for a bored or jaded public, but rather a fundamental means of defining our context, our "space" in life -- just as our performance and music mark our "time."

At my suggestion, a number of artists from Desert Siteworks in addition to Pepe Ozan also worked with Burning Man, including Paul Windsor, Al Honig , Paradox Pollack and others.

Desert Siteworks was a weeklong event. This worked well, so I encouraged Larry to do the same (Burning Man at the time was a three-day event). In the fall we took what we had done and learned in the desert back to the city for performances with sculpture in gallery spaces and outdoor venues.

Although under my overall direction, Desert Siteworks was essentially a collaborative venture. We developed our ethos through potlucks every three weeks for nine months before Trego in 1993, and we worked out a kind of guild system with artists and assistants. In the desert we sometimes met in the morning in a circle and passed around a talking stick as we worked to facilitate good communications, to better articulate issues and ideas, and to promote the group process.

Our life in the desert was experimental. What we shared and cross-pollinated challenged us and helped inspire Burning Man’s early (pre-rave) development. Because art that is shared, that affects our lives, that inspires us and is not just a market commodity – matters. It matters a lot. And how we manifest art and how we work out interpersonal issues around this exchange is part of the process, involving both the petty and the significant, age-old dialectic of leadership vs. collaboration.